HOUSTON It was a split-second decision that paid immediate dividends, the type of instant reward for playing the game the right way that had frequently eluded the Astros over the first month of the season.
Astros center fielder Jordan Schafer didn't have much time to belabor his thought process, not with the Astros locked in a sixth-inning scoreless tie with the Mets, and not with Mets left fielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis and shortstop Ruben Tejada converging on a pop fly off the bat of Jed Lowrie. Had he hesitated, Schafer would have erred, and given the Astros' run of rotten luck, hesitation should have been reflexive.
Instead Schafer dashed for third base, his hustle the impetus for his beating the throw from Nieuwenhuis after the ball dropped in for a hit. Travis Buck followed with a run-scoring fielder's choice, and the Astros were on their way to a white-knuckled, 4-3 victory at Minute Maid Park.
"I think we've surprised a lot of people," Schafer said. "We've played better than people expect us to play. By no means do people think we're a cakewalk when they play us. We're scrappy and we're going to play the game hard.
"We haven't had things go our way quite yet, but I think things will turn around and we'll start winning some more games."
Perhaps Monday night will serve as the spark. With the Astros (9-14) opening a nine-game home stand against the Mets, Cardinals and Marlins, deeper analysis of their numbers revealed a team whose production isn't accurately reflected by the record they lugged home.
The Astros opened the series against the Mets (13-10) at plus-3 in run differential, which ranked sixth in the National League. The simple rating system employed by Baseball Reference, which identifies the number of runs per game a team is better (or worse) than the average team, also ranked the Astros (0.3) sixth in the NL. Their Pythagorean won-loss record, based largely on run differential, of 11-11 yielded that the Astros have been somewhat unlucky in April. Only the NL Central-leading Cardinals have a Pythagorean (minus-3) as poor as the Astros'.
That misfortunate is largely reflected in the Astros' record in one-run games. After defeated the Mets the Astros improved to 3-6 in that category, but just 1-6 on the road. The validation for playing the game the proper way and the confirmation that the Astros have indeed improved are particularly elusive on the road. Thus the Astros are approaching this home stand as an opportunity to not only keep on keeping on, but to cash in some breaks at home, to make their own luck.
"We've been losing some close games on the road," said Astros utility infielder Matt Downs, whose two-run homer capped the three-run sixth. "You taking the last at-bat at home, maybe a couple of things will swing your way instead and you'll carry some momentum that way. Maybe come home for that long home stand might help us win a couple of those one-run games instead of losing them in the last at-bat."
The Astros continued to display the attributes that have made them an improved outfit, record notwithstanding. They were tops in the NL in batting with runners in scoring position (.298), and then went 2-for-4 in such situations against the Mets. Their bullpen, ranked seventh in the league in ERA (3.48), piecemealed its way through the final seven outs, with five relievers setting the stage for closer Brett Myers, who worked a perfect ninth inning for his fifth save in five save opportunities.
Schafer, who has reached base in all 23 games this season, played the role of catalyst yet again, scoring following leadoff singles in the sixth and eighth, the latter set up by his daring, one-out swipe of second base. The Astros pushed and pushed, even with Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey twirling a no-hitter through five innings, even after the Mets scratched across three runs in the seventh to erase their advantage.
These Astros bear little resemblance to the team that was an unmitigated disaster last season. For one night, their improvement resulted in something tangible, something easy to identify: a victory.
"We've played well. We've definitely turned things around a long way from last year until now," said Astros right-hander Bud Norris, who allowed three runs on seven hits and one walk with seven strikeouts over 6 23 innings. "You can see it everyday out here with the talent that we've got and the way guys are going about their business. We know that we're right there, and that's what good ball clubs have to do is they have to learn trial and error. Get yourself in those (close) games and find a way to get out of it and get over the hump, and tonight we did.
"This is a tough game; you've got to play nine innings hard and full. Getting the little breaks to get over the hump is what it's all about. Everybody doing the little things that's going to help us is what's going to pay off in the long run."
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