HOUSTON -- The Astros were one of baseball's best surprise stories for the first seven weeks of the season, pulling to within a game of .500 after rookie pitcher Lucas Harrell outdueled reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw at Dodger Stadium on May 25.
Not much has gone right since for the Astros, who saw their taxed bullpen struggle to hold leads and everybody in their lineup fall into a slump at the plate at seemingly the same time. Houston lost 30 of its next 41 games to drop into last place in the NL Central, dealing slugger Carlos Lee to the Marlins along the way.
Maintaining that quick start was probably too much to ask for a club that's in full-blown rebuild mode and lowered its roster's average age to 27 after Lee was dealt on July 4. The Astros are extremely young at most spots and will use the second half to try to evaluate their young talent.
"I'm happy with the effort being put out there by the players," first-year general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "You have to have the effort; you have to believe in yourself that things are going to work out for the long haul. That's what we're hoping for. We want to get better every month, every week. It's a long season."
Perhaps the biggest reason for the Astros' first-half struggles has been their play on the road, where they went 9-32. Houston was 0-8 in extra innings, with six of those losses coming away from Minute Maid Park.
MVP: Jose Altuve Altuve, who made the All-Star team this year at 22, has led the team in hits and batting average for most of the season and has been a sparkplug at the top of the order.
Cy Young: Wandy Rodriguez The steady lefty, who's the only holdover from the 2005 National League pennant-winning club, got off to a quick start and would be putting up better numbers on a more talented team.
Rookie: Lucas Harrell Claimed off waivers from the White Sox last year, Harrell has been one of the team's most dependable starting pitchers and has thrown its only shutout of the season.
Top reliever: Brett Myers Moved from the rotation to closer in Spring Training, Myers has stabilized the Astros' ninth-inning role by nailing down 18 of his first 20 save opportunities.
"There's a lot of good things that happened and a lot of things we have to work on," manager Brad Mills said. "The things we like are the way we've played here at home. We want to play a little better on the road, and we're taking steps to go about that."
The good news?
The Astros appear to have found a gem in Jose Altuve, the 5-foot-5 second baseman who made his debut a year ago after getting called up from Double-A Corpus Christi and made the NL All-Star team this year at 22 years old. Altuve has teamed up with shortstop Jed Lowrie, who's showing a surprising power stroke in his first season with Houston, for a formidable middle infield.
The conversion to closer from starter couldn't have gone much better for veteran pitcher Brett Myers, and Harrell has been a huge bright spot in the rotation. Starting pitcher Bud Norris has been terrific when healthy. Myers converted 18 of 20 save chances.
"Our bullpen has been generally solid, and I can't wait to get Wilton [Lopez] back, because he's a critical part of it," Luhnow said. "Our offense, everybody individually has done well at one time or another, but we haven't done enough well at the same time to win ballgames. That's really an issue. It's a maturity issue for our ballclub. We've got the talent, and we just need to take that next jump and start to win some of those close games."
Players to watch in second half
Altuve The 5-foot-5 second baseman has an outside shot of reaching 200 hits, which has been done only once in club history, by Craig Biggio, who recorded 210 hits in 1998.
Jordan Schafer Schafer got off to a nice start in center field for the Astros but struggled mightily at the plate in June and could be playing for his future as the second half begins.
Bud Norris Norris was one of the best pitchers in the NL in May before a sprained left knee sent him to the disabled list, but a productive second half would be encouraging for the Astros.
Luhnow wants to make sure his club doesn't slump in the second half, considering there won't be much at stake when it comes to the division race. It wouldn't be a stretch to see the team promote a few prospects -- perhaps infielder Jonathan Singleton? -- like it did last year in calling up Altuve, outfielder J.D. Martinez and pitcher David Carpenter in July.
"Every player on the field has a plan for improvement, and the coaches are working with them on it," Luhnow said. "We'd like to win games to get back in the race, but the rest of the season is focused on improvement individually and collectively."
Norris, who experienced last year's tough season from start to finish and is dreaming of the days when the club returns to contention, can only hope the long path to rebuilding is worth the price of the struggles the Astros are enduring.
"We need to just keep playing," Norris said. "We had a good stretch at home and played really well, and we have to focus a little bit more on the road. We've got to find a way to scrape runs early and keep it close, and we've been doing that a lot. We still have to keep it going out there and play and learn. We have a young group, and we have to get better."