Season has been full of challenges for young but talented squad
By Hal Bodley
ST. PETERSBURG -- If there's a trace of a silver lining to the Astros' disappointing start, it's that this young team with the highest of expectations is learning the hard way it's not so easy.
After the Astros returned to the postseason for the first time since 2005 as an American League Wild Card winner last October, that was supposed to be just the first step. They were picked by many this offseason to win the AL West, and there were even whispers about a trip to the World Series.
So far, it's not happening.
After losing to the Rays, 4-3, on Friday night, Houston is mired in third place, nine games behind front-runner Texas. For most of April, the Astros were dead last and as many as nine games under .500.
The Rangers, with the best record in the AL, sent a strong message to these aspiring Astros earlier in the week, winning three of four games.
Then came the excruciating loss to the Rays.
The ninth inning says a lot about this season: The Astros, trailing by a run, loaded the bases with one out against reliever Alex Colome. Colby Rasmus struck out on three pitches before Evan Gattis grounded out.
In 20 of the Astros' last 28 games, the outcome has been determined by two or fewer runs, including each of their last five. The club scored just three runs in each of its last four games and lost three.
Get the picture? The Astros are 18-20 in games decided by two or fewer runs and are leading the Majors in that category.
Dallas Kuechel, 2015's AL Cy Young Award winner, is 3-8 with a 5.44 ERA.
On Friday night at Tropicana Field, Lance McCullers allowed two runs in each of the first two innings. He pitched well afterward, but the Astros couldn't reverse the damage.
The 22-year-old McCullers oozes with talent -- as do many of the Astros -- but 14 of the 17 runs he's allowed this season have come in the first two innings of his starts.
"It's like the same script," he said after Friday's loss.
This season, the Tampa native has an 8.00 ERA in the first through third innings and a 0.57 ERA in the fourth through seventh.
"I'll just have to figure it out," he said.
Nobody could have blamed the Astros if they stuck out their chests a bit when they burst out of a successful Spring Training to begin this highly anticipated season.
Keuchel, 2015 AL Rookie of the Year Award winner Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve, 2014's AL batting champ, adorned the "Sports Illustrated" preseason cover.
Keuchel beat the Yankees 5-3 in the opener, but the Astros lost their next three. It wasn't until mid-May when they began to show signs of being the contender they're supposed to be.
It might have been an inappropriate time, but I asked manager A. J. Hinch if the early-season struggles could ultimately be a positive for a young team.
"It doesn't feel like it when we're losing," he said, but after a pause, added, "It will toughen up this team a little bit. We were reminded in April what happens when you don't do some of the little things well. We were reminded in the last series [vs. Texas] what happens against good teams.
"There are lessons being learned all over the place here. I like our team -- we have a good team. We've got to play the entire schedule to see where takes us."
Little missteps that get lost in the box score often are the difference between winning and losing, especially in close games.
In the first inning Friday night with one out, George Springer tried to score from second base on Altuve's line-drive single to left field. He was an easy out at home plate. Given the situation and where Altuve's ball was hit, it was a poor decision. Rasmus struck out to end the threat.
"In a one-run game, you look back at it and it's more painful after the game than it is in the first," said Hinch.
Hinch, 42, who holds a degree in psychology from Stanford, is the perfect manager for this team. He's young enough to relate to the age group of his players. Having played 350 games in the Major Leagues as a catcher, he can also communicate with them from experience.
During the struggles, Hinch has kept his players upbeat.
"Our personality has been back for a while now," he said. "There are always things about this team that we can do better, but I'm proud of the way we're playing now. We obviously need to play a little bit better to have some of these close games go our way. If we play good defense and we get good starting pitching, we'll be pretty successful."
For years, being on the "Sports Illustrated" cover has been a jinx to any athlete or team.
Maybe with the Astros, those expectations put too much pressure on the young team.
"I don't know if expectations are really ever an issue," said Hinch. "We don't allow a lot of external expectations to come into our clubhouse. I think a lot of the unknown was the growth from one year to another for some of our younger players.
"Our better players are young, but they're also seasoned. They got to the playoffs and played down the stretch last season when we went through a lull right before we made the playoffs."
Maybe early on there was still a hangover from last year's AL Division Series. The Astros, who beat the Yankees in the Wild Card Game, were just six outs from eliminating the eventual World Series champion Royals. Instead, the Astros blew a 6-2 lead in the eighth inning and Kansas City went on to win it all.
"Our players have confidence and conviction that they belong here," said Hinch. "We just haven't played well enough. I understand the narrative that it can be about expectations and how we came out of the gate a little bit slow, but it speaks more about the league. You have to play well to beat teams in this league."
And that is the lesson that has been staring the Astros in their young faces and undoubtedly making them a better team.
Hal Bodley, dean of American baseball writers, is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. Follow him @halbodley on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.