Astros are enjoying a detour from the disappointment — well, most of them



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HOUSTON — The Astros are creating a case study in squandering run-scoring chances, cycling through starting pitchers at a breakneck pace and processing the underperformance of two lineup cornerstones while another finds himself five states away at the team’s spring training facility.

Nowadays, nothing is easy for a franchise that spent the past seven years making everything seem effortless. Vulnerability is not in the Astros’ vernacular, but it crept in across this season’s first 30 games.

Confronting it is foreign to so many inside a clubhouse conditioned for championship contention. Climbing out of the deficit Houston dug itself won’t happen with one at-bat, but the club has acted as if it’s possible.

“These guys, they want to do it so bad that sometimes that works against you,” manager Joe Espada said before Thursday’s 8-2 win against the Cleveland Guardians. “Sometimes less is better than more. We are a disciplined, in-zone, attack offense, and we’re kind of getting away from who we are.”

Thursday offered a detour from the disappointment. Ensuring it isn’t a one-night experience is crucial for Houston to turn its season around. Ten men batted during a five-run seventh inning.

Two worked walks, two were hit by pitches and two more managed a hit with a runner in scoring position, producing a string of stingy plate appearances this club has rarely crafted.

“That’s what has made us great in past years. It’s about passing the baton, putting together good at-bats and not trying to be a hero,” shortstop Jeremy Peña said. “I feel like everyone in our lineup could win a game day in and day out, so it’s just a matter of putting together good at-bats and passing the baton to the next guy.”

Only four teams awoke Thursday with a higher chase rate than Houston’s 30.2 percent clip. With runners in scoring position, it rose to 31.4 percent, providing an explanation for the most mind-numbing statistic of the Astros’ awful start. Their lineup entered Thursday with the American League’s highest batting average but produced just 4.47 runs per game.

Fifteen teams were scoring more. Houston brought a .709 OPS with runners in scoring position into Thursday’s game — 31 points lower than league average. Its 27.8 productive out percentage sat below league average, too, and covered two situations: advancing a runner with no outs or driving in a runner with the second out of an inning.

“Our message is, we need to go back and remind ourselves who we are, what has made us successful, and it’s controlling the strike zone, swinging at strikes, hitting balls hard and we pass the baton,“ Espada said. “We see it for two or three days, (then) we go back to playing close games and we try to overdo it. Stay calm, trust your approach. We’re a really good team and we’ll get out of this.”

Frustration continued for five innings of Thursday’s game. Houston took nine at-bats with runners in scoring position and produced one hit — Jose Altuve’s single that did not leave the infield.

Alex Bregman and Yordan Alvarez teamed for four of the unproductive at-bats. Bregman has now taken 31 plate appearances with runners in scoring position this season. Eight have ended with a popout, including two consecutive chances Thursday. He saw three total pitches in the two at-bats, unusual aggression for a hitter renowned for his plate discipline and patience.

Another hitless night brought Bregman’s batting average down to .200. His .543 OPS is the 15th lowest among all qualified major-league hitters, a miserable beginning to a popup-plagued platform year.

Magnifying Bregman’s malaise: He remains hitting second in Houston’s batting order. Espada moved him there a week ago in hopes it would inspire a turnaround, and a three-run home run Tuesday seemed to start one. Bregman has gone hitless in the 11 at-bats since, inviting wonder how much longer Espada can continue with the same lineup construction.

Compounding the problem is Alvarez’s continued anemia. He struck out thrice Thursday and is 0 for his past 16 with runners in scoring position. Of Alvarez’s past 12 hits, just three have fallen for extra bases. He brought a 30.6 percent chase rate into Thursday’s game — more than 4 points above his career average — and then struck out three more times.

“He had some really good at-bats in Mexico and has expanded the zone against the Guardians,” Espada said. “He’s one click away from everything coming together, but right now, in my conversations with him, he just doesn’t feel like it’s right mechanically.”

Alvarez awoke April 10 with a 1.038 OPS. He exited Thursday’s game with a .751 mark. Among the teammates with a higher one: Jon Singleton and Jake Meyers.

Singleton’s go-ahead, two-run home run Thursday helped to erase his teammates’ tepid production, but counting on him to carry over one torrid week for a full season is a gamble. He has a .612 OPS across 580 major-league plate appearances. Anything he produces is appreciated, but for Houston to accomplish any of its goals, Bregman and Alvarez must buoy it.

Across the past seven seasons, Houston has had a luxury of allowing slumps to naturally solve themselves. Losing 19 of 26 games to start this season wasted it.

Optioning José Abreu to the team’s spring training facility Tuesday only reinforced the urgency with which this Astros team must operate. Singleton is seizing the opportunity in Abreu’s absence and, for now, may have earned everyday duties at first base.

“He does things that, as an organization, we value,” Espada said. “He’s been a guy that’s always been able to swing at strikes. Obviously, we know how hard he hits the ball, but the zone control from the left side is something he’s always done really well.”

More of that is needed across the lineup. The balance between being panicked and passive is difficult, but Espada must gauge how long he can allow Bregman and Alvarez to continue hitting back-to-back. Losses almost always force action, so it may stay status quo. Houston has, after all, won four of its past five games while garnering the closest thing it’s had to momentum all season.

“The message we’re carrying through our clubhouse: keep winning series, one game at a time, one pitch at a time,” Espada said. “We have a lot of baseball left. That’s what I want our identity to be right now: Let’s just win series. We do that and we’ll look back and this is just going to be in the rearview mirror.”

(Photo of Jon Singleton homering: Troy Taormina / USA Today)





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