HOUSTON There was a time in late May when what the Astros did on Saturday against the Brewers wasn't so foreign, when pluck and persistence positioned them to be among the surprises in baseball.
They were opportunistic and committed to doing the little things that would not only enable them to perform beyond their limitations but, more importantly, to win. On May 25 the Astros won in Los Angeles and pulled to within one game of .500. Since then they have lost 19 of 22 road games and, subsequently, all of the momentum they had accrued.
That's what made the familiarity featured in their 6-3 victory over Milwaukee at Minute Maid Park so gratifying. The Astros swung their bats with aggression, ran the bases with passion and precision and, aside from a hiccup in the top of the sixth inning, defended sufficiently. They played this way before and showcased the hilt of their potential. As a younger team reliant upon largely inexperienced position players, the Astros are learning that attention to detail must be their calling card.
"We don't have the kind of talent that we're going to just blow people out. We've got to do all the right things," said Astros left fielder J.D. Martinez, whose three-hit game on Saturday was the 11th of his career. "We've got to get on, we've got to get people over, we've got to cash in when the opportunity is there. Today, especially, we did that.
"This is the big leagues; your concentration has to be there every day. There's no off day, there's no easy day, there's no day where you can just show up and get the job done because your talent is that good. We don't have that kind of talent. We have a lot of young guys, a lot of guys learning, and I feel like, myself included, we've got to come out every day and concentrate and focus. We can't afford to give at-bats away."
From the very start against the Brewers (39-45) the Astros (33-52) displayed that brand of vigor, from Jordan Schafer scampering into third base for a leadoff triple in the first to Jose Altuve beating Brewers right-hander Zack Greinke to the bag for an infield single one at-bat later. Greinke spiked the ball into the dirt in disgust after losing his footrace with Altuve, earning an ejection for himself and manager Ron Roenicke.
The Astros kept pushing the issue. Altuve dashed to third base on an infield single from Martinez later in the first. In the third, Jed Lowrie, whose RBI double scored Martinez and bumped the Astros' lead to 3-0, tagged up from second base on a fly ball to right field from Chris Johnson. His awareness preceded another fly ball from Jason Castro, with Lowrie in position to score what proved to be the winning run.
For the first six weeks of the season the Astros played this way more often than not. They drew walks, delivered with runners in scoring position, and advanced runners when the opportunity was presented.
But then they grew weary, whether from attrition or an unforgiving road schedule. The walks diminished and the strikeouts accumulated. Personnel changed and the losses mounted. And now, with the unofficial second half of the season set to commence next week, the Astros must determine how to reestablish the identity that left them feeling so spry.
"We've been through a tough stretch," Schafer said, not specifically referencing the Astros' nine-game losing streak snapped on Saturday. "It's nice to finally be rewarded for putting together a quality game. Obviously we haven't had too many quality games of late, but it's nice to be able to go out and put some things together and get that 'W.'"
The Astros have their template for moderate success. Their talent won't overwhelm teams, and they remain susceptible to exceptional pitching because of their inexperience and injury-ravaged roster. They will in all likelihood get even younger after the trade deadline comes and goes near the close of July, with prospects joining the fray if pitchers Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers and Brandon Lyon are shipped out as expected.
However, the Astros' strengths are as evident as their deficiencies. They can scrap and claw. They can take extra bases and showcase spirit. Having once piqued the interest of their flagging fan base with grit and hustle, the Astros can revisit that style of play and make what transpired Saturday the norm rather than the exception. All of that is possible.
"It's all going to come together because if you're able to play consistently good baseball day in and day out, their skills are going to get better and they're going to develop," Astros manager Brad Mills said. "And you know what's going to happen when that starts happening? We start winning a lot of games."
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