'Frustrated' Astros aiming to get back on track

'Frustrated' Astros aiming to get back on track

HOUSTON -- From baserunning to pitching to hitting, the Astros clearly haven't hit on all cylinders in the first month of the season, which is why they find themselves heading into Friday's series against the A's in Oakland tied with the Twins for the worst record in the American League at 7-15.

The starting rotation, which has been without righty Lance McCullers (shoulder soreness), has underperformed, with anchors Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh having yet to duplicate the success they had last year. Reliever Ken Giles -- the team's biggest offseason acquisition -- has been roughed up in the bullpen, and the offense has been inconsistent at best.

It's all added up to a frustrating few weeks for the Astros, who were picked by many to win the American League pennant and expected by almost everyone to at least return to the playoffs. There's still plenty of time for them to reach those goals, but the turnaround has to start soon.

"Naturally we all are searching for answers," second-year Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "I think the hardest thing to do at this level, it's an accumulative mental grind. Our guys have to be tough enough to handle it. … Easier said than done sometimes, but I'm sure all of our guys are collectively frustrated but need to find the resolve to get back on track."

Several key players, including Giles, outfielder Carlos Gomez and catcher Jason Castro, have struggled, but the Astros haven't played clean baseball as a whole. Costly errors, baserunning gaffes and not taking advantage of scoring situations have plagued them.

"If you're given an out, take it," Hinch said. "Don't' try to do too much. If you're given an extra base, take it. If not, the game will stop you. We'll start to reap the benefits of that by trying to play the game in a clean fashion."

Keuchel, citing the Astros' sloppy play, said after his start Tuesday against the Mariners that the Astros weren't playing as a "cohesive unit" and that "some people" needed to play better. Hinch said comments were aimed at the team's inconsistent play as a whole and not an indictment on any single player.

"You want to handle stuff internally as much as possible," Hinch said. "I think what Dallas is referring to is playing complete baseball, clean baseball all the way through where everyone is making plays, everyone is making pitches, everyone is doing what the game gives you. One of the key takeaways from the first few weeks is you get penalized in this game if you don't take what the game gives you."

The Astros are 14th in the AL -- ahead of only the Yankees -- in batting average with runners in scoring position (.197) after going 5-for-10 in Wednesday's win over Seattle. They have the highest ERA (4.97) in the AL, including 5.31 from a starting rotation that has struggled to work deep into games.

The pitching staff has been hampered by walks, which is one of the reasons the starters haven't been efficient, and they're second in the AL with 30 homers allowed.

"I thought with the way spring went, everything was clicking, and we were playing really well," Castro said." We got into a funk early on, and we need to reassess with the off-day, and hopefully everyone can clear their minds and come back ready to play our baseball. I don't think we've done that yet. We've had some flashes of it here and there, but we really haven't put together Astros baseball like we know we can play."

As the early losses mounted, the Astros got outside of their element by pressing. Jose Altuve twice in the last week was thrown out at second trying to stretch a single into a double and said both times he was trying to do too much. But he's not alone. Poor baserunning has been an epidemic.

"The natural human reaction is try a little bit harder, is to grip the bat a little bit more, to swing a little bit harder, it's to fine-tune and aim the ball when we're pitching," Hinch said. "Baseball's hard. And at this level, the type of talent that's at this level, if you try to go outside your realm of how you play the game, it isn't always a positive result."

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.