After making the playoffs and coming within a whisker of the ALCS last season, the Houston Astros had high expectations entering 2016.
Then they started the year 17-28.
“I don’t think it was one particular thing,” Astros pitcher Collin McHugh said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney, trying to pinpoint the cause for the slow start. “I think it was us not quite playing complete baseball games. We always talk about that and preach that. You got to be good in the three aspects of the game. You got to pitch, you got to catch the ball and you got to be able to get some timely hits. It felt like every game, it was one of the three that was letting us down. I know me and a lot of the guys on the starting staff were kind of banging our head against the wall knowing that we didn’t start out as hot as we wanted to. But as of late, things have kind of turned around, and I think we’ve been playing better in all aspects of the game and really coming through with those big hits. The staff was able to keep the team in the game long enough for them to get those hits.”
Indeed, the Astros (44-39) are 27-11 over their last 38 games and are now just a game behind the Blue Jays (46-39) for the second Wild Card spot – stunning given the struggles of Dallas Keuchel. The 2015 AL Cy Young winner is 5-9 with a 5.13 ERA and 1.42 WHIP this season. He’s also allowed 14 home runs in 17 starts, this after allowing 17 home runs in 33 starts a season ago.
“I don’t want to make too much of an understatement, I don’t want to make too much of an overstatement, but this is the honest truth: He is the hardest-working pitcher I’ve ever seen in my life,” McHugh said. “We saw it last year and just kind of the amazing run that he went on, especially at home, but it’s between starts – the four days that he has in between – that really shows his routine, shows his dedication to his craft and really getting better. So while I’m sure he is frustrated that the results aren’t quite there, you really don’t see it on a day-to-day basis. You see the same guy going out and getting his work done, trying to get better. I mean, he’s a Cy Young winner. He won 20 games last year and even this offseason (was) still trying to get better. This game is really hard. This game is not going to cut you any slack or give you any breaks. We all know that there are going to be times when things just aren’t quite going our way. But all you can really ask for is a guy with a consistent approach. He’s kind of been our leader from that perspective.”
McHugh, like the Astros, has rebounded well from a slow start to the season. After going 2-3 with a 6.65 ERA in April, McHugh has allowed two run or fewer in six of his last 12 starts.
The Astros are attempting to make the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2004-05, especially after such a heartbreaking loss in the ALDS. The Astros led the series 1-0, 2-1 and had a 2-0 lead in Game 5. The Royals, however, survived and went on to win the World Series.
“We felt like we had them beat,” McHugh said. “We felt like we had that series won, in the bag, ready to go. I think it’s that taste that’s in your mouth at the end of the season that just kind of lingers for a little while and gives you a little bit of motivation and competitive edge going into the offseason. But we knew we were there. We really really felt like we had the team to go all the way last year, and a lot of the same pieces are back this year. So I think we kind of came in with the expectation that let’s pick up where we left off and win some baseball games.”