Beyond the Boxscore

Time to get our hopes up? The Astros younger hitters knock the prospect of a dull season out of the park

Time to get our hopes up? The Astros younger hitters knock the prospect of a dull season out of the park

Jordan Schafer bunt
Jordan Schafer Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
JD Martinez batting
J.D. Martinez  Photo by Michelle Watson/Catchlight Pictures
Chris Johnson third base
Chris Johnson Photo by © Michelle Watson/CatchLightGroup.com
Jordan Schafer bunt
JD Martinez batting
Chris Johnson third base

April numbers in baseball can lie worse than Bobby Petrino. It's easy to be seduced, easy to buy in with the glee of a Bernie Madoff investor.

It's so tempting to jump right onboard even a bandwagon that's barely pulled out of park — especially when you're a young team that has some experience being buried in April.

Carlos Lee does not think these young Houston Astros are fooling him though. He's been through too much in the big leagues, seen too many false hopes to leap again without evidence. No, Lee isn't going into this blind. He's not just another April fool.

 There was a real danger that these Astros would be bad and boring this season, the deadliest combination in sports. But this team is not swinging boring. 

He's basing his hope on evidence, on the way Jordan Schafer keeps getting on base, in the way J.D. Martinez keeps smashing the ball, in the sound of Chris Johnson's bat on contact.

"The whole lineup is hitting the ball really good," Lee says. "Especially the way we're hitting the ball to right field.

"If we continue to do this, we're going to have a lot of chances to win games."

The Astros have plenty of chances to win this Wednesday night game too — a 6-3 loss to an Atlanta Braves team that still fancies itself a playoff contender. It's a loss — and in many ways a lost night — but it's another night when the Astros' young bats gives them a chance to win.

A 3-3 homestand is not the stuff of the 1998 New York Yankees. But when it's the 2012 Astros — a squad that's widely been dismissed as the worst team in baseball by the rest of the league and anyone in the national media with a clue — it's still a good start.

The Astros collect 10 more hits in the homestand's finale, give the 18,225 who show the type of maddeningly entertaining baseball that a rebuilding team on the rise can deliver. This doesn't necessarily mean that Brad Mills' team is on the way up. But it's sure a heck of a lot better than the alternative.

There was a real danger that these Astros would be bad and boring this season, the deadliest combination in sports. But this team is not swinging boring. Not with Schafer flashing the potential that once made him the Braves' can't-miss kid. Not with Martinez hitting balls soaring over the wall.

Six games into the season, the Astros have six regulars hitting over .300. That can't last. But this team looks like it can mash a little. And after how mightily the Astros struggled to hit home runs last season — even with Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn in the lineup — who would have assumed that?

"Look around," Martinez says in the clubhouse afterwards. "We've got some guys who can hit. That's nothing new to us."

It is new on the Major League level for most of them. But Martinez feels he saw it coming up, in playing alongside guys like Jose Altuve (he of that gaudy .368 first-week average) in the minors.

"I've pretty much played with all these guys and have seen it myself," he says. "I've played with everybody but Schafer and you know what he can do."

Actually Schafer himself probably doesn't even know for sure what he can do yet. But this is the start he needed. Two more hits and .423 on-base percentage.

"I'm very comfortable in the leadoff spot," Schafer says. "I've been doing this for a little while now . . . and I'm just going to do anything to get on base."

Still Schafer leaves Minute Maid Park steaming at himself on this night, more than annoyed at striking out trying to bunt with two strikes and two on in the bottom of the seventh. With the Braves clinging to a 4-2 lead and the Astros a big inning away from a 4-2 start.

By the time the Astros won their fourth game last season, they had nine losses. They had to rally from an 0-8 start to get to 4-9 in 2010.

This is no small chance. And Schafer knows it.

"I've got to be able to get a bunt down in that situation," he says. "I have to be able to advance the runners in that situation. I can bunt. That's inexcusable."

That's life with a young, rebuilding team. That and the four errors the Astros commit too, their second four-error game of the first week of baseball.

Being Chipper

April stats lie — especially first week April stats — but for a young team searching for confidence, every little bit helps.

This is a team with the thinnest line for error in the Major Leagues though. When second baseman Altuve gets picked off second base for the final out of the fifth inning, ending a rally with Lee at the plate, it looks like Houston's gone tumbling over that tripwire of a line.

 "Look around," Martinez says in the clubhouse afterwards. "We've got some guys who can hit. That's nothing new to us." 

Especially when Lee leads off the next inning with a hard single to left field, showing what was lost.

These Astros of Jim Crane, Jeff Luhnow and Mills fight, though. They somehow still scrap together a run in the seventh with Lee drawing a two-out, bases-loaded walk after the Astros trigger-shy third base coach Dave Clark keeps holding runners.

After the Astros send seven batters to the plate to score that one run, the Braves immediately get it back in two pitches. That's how long it takes Jason Heyward to deposit a Fernando Rodriguez pitch 396 feet into the right center field stands.

There's the hard way, and there's the easy way.

Chipper Jones shows the Astros the difference again in the top of the ninth, driving a hard single into center as easy as can be that Schafer and outfield substitute Justin Maxwell turn into one of the most difficult routine plays you'll ever see by bumping into each other. That allows the Braves' sixth run to score, causes more than a few fans at Minute Maid to break into tomahawk chops.

Jones just stands on first base, grinning all the way. And why not? He's hitting .444 two games into his latest injury comeback at age 39. Atlanta is 2-0 with Jones in the lineup, schooling the Astros in two straight.

"It's nice to see Chipper come back, it's amazing," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez says. "That's why he is what he is."

And that's why the Astros are where they are. There's no Chipper in this lineup. But there's hope.

"This has done nothing but raise our expectations," Mills says. "We're thrilled."

Even more tellingly, the Braves sound more than a little impressed with these young Astro bats.

"These guys . . . ," Gonzalez says. "I know it’s a young season, but you look up at the scoreboard and everybody’s hitting .360.

"Those young kids over there . . . Everybody has a a terrific approach at the plate."

It's only April. But every little step, every hard swing, everyone impressed, counts.

No boring baseball? That's more than a start.