HOUSTON -- The Astros have been a strong second-half club in recent years, which in itself should give second-year year manager Brad Mills hope that better times are ahead. And after a difficult first half to the 2011 season, the Astros are definitely ready for brighter days.
After stumbling out of the gate and losing their first five games, the Astros have spent the first half of the season in last place in the National League Central. Houston's biggest problems can be traced to its pitching, where the starting rotation hasn't been as good as hoped and an inexperienced bullpen has been in disarray.
The Astros, who trimmed payroll after last year with the club up for sale, already had little margin for error, and the struggles of the pitching staff and underachieving years by some position players have put the team in a rough spot.
"We're capable of playing good baseball, and it revolves around starting pitching, as it always does," Astros general manager Ed Wade said. "But it's also limiting the mistakes on the field on both sides of the ball and putting innings together, and that means getting guys on and moving them over and getting a run on the board."
AT THE BREAK
MVP: Hunter Pence -- He's carried the team on offense and is on his way to having his best season in the Majors.
Cy Young: Wandy Rodriguez -- Rodriguez picked up where he left off, when he had a strong second half a year ago
Rookie: Jordan Lyles -- The youngest player in the National League, Lyles has had ups and downs but has shown great poise and stuff.
Top reliever: Mark Melancon -- Acquired from the Yankees in the Lance Berkman trade a year ago, he's taken over as the club's closer.
Players to watch in the second half
Pence: He's on pace to set career highs in batting average, doubles and RBIs.
Lyles: He is getting valuable experience as a 20-year-old that will only benefit him.
Melancon: He hasn't had many save chances since taking over as closer, but he's been a huge bright spot.
Last year, the Astros went 40-33 after the All-Star break following a 36-53 first half. They rallied following last July's trades of Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt, which means the team that played so well in the second half of last year is essentially the same club it has this year.
"If you look at our lineup and roster, there's a lot of similar guys we had last year, and I think one of the biggest things is a lot of us have been getting experience early this year and there's always going to be some bumps in the road," first baseman Brett Wallace said. "I think we've all gained a lot of experience, and you start to see it now in close games, different things we've learned and how we've matured."
Mills says the club is still coming together.
"I know it's halfway through the season, but we're still finding out a lot of things about ourselves, what we can and can't do and so forth," he said. "We've gone through some key injuries like a lot of clubs have, but the key injuries to our catchers have been tough. The guys that are filling in have done an admirable job, but at the same time, any time you take those captains off the field, sometimes that's kind of tough."
Injuries to catcher Jason Castro, infielders Jeff Keppinger and Clint Barmes, outfielder Jason Bourgeois and closer Brandon Lyon have tested the Astros' depth. Mills hopes a healthier second half can benefit the club on offense, where All-Star right fielder Hunter Pence has carried a team that hits for very little power.
"When we left Spring Training we thought our starting pitching and our defense was going to be pretty strong," Mills said. "Well, our defense hasn't been really in the first half what we had hoped, but the last couple weeks we made some adjustments, and they've really done a real good job, our defense has. I think our bullpen is really developing because they're so young."
Barmes, who missed the first month after breaking his hand in Spring Training, said the mistakes the Astros have been making are the product of youth.
"There's been a lot of mistakes made, not just the young guys, but I've made plenty of mine," he said. "I don't want to put all that on them, but as far as the veterans leading a little bit more and communicating and the mistakes we made in the first half, you want to think that the guys are learning from their mistakes. You want to think that the guys are learning from their mistakes are grinding through times when it's tough."
Mills has stressed keeping his team focused on what's ahead and improving, rather than letting the toll of the losses mount and start to create a negative atmosphere in the clubhouse.
"No one has ever said anything about this ballclub not working or getting done what they need to do," he said. "We stay positive with it and keep working toward what we need to get done. These guys are men, and if they're not, they're guys that are developing into men. We keep focusing on the positive and do things to get that wheel moving."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.