CLEVELAND -- Before the third inning of the final game of a 10-game road trip, Bo Porter did something you simply never see at the big league level.
The former University of Iowa defensive back and current Astros manager channeled his football days by summoning his entire team to the area behind the visitor's dugout at Progressive Field for a brief, impromptu meeting to ensure their focus was where it needed to be.
This was reminder that while Houston is nearing the home stretch of yet another losing season in the standings, the internal expectations are rising.
"Last year, we found ourselves right in the thick of the playoff picture by playing a lot of teams fighting for their playoff lives, and we didn't fare too well," Porter said. "A year later, our core players have more experience under their belt. … I think it gives our players a sense of the intensity that you have to bring every single day, and it will bode well for us as we become that team that's fighting for playoff contention each year."
You might have heard a thing or two about the Astros' timetable. Sports Illustrated famously pegged them as World Series championship favorites … for 2017.
But here in 2014, the Astros are -- to Porter's point -- certainly more interesting than they were a year ago. They reached their 2013 win total earlier this month (not that this was a particularly lofty goal to begin with), the woeful ways of the Rangers give them a good chance of not finishing last in their division for the first time in four years and their ability to change a game with one swing (only the Orioles have more home runs since July 1) makes them a sneaky spoiler in this campaign's waning weeks.
Not to say it's been a seamless season in the ongoing rebuilding project.
We all know that coming up empty with the No. 1 pick (Brady Aiken) in the 2014 First-Year Player Draft was a significant organizational setback. Meanwhile, Mark Appel's Minor League struggles this summer don't engender rave reviews about the top pick in 2013 (though Appel has been better since his promotion to Double-A). And while the Astros got a strong return from the Marlins for Jarred Cosart, it's hard to note his success so far in Miami and not wonder how that swap will look in the long run.
Still, at the Major League level, Houston is, indeed, starting to look like something. And perhaps the best compliment we can offer the Astros is that for a team 21 games under .500, they don't play like a team merely going through the motions.
On the mound, Dallas Keuchel (3.12 ERA in 24 starts) and Collin McHugh (3.02 ERA in 20 starts) have emerged as legit rotation pieces, and it will be interesting to track whether recently promoted flamethrower Mike Foltynewicz settles in at the big league level before season's end (the early results have been shaky, but he was dominant for 1 1/3 innings Sunday).
Clearly, the Astros are still a long way from having a contender-caliber pitching staff, and we'll see if they feel they've turned the corner enough to get into the free-agent bidding in the offseason. But they've got the seeds of a potent lineup. Whether or not Chris Carter proves to be a mainstay, the 27-year-old designated hitter trails only Toronto's Edwin Encarnacion in homer (one for every 13.37 at-bats). And while George Springer is currently on the shelf with a strained left quad and Jon Singleton is batting below the Mendoza Line, their raw power engenders justifiable dreams of middle-of-the-order mashing for years to come.
But Houston's cornerstone, both in terms of output and potential influence, is second baseman Jose Altuve, who has a strong chance to win not only the AL batting title (.334 average) but the stolen-base title (47), as well.
"Whatever Altuve is doing, keep doing, and if you can, find me 12 more, and I'll figure out where they're going to play," Porter said with a smile.
Should they all be 5-foot-6?
"They can be the same size," he replied. "Just find me 12 more. I'll play nine and put three on the bench."
Porter wasn't being totally facetious. Because what he'd like to see -- from Springer, Singleton and all the rest -- is the approach of selective aggression that Altuve employs. At a time when so many teams emphasize patience at the plate, Altuve is amassing his elevated average while seeing the fewest pitches per plate appearance (3.17) of any qualified hitter in the game. That willingness to pounce early in counts has helped him limit his strikeouts to just one every 12.6 plate appearances, second only to that of Detroit's Victor Martinez.
While the Astros don't expect, say, Springer to have an 8-percent strikeout rate any more than they expect Altuve to crank out 40 home runs, they are hoping to see Altuve's approach serve as an influence.
"We have several guys in our lineup that can change the game with one swing," Porter said. "But the quicker you prove to Major League pitchers that you're going to be able to hit for a high average and use the whole field, I think that gets them to your power and you're able to display your power more consistently. So it's a constant balance with all of our guys that have the ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark, getting them to understand the maturation of becoming a complete Major League player."
Houston is not yet a complete Major League team, and the club's record makes that clear. But when the Astros took two of three from the Yankees last week, it was a reminder that for stretch-run contenders, they're not the total pushover they were a year ago.
And should the Astros themselves lose sight of that fact, Porter will undoubtedly pull them aside to remind them.