Astros finish half strong after slow April

Houston 41-24 since May 1, trails Texas by 5 1/2 games

Astros finish half strong after slow April

HOUSTON -- Despite a woeful April in which they went 7-17 and were one of baseball's biggest disappointments, the Astros hit the All-Star break at seven games over .500 (48-41) -- the same as they did last year (49-42) when they were one of MLB's biggest surprises.

The Astros roared back into the playoff race in June and have cut their deficit in the American League West behind the first-place Rangers nearly in half. Houston has gone 41-24 since May 1, and its 18-6 record since June 14 allowed it to slice Texas' lead to 5 1/2 games heading into the second half.

The difference, of course, was starting pitching. The rotation rounded into form, which helped a bullpen that emerged as one of baseball's best. Moving George Springer to the leadoff spot on May 24 paid dividends, and an MVP-caliber season from Jose Altuve, the steady play of Carlos Correa and the emergence of Luis Valbuena fueled the offense.

WHAT WENT RIGHT
Altuve, already one of the best second basemen in the game, raised his game to an AL MVP Award candidate level, thanks to a more disciplined approach at the plate and an unlikely power surge. Springer has flourished in the leadoff spot in the order and has been a game-changer on offense and defense. Meanwhile, the bullpen, which had some serious hiccups in April, was terrific from May onward, led by All-Star Will Harris. Starters Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh pitched better as the All-Star break approached, but Doug Fister was the most consistent starter.

Altuve's solo home run

WHAT WENT WRONG
April was a mess. The Astros played undisciplined baseball all around and found themselves buried in the standings at the end of the month. They didn't hit well with runners in scoring position, they ran into too many outs on the bases, and Keuchel and McHugh -- the two bell bows of the rotation -- struggled to put together quality back-to-back starts. Outfielder Carlos Gomez got off to a disastrous start, and newcomer Ken Giles had a forgettable April. Of course, going 1-9 against the Rangers in the first two months of the season didn't help their AL West standing.

WHAT WE LEARNED
The Astros don't panic, and that's a credit to manager A.J. Hinch. Houston didn't clinch a playoff spot last year until the final day of the season, and Hinch preached repeatedly during his team's disappointing start that the season wasn't about one month. Springer is one of the top right fielders in the game, and Altuve is one of the top two or three hitters in baseball. Meanwhile, Valbuena proved he can be a potent bat, which comes at a good time for him considering he's a free agent and hotshot prospect Alex Bregman is knocking on the door.

Springer's leadoff triple

FIRST-HALF TOP PLAYER
Altuve finished the first half leading the AL in batting average (.341) and hits (119), ranked second in stolen bases (23) and fourth in on-base percentage (.413) and OPS (.954), behind former AL MVP Award winners Josh Donaldson and Mike Trout and 10-time All-Star David Ortiz. His 41 walks are a career high.

Altuve steals second

FIRST-HALF TOP PITCHER
Harris came out of nowhere last year after being picked up on waivers, and he blossomed into an All-Star this year, posting a 1.62 ERA and nine saves. He didn't allow an extra-base hit in his first 37 outings -- a franchise record -- and he had a club-record 26-game scoreless streak.

Harris garners ninth save

FIRST-HALF TOP ROOKIE
After mixed results as a starter early in the season, right-hander Chris Devenski dazzled in relief, posting a 0.92 ERA, allowing six walks and 27 hits with 31 strikeouts in 19 appearances (16 scoreless). Among AL relievers, he ranked second in ERA and sixth in WHIP with a 0.85 mark.

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.