The Houston Astros were a bit of a novelty in the first four weeks of the season, when they won 18 of 25 games to open a seven-game lead over the Angels.
Sure, they were improved over 2014, when they had a record of 70-92, and clearly they were not the pushovers of 2011-13, when they had three straight 100-loss seasons. But one month of good baseball does not guarantee a pennant contender.
"When it's April, it's easy to be blasé about stuff because the season is so fresh," Angels pitcher C.J. Wilson said. "You're like, 'OK, anyone can win seven of 10 games.'"
Although the Angels did not dismiss the Astros' hot start, they viewed it with some skepticism. "It's early," some players said privately. "Let's see where they are in July and August."
Well, July is nearly gone, and the Astros (55-45) are still in contention despite coughing up their American League West lead by losing seven straight games from June 4-10 and nine of 11 from July 4-18.
Houston survived those droughts by winning six of nine since the All-Star break, and the Astros are a game behind the Angels entering a three-game series between the teams that begins Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park. Outfielder Shane Victorino, acquired Monday in a trade with Boston, could make his Angels debut.
After years of rebuilding, the Astros showed they are serious about winning now by acquiring left-hander Scott Kazmir from Oakland last week, giving them a dynamic one-two pitching punch in Dallas Keuchel and Kazmir and a solid No. 3 in Collin McHugh.
"They definitely got a little better pitching-wise," Angels left-hander Hector Santiago said. "This puts a little more pressure on us offensively and pitching-wise."
It wasn't too long ago that the Astros had one or two decent starting pitchers, one great position player in second baseman Jose Altuve, and the worst bullpen in baseball.
"A couple of years ago, you'd go into Houston thinking you were going to get a three- or four-game sweep," Santiago said. "That's what it felt like."
Now the Astros lead the major leagues with 136 home runs and 74 stolen bases and are fourth with 437 runs despite leading the AL with 892 strikeouts.
Kazmir (2.24) and Keuchel (2.32) have two of the top four earned-run averages in the league, and McHugh is 11-5 with a 4.25 ERA. The bullpen is deep, with closer Luke Gregerson (2.97 ERA, 21 saves), right-handers Will Harris (4-2, 1.40 ERA), Pat Neshek (3-1, 2.65 ERA) and Josh Fields (3-1, 2.78 ERA) and left-hander Tony Sipp (2-4, 2.83 ERA).
Altuve is hitting .301 with an AL-leading 28 stolen bases, and his new double-play partner, rookie shortstop Carlos Correa, has established himself as a rising star, hitting .288 with a .521 slugging percentage, eight homers and 27 runs batted in in his first 41 games.
"It's not like we can go in there and run through that team," Santiago said. "They run, play small-ball, put the ball in play, and they have a couple of guys with pop. If we play our game, I think we're still a better team. But they're really good."
The Astros have managed to maintain their offense with an all-or-nothing approach that has produced some peculiar numbers.
Chris Carter has 16 home runs and 43 RBIs but is hitting .184 with 117 strikeouts. Evan Gattis has 16 homers and 57 RBIs but is batting .246 with 79 strikeouts. Luis Valbuena has 19 homers and 40 RBIs but is hitting .198 with 76 strikeouts.
"Their roster composition is really unique," said Wilson, who will start the series opener. "They have two high-average guys in Altuve and Correa, and everyone else is pretty much trying to drop hammers and swing for the fences. It's a different problem to solve as a pitching staff."
The season series between the Angels and Astros is tied, 5-5, and the teams play nine more times. Angels Manager Mike Scioscia is not one to label a series as "big" until at least mid-September, so he wasn't about to attach any added significance to this one.
"I think it creates a big distraction when you start to put monikers on a game or series," Scioscia said. "You need to take care of the game on the schedule that day; that's where your focus needs to be. If you keep that focus and let all those other distractions evaporate, you'll play better baseball and have better results."
Weaver gets rehab start
Right-hander Jered Weaver is scheduled to start for the Class A Inland Empire 66ers on Thursday as he begins the game-action portion of rehabilitating an injured left hip.
The three-time AL All-Star hasn't pitched in a major league game since June 20. He is 4-8 with a 4.75 ERA this season.
Since June 24, the week Weaver was injured, the Angels have an MLB-best 2.25 earned-run average. His replacement in the starting rotation, rookie left-hander Andrew Heaney, has a 5-0 record and 1.79 ERA.
Inland Empire will be hosting the Bakersfield Blaze — the California League affiliate of the Seattle Mariners — at San Manuel Stadium in San Bernardino.
Wilson (8-7, 3.59 ERA) will oppose McHugh (11-5, 4.25 ERA) at Minute Maid Park on Tuesday at 5 p.m. PDT. TV: FS West; Radio: 830, 1330.