The Astros return to Minute Maid Park to start a 10-game homestand Friday after finishing a road trip on which they went 6-1 against the Yankees and Marlins. Their record for the season now stands at a MLB-best 29-12 through a quarter of the season. It is the first time the Astros have been 17 games over .500 since the end of the 2004 season and the best record in franchise history through 41 games.
A major reason for the team’s success is starting pitching, particularly Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr. at the top of the rotation. Keuchel is 7-0 in his first nine starts, making him just the second Astros pitcher to start a season with wins in his first seven decisions — Roger Clemens accomplished the feat in 2004 en route to a 9-0 start. Keuchel has a 1.84 ERA and 0.86 WHIP, and hitters are batting just .186 against him. McCullers is 4-1 with a 2.65 ERA and 1.09 WHIP to go along with 60 strikeouts in 54.1 innings. McCullers is trying to make it through the season healthy, which he was not able to do his first two seasons in the league. But, as he’s proven so far this season, he has the stuff to perform well when he takes the mound.
Dallas Keuchel + Lance McCullers this season: 11-1#Astros have won 14 of their last 17 games.
— Christian Boutwell (@_CBoutwell) May 17, 2017
Even offseason free-agent signing Charlie Morton, who was limited by injuries to just four starts last season, is performing better than expected this season. Through eight starts he has a 3.97 ERA, which doesn’t seem good by itself, but it is a half-run below his career 4.51 ERA. And he’s racking up the strikeouts, with 54 in 45.1 innings, putting him on pace to beat his career high of 126.
And the rotation could get a boost around the all-star break, when Collin McHugh could be ready to come off the disabled list. He has missed the entire season thus far with an elbow impingement and has recently begun what manager A.J. Hinch termed “the infancy stage of a very long process” to return to the team. There’s no guarantee he’ll perform well if and when he is able to return, but he should be able to be an improvement over the current back end of the rotation with guys like Mike Fiers and Joe Musgrove.
Don’t count the Astros out of the trade market as we get closer to the July 31 deadline as they try to shore up their rotation. They were linked to White Sox SP Jose Quintana and Rays SP Chris Archer in the offseason, and recent reports have them eyeing Pirates SP Gerrit Cole in a potential deal. Their third starting pitcher, behind Keuchel and McCullers, for the second half of the season and, if they make it, the playoffs may not be on the roster yet.
Offensively, 2B Jose Altuve is hitting for average as he always does — currently at .311 — with 6 home runs and 9 steals. He went 4-for-5 on Wednesday with 2 doubles and 2 triples, becoming the first player in Astros history to achieve that, and the first major leaguer to do it since Carl Crawford in 2005.
No way, Altuve: 2 triples, 2 doubles, 0 runs
— Brian McTaggart (@brianmctaggart) May 18, 2017
OF George Springer and utilityman Marwin Gonzalez are leading the team’s power output, with 9 home runs apiece. OF Josh Reddick, another offseason signing, is off to a good start, hitting .286 — well above his career .257 average — with 5 home runs. After getting off to a slow start, SS Carlos Correa has been raking of late, hitting .420 with 3 home runs and 13 RBI over the last two weeks, giving him a line of .294/5/23 for the season.
The strong start has resulted in a 7.5-game lead over the Rangers, currently the second-place team in the AL West, but this upcoming homestand that starts Friday won’t make it easy to extend that lead. It begins with a three-game series against the defending American League champion Indians, followed by four against the Tigers — both teams are currently 20-19 and tied for second in the AL Central — and the Astros finish the homestand over Memorial Day weekend with three games against the 23-16 Orioles, who are in second place in the AL East.