Hinch not surprised by Astros success, but looking for more

HOUSTON (AP) The Houston Astros have the best record in baseball and their best start in franchise history.

Surprising?

Not for the manager A.J. Hinch and these unflappable Astros.

''I didn't put any limitations on this team,'' Hinch said. ''So I don't really have a baseline of how many games I expected to win.''

Pressed about whether anything about the Astros has surprised him this season, he contemplates the question for a few moments before slowly answering.

''Maybe the ability to hang in there when things aren't going our way,'' he said. ''There's a calmness about our team that has matured over the last year. I don't know if that's surprised me or if it's just made me very proud.''

The calmness Hinch spoke of was on display on Monday when the Astros improved to 36-16 by overcoming a six-run deficit with an 11-run eighth inning for a 16-8 win over Minnesota. Their blistering start comes a year after a 7-17 mark put them in too big of a hole to climb out of, and they missed the playoffs a year after reaching the postseason for the first time since 2005.

Things are much different this season with ace Dallas Keuchel back to Cy Young form to lead the rotation and a lineup that has been producing from the leadoff spot all the way down to the ninth batter.

This, star shortstop Carlos Correa says is exactly what he envisioned entering the year.

''We've got a lot of talent in this room,'' he said. ''I feel like everywhere you look in the lineup there's talent, there's potential and we've got leadership now in this clubhouse. So we're heading somewhere.''

Correa and second baseman Jose Altuve head a young core that was bolstered by the addition of veterans Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann this offseason. While everyone raves about what the infusion of their years of experience has done to this team, Beltran insists that leadership abounds in Houston.

''Altuve leads playing every day, Carlos Correa is a leader, Dallas Keuchel the leader in the rotation,'' said Beltran, who is in his 20th season. ''We all lead different ways. Me being the veteran guy on the team, maybe I have a little more experience than them but that doesn't mean that I'm the only leader on this ball club.''

After going 9-12 in 26 starts in a disappointing 2016, Keuchel looks like he did - or perhaps even better - than in 2015 when he won a career-high 20 games and posted a career-best 2.48 ERA to pick up the American League Cy Young Award. He leads the majors with eight wins, is the first Astro since Roger Clemens in 2004 to open a season 8-0 and his 1.81 ERA ranks second in the majors.

The only thing that has slowed him down so far is a pinched nerve in his neck that cost him one start. But he didn't miss a step in his return on Saturday night, allowing just four hits and one run in six innings for the win.

Altuve and Correa have led Houston's hitters by both batting over .300 so far, but what's been a boon to this team are the contributions the Astros have received from players at the bottom of the lineup. Super utility player Marwin Gonzalez is tied for the team lead with .311 average, his 32 RBIs lead the Astros and he's tied with George Springer for most homers on the team with 11.

Outfielder Jake Marisnick, who has long been one of Houston's top defenders, has stepped up on offense this season and is hitting .277 with six homers after hitting just five in 118 games last season.

''It's a long lineup that's dangerous,'' Hinch said. ''In some ways I feel like I'm hiding them down there at the bottom because their performances have warranted a little bit higher, but I can't get these guys in the top of the order very easily.''

Obviously talent has played a major role in Houston's success so far. But many around this team believe there's something else that has pushed the Astros to another level this season.

''We're united,'' Beltran said. ''We're having fun in the clubhouse ... we believe in each other. We know what kind of team we have. We know the kind of talent that we have. So I think that being relaxed in the clubhouse has allowed us to go out there and perform.''

With a double-digit lead in the AL West, the Astros are in a great position for a return to the postseason. But with more than 100 games left they know their hot start won't matter if they don't keep it up.

''The one thing we won't do around here is look at what we've done and celebrate too much,'' Hinch said. ''We've got to look forward.''

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More AP baseball: https://apnews.com/tag/MLBbaseball

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