HOUSTON -- The Astros aren't the topic of any national television talk shows, and they don't have fans standing around water coolers bragging about their body of work so far in 2012. They're in the middle of the pack in the National League Central, which a month into the season is rather unspectacular.
For those willing to take a closer examination, for those willing to look beyond the team's 14-17 record -- which, by the way, is a two-game improvement over this point last year -- the strides Houston has made this season have been rather remarkable.
While the Orioles may be getting most of the love for being baseball's biggest surprise team, the Astros' improved play coming off a 106-loss season has given the players and fans hope that the club's rebuilding effort is well ahead of schedule.
"I really think the goal coming into this year was to get off to a good start and hover around .500 as long as possible, and get the fans excited and show some of the energy and enthusiasm the youth is bringing to the ballclub," first-year general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "I think that's what we're seeing."
Luhnow took over a club last December that was in full-tilt rebuilding mode and entered the season with the second-youngest roster in the Major Leagues. The Astros have proven to be more competitive and scrappy in the first month than they were at any point last season -- even in their losses.
Of Houston's 17 losses, 10 have been decided by two runs or fewer, including Wednesday's 5-3 loss to the Marlins in 12 innings. The Astros rallied with two out in the ninth to force extra innings, but couldn't get the clutch hit when they needed it.
Still, the game provided a perfect example of how much more competitive the club has been this season.
"We're battling each time, and it gives us confidence we can play with any team," closer Brett Myers said. "With the way we've been playing baseball and the way we've been going out there and fighting and grinding out at-bats, these guys are starting to believe in themselves, and definitely everybody else around them starts to believe in them. We need to keep grinding."
One of the Astros' biggest focal points during Spring Training was finding a way to be more selective at the plate, to see more pitches and work into deeper counts. Players like center fielder Jordan Schafer and second baseman Jose Altuve have been getting on base at a higher clip, which is important considering Houston's lack of home run threats.
"Our hitting coach, Mike Barnett, has done a terrific job with that," Luhnow said. "Guys have responded, and I think part of it is an education process of realizing how important seeing good pitches is to having a productive offensive unit. Part of that is laying off bad pitches. We know that's important, and even the players know individually that's important. If you continue to stress it, eventually you start to see things turn around, and I think that's what we're seeing."
Altuve (.333 batting average) is off to a red-hot start at the plate, and Schafer and shortstop Jed Lowrie -- former prospects plucked away from other clubs -- are playing like they have something to prove. Lowrie is giving the Astros the kind of offensive production at shortstop they haven't seen in quite some time. And the catching situation has been improved over last year, with a healthy Jason Castro and the signing of Chris Snyder.
Offensively, the Astros have been a slightly better-than-average team. They are eighth in the NL in batting average (.255), fourth in runs scored (128), tied for ninth in homers (22), fifth in RBIs (129) and sixth in on-base percentage (.327).
The Astros rank 11th in the NL with a 3.76 team ERA, but the bullpen has been dramatically better. Houston's relievers are fourth in the league with a 2.79 ERA and feature a closer in Myers, who is 8-for-8 in save chances. Last year's bullpen ranked last in the NL in team ERA (4.49) and first in blown saves (25).
"We've got a bullpen that feels like a unit, a starting rotation that feels like a unit, we've got players up and down the lineup that are doing their job," Luhnow said. "One of the keys, I think, differentiating this team from possibly last year is the fact that we don't have any easy outs anymore. It used to be you have two spots in the lineup -- be it shortstop, catcher or some combination of spots -- where you were almost giving away those two outs, and that's no longer the case.
"When you know you can get those hits from anywhere in the lineup, it changes the whole dynamic. It's not like we rely on scoring all our runs in one inning. That's been probably the best part of it. They don't give up, it's consistent up and down the lineup, and they have been really acting as a team."
Outfielder Travis Buck, who like Schafer and Lowrie has been flourishing with a change of scenery, is one of the team's older players at 28. He says the Astros are proof that teams can play inspired baseball sans star power.
"We don't have five, six, seven All-Stars," Buck said. "We're a very young ballclub. We know we've got to play fundamentally sound every night to stay in ballgames, and we take pride in that. Us older guys try to preach that to the younger guys, that you have to play the game the right way and be fundamentally sound and give yourself a chance to be in every single game."