5 keys for Astros to find their groove

Straightening out Keuchel and Gomez, beating Texas imperative for Houston

5 keys for Astros to find their groove

HOUSTON -- With a three-game series against another first-place team looming -- the Orioles come to Minute Maid Park beginning Tuesday -- the Astros are still searching for answers. At 17-28, they're in last place in the American League West after getting swept by the Rangers, and they have serious questions on the mound and in the lineup.

Fortunately for the Astros, there's still time to turn their season around, but June is approaching. If they're not in contention a month from now, they could be sellers at the Aug. 1 non-waiver Trade Deadline, which would mean conceding the playoffs. They're not ready to do that yet, but here's a look at five things that must change for Houston to get back into the mix.

1. Straighten out Dallas Keuchel
The reigning AL Cy Young Award winner hasn't won since April 15, going 0-5 with a 7.78 ERA in his past seven starts. He's struggled with command, and his velocity is down a tad. The Astros were banking on another big season from the lefty, and they hoping the rest of the rotation would fall in line. While Mike Fiers, Doug Fister and Collin McHugh (first start notwithstanding) have been competitive, Houston can't win without Keuchel setting the tone and winning games.

Keuchel flashes the leather

2. Spark the bottom of the lineup
Second baseman Jose Altuve is putting himself in the AL Most Valuable Player Award mix with his strong start to the season by being a force at the top of the order. Carlos Correa and George Springer have been productive behind him, though the Astros need more from both of them. Colby Rasmus provides pop and run production, but the order drops off dramatically from there. Houston hasn't gotten much production from third base, first base, catcher or center field. There's help in the Minors, with top prospects A.J. Reed (first base, Triple-A) and Alex Bregman (third base/shortstop, Double-A), but they were supposed to be the future, not the present.

Altuve's RBI single

3. Sustain a hot streak
Last year, the Astros put themselves on the map by going 14-1 in late April and basically riding that wave to the AL Wild Card Game and their first playoff berth in 10 years. If there's anything this year's team needs, it's a good hot streak. They've yet to win as many as three games in a row, which means there has been no momentum. After the Astros won a series against the White Sox on the road, they were swept at home by the Rangers. Until Houston can find a way to reel off six, seven wins in a row, getting into the race will be difficult.

Astros on 5-3 win over White Sox

4. Get Gomez going
Center fielder Carlos Gomez is just a couple of years removed from getting National League MVP Award votes while he was with the Brewers, but he's struggled mightily since coming to Houston in a trade last July. Gomez was placed on the disabled list a week ago with what the team called a bruised rib, but it was clear he needed a mental and physical break. The outfielder is scheduled to start a Minor League rehab game on Tuesday. He was hitting .182 with no homers, five RBIs and 46 strikeouts in 34 games, but maybe a refreshed Gomez can provide a spark.

Gomez's single scores Tucker

5. Beat the Rangers
The Astros are 0-6 against their in-state rivals, who have dominated them since last season. Houston is 8 1/2 games behind Texas, but it still has 13 head-to-head meetings to make up some ground. The 2015 Rangers were seven games behind the Astros in the AL West on July 22, but Texas won eight of the final 10 meetings of the season between the teams, including a four-game sweep in Arlington in September that tilted the division in the Rangers' favor. Overall, Texas has won 14 of its past 16 against Houston.

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.