MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

High-flying Astros loving life at the top

High-flying Astros loving life at the top

If you're looking for a perfect baseball team, the Houston Astros are close enough at this point. They have no weakness. They play with great energy. They're confident, too -- very confident.

This is what you do when everything is clicking the way it is for the Astros: You ride the wave as long as possible. There'll surely be challenging times ahead, times of injuries and slumps and all that jazz. By the time that happens, they may well have built up an impressive -- there's no such thing as insurmountable in May -- lead in the American League West. Anyway, the Astros won again Wednesday afternoon, beating the Marlins on the road, 3-0, to run their record to 29-12.

That's 14 out of 17, a stretch that has helped Houston open up an 8 1/2-game division lead. What's working? The Astros' pitching staff has the AL's lowest ERA (3.41) and highest-scoring offense (211 runs).

During this 14-3 run, Houston is averaging 6.2 runs per game and has stretched its run differential to plus-61 for the season, tops in the Majors. The Astros have dominant starters at the front of the rotation and a postseason-caliber bullpen.

And the lineup? It may be baseball's deepest.

Have we forgotten anything? Well, there's that whole vibe thing, and in a long season, everything is connected to every other little thing.

The Astros are wildly entertaining, with a nice mix of excitable young guys and wily veterans like Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann. Watch them for a stretch of games and you may be captivated by their energy and resilience. That's the tone set by their young core position players -- second baseman Jose Altuve, outfielder George Springer and shortstop Carlos Correa. They play with joy and confidence.

"The way we are out there on the field," Altuve said, "is the way we are in here in the clubhouse."

Altuve's RBI double

Maybe that has helped them come from behind to win 16 times, including five games in which they rallied from five runs down to win. Sure, there's some element of luck in these things, but it also reflects a certain tenacity and confidence.

OK, I know what you're thinking. Take a deep breath, bubba. We've just passed the quarter pole and there are miles to go, etc. With that perspective, let's consider 10 reasons to believe in the Astros in 2017:

1. Dallas Keuchel is 7-0 with a 1.84 ERA and pitching every bit as well as he did when he won 20 games and the AL Cy Young Award in 2015. As we've learned in recent years, one dominant starting pitcher can transform a postseason series, and Keuchel is good enough to be that guy.

2. Lance McCullers Jr. is pretty good, too. He pitched six shutout innings against the Marlins on Wednesday to run his record to 4-1 and lower his ERA to 2.65. Both Keuchel and McCullers were injured at the end of last season, and their recovery has been the biggest reason for this fast start.

McCullers' strong start

3. The Astros are 15-3 in games started by Keuchel and McCullers, who could create an impressive 1-2 postseason combination.

4. Houston has a bullpen built for October baseball, when every out after the fifth inning is precious. In right-handers Will Harris (2.55 ERA) and Chris Devenski (2.96 ERA), it has two relievers who've been among the best in baseball the last two seasons.

5. Offensive depth. The Astros have just one regular hitting .300 -- Altuve at .311 -- but no one hitting below .257. They're fifth in the Majors in home runs despite having no individual in the top 10. However, six Astros have at least five, led by Marwin Gonzalez's nine.

6. Manager A.J. Hinch has been one of general manager Jeff Luhnow's many smart moves. Hinch's communication and motivational skills are excellent, his bullpen management outstanding. Best of all, his players know he has no agenda, that everything he does is what he thinks is best for the team.

7. Luhnow built a nice nucleus of talented, young players in his first five years on the job, then added a core of veterans last offseason to both lead and produce. Beltran, McCann, Josh Reddick, Norichika Aoki and Charlie Morton have been perfect additions.

8. Owner Jim Crane, the man who hired Luhnow and gave him the resources and time to rebuild the franchise in 2011, gave the go-ahead to increase the payroll from $97 million to $125 million since the end of last season. Crane is apparently willing to spend more if Houston needs, say, one more starting pitcher at the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline.  

9. The Process. The Astros trust it implicitly, and it has served them well the last three seasons. No team is more data driven than this one, it believes it assists in everything from scouting matchups to defensive alignments to pitch usage to, possibly, injury prevention.

10. Houston plays hard and fast, and the club's style is wildly entertaining. The Astros celebrate every moment and know to play through the tough times.

"It's just great to be around these young guys," Beltran, 40, said. "You can't help but get caught up in how much fun they're having."

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.