Astros start soft stretch of schedule aware ‘the cream always rises to the top’

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HOUSTON — Two sliders did not spin, so Alex Bregman did what he is supposed to. After bludgeoning the first, Bregman flipped his bat before the baseball landed in the left-field seats, a scene missing for so much of this miserable start to the Houston Astros’ season.

Bregman’s ballclub arrived at Minute Maid Park on Monday afternoon still 10 games below .500. Somehow, just six and a half games separated it from first place in the American League West, perhaps the only consolation anyone in this organization is able to take.

Only five teams in franchise history featured a worse record following their first 40 games. None of them finished the season with a winning record. Four of them lost at least 90 games, an unacceptable fate for a team carrying the largest Opening Day payroll in club history.

Sporadic stretches of competence won’t carry the Astros out of the deficit they’ve created. Wins across weeks will stabilize a season that, at times, has teetered toward a total catastrophe. To avoid a free fall, the Astros must seize advantage of their next 14 days.

“It’s a huge stretch for us,” Bregman said. “Obviously we play a lot of division teams, but when I say the cream always rises to the top, I feel like that’s for this team. I feel like this team is the cream of the crop and it’s time to go.”

Supposing anything in this sport is silly, but the next two weeks present a slate of games that should allow the Astros to gain momentum they haven’t had all season. According to both ESPN’s Relative Power Index and Baseball Reference’s strength of schedule measurement, no team in the sport had played a more difficult schedule across the season’s first 46 days. Houston finished it 15-25.

Arduous schedules shouldn’t matter to clubs calling themselves championship contenders, even those with the amount of injuries Houston has absorbed. Bregman missed three games with an illness, but Jose Altuve, Kyle Tucker, Jeremy Peña, Yordan Alvarez and Yainer Diaz have been healthy for the entire season. So have Bryan Abreu, Ryan Pressly and Josh Hader.

Enough talent existed for the Astros to avoid such an abysmal start, but lamenting the past is unproductive in the present. This team hasn’t acted as advertised for more than a month but can begin a turnaround in just two weeks.

Starting Monday, 10 of Houston’s next 13 games are against American League West foes that feature far less talented rosters than anything the Astros will assemble. Seven are opposite an upstart Oakland A’s team still with no plans to contend. Three more are against a Los Angeles Angels club comprised of castoffs and cementing itself in the American League West cellar.

Seven of them in the division are inside Minute Maid Park where, for once, the home team appears able to hit.  The Astros posted a 127 wRC+ across its first 19 home games. Only the Los Angeles Dodgers awoke Monday with a higher one in their home ballpark.

Bregman inflated the numbers with two home runs and a two-run double during Monday’s 9-2 win over the A’s, momentarily stopping the worst slump of his career. His OPS ballooned by 81 points after four plate appearances, proving the fickleness of small sample sizes along with the depths of Bregman’s struggles.

Bregman entered Monday with one home run and seven extra-base hits in his first 159 plate appearances. Only four qualified hitters in the sport had a lower OPS than his .534 mark. Five days ago, as his team fell 11 games under .500, manager Joe Espada moved Bregman to sixth in the batting order where, on Monday, he smashed two hanging sliders for solo home runs.

“Wherever they want me to hit, I’m going to hit,” Bregman said. “I feel like over the course of 162, the cream always rises to the top.”

Added Espada: “He’s not going to stay down there very long, once we start seeing the Bregman that we all know.”

A glimpse of him may have appeared Monday, but one man isn’t going to resurrect an entire team. More complete efforts around him are necessary.

Rookie starter Spencer Arrighetti allowed two runs across five innings before three leverage relievers protected a slim lead. Bold base running by Peña and Jake Meyers manufactured two runs. Catcher Victor Caratini caught two of the four Oakland runners who tried to steal second against him.

Houston struck four hits during its seven at-bats with runners in scoring position, creating clutch moments in a season where few exist. Both Bregman and Caratini collected two-run doubles during the eighth inning, ambushing the underbelly of a bad team’s bullpen — something else this team is supposed to do.

“I don’t think anybody’s really paying attention to the standings right now, I think we’re just trying to play good baseball,” Pressly said. “When you start playing good baseball, you start winning games. When we can start doing that, I think we’ll be in a good spot.”

“Obviously the beginning of the season was the worst baseball we’ve played in, what, 20 years? Eventually, it’s going to come around, we just have to start making adjustments quicker than normal.”

(Photo of Alex Bregman: Tim Warner / Getty Images)

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