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Patience pays off for Houston Astros

Houston is in first place in the American League West after averaging 104 losses over the last four seasons.

Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch (14) high fives outfielder Preston Tucker (20) after scoring a run in the seventh inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The Orioles won 5-4. (Evan Habeeb/USA Today)
Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch (14) high fives outfielder Preston Tucker (20) after scoring a run in the seventh inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The Orioles won 5-4. (Evan Habeeb/USA Today)Read more

BALTIMORE - The Houston Astros have planned a 10-year celebration of their pennant-winning team later this summer and new manager A.J. Hinch can't wait.

Not because he wants to see the wide-gaped faces of his young nucleus as they shake hands with Bagwell, Biggio, Clemens and the other Hall-of-Fame-caliber veteran talent that propelled that wild-card team. Because he wants to see what they do to current teammate Chad Qualls after he takes his place among all those graybeards.

"I think it will be fun for him," Hinch said. "But it will also open him up for some pretty good riding from his current teammates."

Qualls, the former Phil, will turn 37 two days after that Aug. 15 celebration, and if you haven't guessed yet, he is by far the oldest member of the American League's best and most surprising team. Ten seasons after their last postseason appearance, after four consecutive seasons in which they averaged 104 losses, the Astros have churned through the early part of their schedule with a potent combination of power hitting, fleet feet, piecemeal pitching and defensive coverage that is among the best in baseball, especially in the outfield.

Don't misunderstand. With a young nucleus built through the drafts of those repeatedly dismal seasons and a revamped veteran bullpen that has flipped their greatest weakness into their greatest strength, Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow expected to improve upon a 92-loss season of a year ago - which incredibly was a 19-game improvement over the year before.

He just didn't expect to be 30-18, didn't expect to find his team, as the end of May nears, six games ahead of a West Division that includes the always-contending Angels, Rangers and now, the aspiring Mariners.

And neither did anyone else.

"I thought with the additions we had enough here to have a winning season," said Luhnow, a Penn alum. "Now winning can be 82 games, or winning can be 89 games. I wasn't sure . . . I mean, I felt the American League was going to have a lot of parity this year. All the different teams had a lot to shake out. I thought if we could play at around .500 then we could compete with the rest of the division. And then anyone can get hot in September. And it helps having a young team because they tend to stay healthy. And it helps having reinforcements in the minors that could be available to help you out come September."

This is where the Phillies become relevant. The Astros have one of the best and deepest farm systems in all of baseball. This June will be the first time they do not have the top selection in four years.

Their top pick from the 2012 draft, shortstop Carlos Correa, is experiencing success at Triple A Fresno as fans clamor for a call-up. First baseman Jonathan Singleton, the former Phillie farmhand who banged 13 home runs for the Astros early last season before struggling mightily, is also tearing it up in Triple A. As is outfielder Domingo Santana, another Phillies prospect traded as the Phillies tried to extend their run of postseason appearances past 2011.

What they don't have, and sure could use for any potential pennant chase, is a proven ace. Besides all those losses, a bad television deal that devolved into litigation and zero rights dollars also knocked them off the air in 40 percent of their market, and dropped their attendance to among baseball's worst. People are beginning to seep back into the park because of the hot start, but the potential for a Cinderella story, Luhnow readily admits, could accelerate that interest, making them very willing trade partners if they are still playing well two months from now.

"But we have to be responsible about it," said the GM. "We have to do what we do without giving away the farm. But if we think we have a pretty good shot - we'll be taking inventory over the next two months to figure out where we think we're deep. And if we feel like we're going to need help from another club, we're not going to hesitate to do that. We do have resources to deal from, both financially and talentwise."

Despite their start, it's hard to fathom how Houston can get there via the formula used this far. Scan the averages of their starting lineup, and it doesn't look much different than the one the Phillies put out there. Only their All-Star second baseman, Jose Altuve, is anywhere near .300, and they once again lead the league in striking out.

But five of the nine players in Houston's lineup yesterday had at least seven home runs, and they're tied for the lead in the American League in stolen bases. Perhaps most startling is this: They have scored more runs from the seventh inning on than any team in baseball.

"We sit back there in the bullpen just expecting us to score runs," Qualls said. "They went up on us 1-0 the other day and we were convinced it would be tied at least the next inning. And it was."

The Astros scored twice in the seventh inning in their 4-1 victory over the Orioles Tuesday night, twice again in the eighth. Yesterday they erased a 4-1 deficit with three runs in the seventh, highlighted by Evan Gattis' 10th home run. His average inched toward .210 as he pushed his team-leading RBI total to 30.

"We might be the first team to reach 30 wins with half of our lineup hitting probably 50 points lower than their career averages," said Luhnow, laughing. " . . . People may think it's some formula we came up with. But it's not."

A mammoth, eighth-inning home run by Baltimore's Chris Davis, against that stellar bullpen, doomed them to a 5-4 loss - their fifth in the last 15 games. But not before they smoked four consecutive balls in the ninth, including Altuve's 10th double.

The game ended with Orioles outfielder David Lough chasing down Preston Tucker's extra-base try at the leftfield wall. Promoted just three weeks ago, Tucker is a seventh-round pick from that 2012 draft who hits for power, is fleet of foot, and is currently blocked by the talent both ahead of him and in the Astros' system as well.

It's an irony not lost on Qualls. Four seasons ago he was part of a crumbling Phillies empire, his own ineffectiveness contributing to that and seemingly signaling his days were numbered as well. Now he's an effective bullpen sage filling whatever role is needed, basking in - and drawing from - the youthful enthusiasm of a team with its glory days in clear view ahead.

"For us to get off to this hot of a start, I would have never guessed that," he said. "But it's a crazy game, baseball. If you just put names down on a piece of paper and said who wins, that would be no fun.

"This though? This is fun."