Houston appears on verge of breaking out
Typically slow starters, Astros showing signs of improvement
HOUSTON -- Another slow start has the Astros looking up at the rest of the National League Central barely two weeks into the season, though their recent play has given them reason for optimism.
The Astros have gone 5-6 since they dropped their first five road games of the season -- getting swept at Philadelphia and losing two in Cincinnati -- and they were much more competitive in their recently completed 10-game homestand, which they capped with an 8-6 loss to the Padres on Sunday.
Still, they are the only team in the NL yet to win back-to-back games, and at 5-11, the club is in last place in the NL Central heading into a six-game road trip that begins Tuesday in New York against the 5-11 Mets. Houston just went 4-6 at home and let a couple of games get away in the final few innings.
"I thought we played pretty good baseball during the homestand," Astros general manager Ed Wade said. "It would have been good to come away with two or three more wins, but we were in just about every game. We overcame some early struggles and battled back in games. We had a couple of defensive mishaps, but overall, we played good, fundamental baseball, and that's what we have to do if we want to be as consistent as we're capable of doing."
The Astros lost by an average of 4.8 runs in dropping their first five games of the season, including a one-run loss on Opening Day in which they blew a save in the ninth inning. In the six losses during the homestand, the Astros lost by an average of 1.7 runs. They had the lead or were tied after six innings in four of those six losses.
"I think we're going to be OK in a lot of different areas," Wade said. "It's all against the backdrop of another slow start out of the gate, and you're scrutinized more heavily because of that occurring, but I still think we've got the components to be a really solid ballclub, and [we] have to go out there and prove it each game."
Sunday's loss in some ways was indicative of how the season has gone for the Astros. They led, 6-3, after six innings before giving up five runs -- including three unearned runs -- in the seventh and eighth, and lost 8-6, leaving the bases loaded at the end of the game.
The bullpen, which threw five hitless innings April 11 against the Cubs, gave up five runs in two innings Sunday. Only two of the runs were earned because of three Astros errors -- two on one play by reliever Fernando Abad and one by shortstop Angel Sanchez.
Right-hander Mark Melancon, who hadn't given up a run in his first nine outings, suffered the loss Sunday by allowing three hits and four runs (two earned) in two-thirds of an inning. Jeff Fulchino threw two-thirds scoreless innings to lower his ERA to 2.08, and Jose Valdez was terrific in his Major League debut, striking out two batters in one inning.
"The guys that are throwing for us have shown the capability to be very, very solid," Wade said. "We have good arms in the bullpen, and some guys are gaining valuable experience right now. I think the way Jeff Fulchino has bounced back and pitched effectively has been a big plus for us.
"Mark Melancon has shown he's capable of pitching in late, critical innings for us, and even Jose Valdez, who didn't break with the club, brings a 95-mph fastball and a split that is, at times, unhittable," Wade said. "The experience some of them are gaining right now, that will only help them, and I have faith in our guys to get the jobs done for us."
Offensively, the Astros are in the middle of the pack in the NL with a .262 batting average. They rank last in home runs with eight, but are sixth with 66 RBIs. Right fielder Hunter Pence has been swinging well all season, and first baseman Brett Wallace and left fielder Carlos Lee are seeing their averages climb slowly.
Third baseman Chris Johnson, who hit 11 homers and drove in 52 runs as a rookie last year, is off to a .204 start, but he went 1-for-3 with two RBIs on Sunday. The Astros could get Clint Barmes back from a broken hand suffered in March within the next 10 days.
"Bill Hall has swung the bat better in the latter stages of the homestand," Wade said. "Brett had a tremendous spring for us and got off to a little bit of a slow start and has come on, and there's no reason to think he's not going to hit. I think the fact Chris Johnson got a couple of hits the last couple of days of the homestand should build his confidence."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.