Astros drop last 15, end 3rd 100-loss year in row
For one glorious night, the Houston Astros were the top team in baseball.
On March 31, the Astros won this year's major league opener, with Bud Norris getting the win and Rick Ankiel homering as Houston made its debut as an American League club by beating Texas.
Reality struck the Astros their next time out - Yu Darvish came within one out of pitching a perfect game against them.
By the end of the season, Norris had been traded, Ankiel got cut and the Astros had gone 2-17 against their instate rivals.
That pretty much summed up how the whole year went.
Houston lost a team-record 111 games and struck out 1,535 times, more than any team in big league history.
And if those weren't tough enough, the Astros ended the year with a team-record 15-game losing streak - the longest losing skid to finish a season in the majors since the Cleveland Spiders in 1899.
So how could the Astros possibly feel optimistic? Easy, first-year manager Bo Porter said.
''The core pieces that we have that have stepped forward and established themselves as everyday players can only get better ... we're going to bring in better players and the players that we have coming are going to be better,'' he said. ''With those factors in mind, I think that we're definitely going to be better.''
It would be hard to slip any farther.
This was the third consecutive 100-loss season for the Astros, who have dropped 324 games in that span and tied the 1917 Philadelphia Athletics for third most in major league history behind the 1962-64 New York Mets (340) and the 1963-65 Mets (332), according to STATS.
At least they'll have the first overall pick in next year's draft - for the third straight season - after again finishing with baseball's worst record.
Perhaps the most glaring example of the ups and downs on this young team with the lowest payroll in the majors was the performance of Chris Carter.
Carter, who was traded from Oakland in the offseason, led the team with 29 homers and 82 RBIs in his first full season in the majors. But the 26-year-old hit just .223 and finished with a league-leading 212 strikeouts.
''I think a lot of times people look at the strikeouts and they kind of harp on it, but you look around the major leagues there's not many guys that hit 29 home runs and drive in as many runs as he's driven in,'' Porter said. ''He can definitely help the team going forward. There's not many guys that we possess that can do the things that he can do.''
There was a perception that the stoic Carter was unaffected by his struggles, but that simply wasn't the case. Carter, who hit 182 homers in the minors as the A's top prospect, was troubled as the strikeouts piled up and his average stayed low, and is determined to improve.
''All the negativity with the strikeouts and the batting average and the stuff people said about that was difficult,'' he said. ''But numbers-wise as far as homers and RBIs, that's pretty good and I know I'll get better down the line if I just keep working at it.''
A bright spot for the Astros was the breakout season by catcher Jason Castro, chosen for his first All-Star game.
He finished with career-highs in games played (120), batting average (.276), home runs (18) and RBIs (56). He was also instrumental in helping Houston's rookie pitchers adjust to the majors.
Despite his personal success, Castro said the season was trying.
''It was tough, but I think this year is a definite turning point for us,'' Castro said. ''I think leading up to this year we've been kind of waiting for some of these pieces to get to this level and get to the point where they'd be ready to take on these roles that they've started to assume. I'm sure in a few years we'll look back and say this was the year that it started to turn around.''
Porter noted that entering spring training the only person who he knew would start every day was second baseman Jose Altuve, who signed a contract extension this season. He is encouraged that several players showed him enough this season to solidify spots in this lineup.
He said that Castro, Carter, third baseman Matt Dominguez and shortstop Jonathan Villar were those players. Houston also has a good nucleus for their rotation after solid rookie seasons from Brett Oberholtzer, Jarred Cosart and Brad Peacock.
''As you start to look at the pieces come together, you know some of the guys that have taken steps forward to put you in a much better position at this time than we were at the beginning of spring training,'' Porter said.
The question for the Astros as they wrap up yet another dreadful season is if they'll invest any money in the team next year to improve the lineup. Houston has several more talented prospects moving closer to being ready for the majors, but others like 2012 top overall pick Carlos Correa and this year's No. 1 pitcher Mark Appel probably need more time in the minors.
Houston's most glaring needs are help in the bullpen after the team blew 29 saves this season and more pop in the lineup after finishing second to last in the AL in batting average and runs.
''It's tough and tough for everybody around and it's frustrating, but whatever it takes for us to get better and be competitive in the future, whatever it takes,'' Carter said.