Long-suffering Astros finally back in contention

HOUSTON (AP) Here's something new: The Houston Astros finally have reason to look forward to the second half of the season.

After several miserable years of rebuilding, losing and more losing, these Astros - powered by bearded ace Dallas Keuchel, diminutive second baseman Jose Altuve and rookie Carlos Correa - are just a half-game back in the American League West at the All-Star break and eyeing their first playoff trip since 2005.

Houston's 49 wins are the most by the franchise in the first half since 2003 and it's the first time since 2001 the team has been at least seven games over .500 at midseason.

A year ago, the Astros were 19 1/2 games back with little hope of being in contention.

It certainly wasn't an easy path to become relevant again. This proud franchise known for its famed Killer B's of Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell lost 100-plus games in three straight seasons from 2011-2013 with low-budget teams filled with no-name players. Virtually any veteran of value was traded to restock a barren farm system.

''It's been a painful process from where we've been in the last 10 years to where we're at now,'' Biggio said. ''But you look at the light at the end of the rainbow right now and I'm excited for our guys.''

The long climb began last season when the Astros made a 19-game leap to end the 100-loss streak. But they still dropped 92 games and finished fourth in the AL West.

A beefed-up bullpen, a couple new veteran role players and an infusion of young talent this season helped Houston to a surprising start. The Astros opened the year 18-7 to race out to a six-game lead in the division and remained in first-place from April 19 until six straight losses helped the Angels take the lead at the break.

They've done it with powerful hitting, heads-up baserunning and a pitching staff that ranks among the best in the AL. At .240, the team's batting average is second-lowest in the AL, but the Astros have managed to produce anyway and are fourth in the AL in runs scored.

That's largely due to the pop in a lineup that leads the majors with 124 home runs. Luis Valbuena has 19 and there are 15 apiece from Evan Gattis and Chris Carter.

Houston is tops in the AL with 69 steals, thanks in large part to Altuve's 25.

Keuchel is 11-4 and his 2.23 ERA is second in the AL. His masterful first-half performance not only aided the Astros' ascent, but made him the first Houston pitcher to start an All-Star game since Roger Clemens in 2004.

A bullpen that was the weakest link last season (25 blown saves) is completely different: Its 2.67 ERA is second in the AL and the group's 17 wins are tied for most in the league.

Years of high draft picks have finally started to pay off for the Astros, too, and they're reaping the benefits of homegrown talent. Lance McCullers, a first-rounder in 2012, and Vince Velasquez, a second-rounder in 2010, have joined the rotation.

But the most sparkling rookie in Houston is undoubtedly Correa. The 20-year-old shortstop and top overall pick in 2012 made his debut on June 8 and is expected to be the face of the franchise as it returns to prominence.

He's lived up to those lofty expectations early and hit .276 with seven homers and 19 RBIs on top of more than a few dazzling defensive plays to garner AL rookie of the month honors after less than 30 days in the big leagues.

His arrival in Houston has created a buzz not seen at Minute Maid Park in years and crowds of more than 32,000 fans showed up for his first two home games. Drafted as a 17-year-old out of high school in Puerto Rico, Correa is polished beyond his years both on and off the field.

''I'm just glad the fans show up to support the team,'' Correa said when someone asked him about the spike in attendance. ''I think they come here because we've got a winning team.''

A setback came for the Astros when dynamic outfielder George Springer was hit by a pitch that fractured his wrist recently. He will be out for several weeks, but Jed Lowrie should return soon after sitting out since April 27 after thumb surgery. His .300 batting average could help ramp up an offense that has averaged just 1.167 runs a game in the current losing skid which the Astros will look to snap when they host Texas on Friday.

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