Why the Astros believe they're about to start playing like the Astros again

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The Houston Astros arrived at Alfredo Harp Helú Stadium in Mexico City on Saturday searching for a symbolic fresh start, and Yordan Álvarez, their menacing slugger, found it almost immediately — on a white piece of paper taped to a wall inside their temporary clubhouse. On it was a simple message, scribbled in black marker:

Introductions, 3:45 p.m.

At that time, members of the team would line up along the third-base line to be formally introduced for the start of Major League Baseball’s brief foray into Mexico City, just like they normally would on Opening Day. Álvarez saw it as an opportunity.

“It was like we were starting a new season,” Álvarez said in Spanish. “I told the guys, ‘This is the moment to believe our season starts today.'”

The Astros, losers of eight of their previous nine games and already in a deep hole within the American League West, proceeded to put together two of their most complete and impressive performances all season, beating the Colorado Rockies by a combined 14 runs on Saturday and Sunday. They were playing against one of the worst teams in their sport and hitting in the thin air of a ballpark that sits 7,300 feet above sea level, but the Astros — still a whopping 10 games below .500 — came away from that series believing they had turned a corner.

“We’re going to get super hot and go on a run,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said in the wake of it.

It would have to be quite the run.

The Astros lost 18 of their first 25 games, tied for the second-worst mark in their franchise’s history. Only two teams — the 1981 Kansas City Royals, in a strike season, and the 1914 Boston Braves — have overcome such a start to make the playoffs.

Entering the Mexico City series, six of their starting pitchers had already spent time on the injured list. Their vaunted bullpen trio of Bryan Abreu, Ryan Pressly and Josh Hader had combined to allow 24 earned runs in 32 innings. Their decorated offense had stranded an American League-leading 202 baserunners. And two of their most important bats, Bregman and, to a greater extent, José Abreu, were in the midst of a profound slump.

In spring training, a two-game series in Mexico City was looked upon by players as a fun getaway to break up the monotony of a traditional schedule. As the season ensued and the losses mounted, it evolved into a necessary respite, an opportunity for a clean slate. The results only seemed to validate that.

“We want to use this series as a springboard to play better than we have,” Astros manager Joe Espada said in Spanish. “I think we demonstrated over these last two games the type of team we are.”

The Astros carry the unwavering confidence of a club that has appeared in each of the past seven AL Championship Series, even if present circumstances make it seem misplaced. Legitimate reasons for optimism do exist, though, beginning with the health of their starting pitchers. Justin Verlander made his delayed season debut on April 19, Framber Valdez was activated off the injured list Sunday, Cristian Javier should rejoin the rotation this week and José Urquidy is on track to return next month. The Abreu-Pressly-Hader trio should be much better. And there’s little reason to believe the lineup, which has gone through 23 different variations already, won’t eventually be a force.

But it’s also easy to see why the Astros are vulnerable — why we might actually be witnessing the end of one of the most dominant runs in recent baseball history. Most of the Astros’ best players are in the back half of their careers, some nearing the ends of them. The organizational depth that prolonged their window has dried up, making injuries potentially more devastating than ever before. These past two games were nice, but the Astros’ next series will come against far better teams in the Cleveland Guardians, Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees, with little margin to fall much further

And then there’s Abreu, in his age-37 season and in the middle of a contract that pays him $58.5 million through 2025. His first 71 at-bats have consisted of just seven hits and 18 strikeouts. Scouts say he has been late on almost every fastball. The Astros have recently placed Abreu in a quasi-platoon with the left-handed-hitting Jon Singleton. The recent promotion of first-base prospect Joey Loperfido might cut into his playing time further.

“You know what’s been the hardest thing for me? And I say this from the bottom of my heart — I feel embarrassed,” Abreu said in Spanish. “The people in this organization brought me here to do a good job. I haven’t done that. The hard thing, too, is that my teammates see that I haven’t done my job, although they’ve always supported me, always been by my side. But I won’t stay down.”

Abreu got two hits past a drawn-in infield Saturday. And though he didn’t take much solace in a result that came while still feeling out of rhythm, he did acknowledge the significance of his first multi-RBI game all year.

“It’s been a while,” Abreu said with a smile.

Something similar occurred late in Sunday’s game, when Bregman, homerless while slashing .216/.287/.268, lined a base hit up the middle. Bregman, a famously slow starter, called it “my best swing of the year.” He had been fighting timing issues all season, but he told himself to be ready to hit sooner when he came to bat in the top of the eighth. He started his load earlier so he could wait on the fastball, adjust to an off-speed pitch and avoid feeling rushed. When he loads earlier, he said, “everything is simpler.”

He thinks that eighth-inning swing was the start of something.

He thinks the Astros are finally coming.

“I know the character of the guys in this room,” Bregman said. “I know that we have fighters in here that are going to continue to show up and compete every day and prepare correctly and go out and execute on the field. We have way too many good players in here, way too many who know what success is like at this level.

“I think we’ll see a different Stros team the rest of the year. We’ll be where we need to be by the end of it. I know no one’s done it since 1914 or whatever, come back from this start, but we’ve got a good group in here and we’re up for the challenge.”

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