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08/05/10 5:08 PM ET

Astros surging behind youth in second half

Houston set to begin battle with Brewers for third place

HOUSTON -- It wasn't that long ago the Astros were locked in what appeared at the time to be a season-long battle with the Pirates to stay out of last place in the National League Central division.

In fact, after getting off to a 17-34 start -- second to only the Orioles for the worst record in baseball -- the Astros were firmly in last place at the end of May, trailing the first-place Reds and Cardinals by 12 1/2 games and the fifth-place Pirates by 3 1/2 games.

The Astros haven't gained any ground on the Cardinals two months later, but their improved play suddenly has them knocking on the door of third place in the division. And the Pirates, now 10 games behind Houston, appear to have last-place locked up once again.

It's certainly not where the Astros -- who lost their first eight games of the season -- would like to be at this point of the season, but considering their play during the first two months, it's a huge leap forward.

Houston has gone 30-26 since June 1 to pass the Cubs and moved into fourth place in the division. It begins a series Friday against the Brewers at Miller Park two games behind Milwaukee for third place.

"I'll tell you what, it feels like a whole different atmosphere in the clubhouse," closer Matt Lindstrom said. "I think guys are showing up and prepared to play, and everyone has a sense of swagger to themselves knowing what they're capable of accomplishing. We're coming together."

The Astros had their season-high, seven-game win streak snapped Wednesday in St. Louis, which was their first loss since they traded away franchise icons Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt in a dizzying and emotional span of 48 hours last week. Houston is starting four rookies on most nights, and the youthful enthusiasm has been infectious.

"It looks like we're moving in the right direction, moving forward," said 27-year-old right fielder Hunter Pence, who is suddenly one of the team's veterans. "We have good attitudes, refreshing attitudes, and a lot of energy."

In part because of the early struggles of Pence, Berkman and slugger Carlos Lee, the Astros were ranked last in the NL in nearly every offensive category in the first half the season, including runs scored, home runs and RBIs. Pence came around, but Berkman and Lee continued to post subpar numbers, forcing the Astros to change the look of the roster.

Brett Wallace, acquired from the Blue Jays on the heels of the Oswalt deal to the Phillies, made his Major League debut last week as the starting first baseman. Rookie third baseman Chris Johnson leads the NL in hitting in the second half of the season, and rookie shortstop Angel Sanchez drove in six runs in a game earlier this week.

Former No. 1 pick Jason Castro has taken over the starting catching job, leaving Jeff Keppinger as the only non-rookie starting on the infield. And even Keppinger wasn't a starter when the season began.

"Despite where we are in the standings, they recognize the opportunity they've got and how important it is to put their best foot forward," general manager Ed Wade said. "Although the way we've played recently is encouraging, it's a small time frame and we've said all along our goal is to try to establish a core nucleus that is going to be here for a while.

"We're giving lots of guys opportunities they didn't have when the season start, and they've responded."

Since the All-Star break, the Astros are tied for first in the NL in runs, rank third in hitting (.281) and on-base percentage (.343) and second in slugging (.434). Houston starting pitchers behind Oswalt, Brett Myers and a resurgent Wandy Rodriguez, posted the best ERA in the NL in July (2.54).

"We definitely feel that we were a better offensive club than we had shown early," Astros manager Brad Mills said. "Our starters have done a great job pitching deep into games, which allows our bullpen to be set up in the roles they're best at. When we're able to have the at-bats we're having, moving runners and scoring runs, it helps everything fit it. Everyone is contributing in their roles offensively and defensively and pitching."

Wade, who hasn't been shy about shaking up the roster, can't help but be encouraged at how well his team is playing despite getting younger.

"Everybody's contributing and we're getting some of the kids some exposure they needed and they're responding very well," he said. "Millsie has done a terrific job of blending the talent and giving some of the young guys opportunities to play and giving bench guys enough work they've been effective."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.