Originally posted on Fox Sports Houston  |  Last updated 5/23/12
The Houston Astros, once universally alleged to be the worst team of all the teams, are now three games under .500 and four games out of first place in the National League Central Division. They have gradually won over some doubters, who were at first surprised, then intrigued and now fully engaged with a team that is hitting better and pitching better than it was supposed to be. You could hear it in the eighth inning Tuesday night. The Astros (20-23) were beating the Cubs 2-1 (which ended up being the final score), but the Cubs (15-28) got a runner on third with one out. Wilton Lopez struck out Starlin Castro, and the crowd roared. When Lopez got the second strike out Alfonso Soriano, the fans rose to their feet, and when he struck him out swinging you heard the sound of a crowd that believed it had seen something that mattered. "Lopy was absolutely outstanding," Astros manager Brad Mills said. Brett Meyers closed it out with two strikeouts and a ground ball, so between starter J.A. Happ and a bullpen of Wesley Wright, Lopez and Myers, the Astros held the Cubs to one run on six hits with 13 strikeouts and two walks. Happ (4-3) got the win, giving up five hits in six innings with six strikeouts. Still, there were nervous moments. The good kind. After Jose Altuve led off with a 418-foot home run in the bottom of the first, Cubs pitcher Travis Wood allowed just one more hit and two walks over the next 5 23 innings. In the meantime, Happ served up one to Soriano, who belted it off the cement wall in left-center to tie the game at one. "We found out how far he can hit a baseball," Happ said. "It's about 600 feet." The hard luck for Wood was that walk No. 2 put Justin Maxwell on base right before Wood was replaced by Shawn Camp, who immediately made a throwing error on a pickoff move, walked Carlos Lee, then gave up a single to J.D. Martinez (who had been hitting .216) that scored Maxwell and put Houston up 2-1 heading into the seventh inning. Which meant it was time for Houston's not-so-suddenly reliable bullpen to drop the hammer. "They've been doing it all year," Happ said. Happ agreed with a suggestion the Astros pitching staff seems to have some momentum working in its favor. The Astros are 5-2 in their current homestand and they entered Tuesday's game with the No. 4 bullpen ERA (3.00) in the National League. They're 21st in MLB in team batting average and ninth in team ERA, which is to say that good things are happening, believe it or not. The Astros are close to being a winning team again. Nobody's quite ready to declare them contenders, but you can't help but look up just a little. The top isn't so far away anymore. "It's in the back of your mind," Myers said.
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