Houston, you had a problem

The big story from Major League Baseball on Friday was Houston Astros’ pitcher Mike Fiers throwing a no-hitter against the Los Angeles Dodgers, winning 3-0. Not wanting to take anything away from that accomplishment, there is another big story brewing in the Space City.

Karren Warren / Houston ChronicleThe Astros, as every baseball fan knows, have suffered a long drought of losing baseball since their World Series appearance in 2005. In 2013, they lost 111 games of 162, and became the butt of many “Houston, we have a problem” references.

But lately facing the Astros is not nearly as funny as before. This year’s edition stands at the top of the American League West with an overall record of 67-56 through Friday’s gem by Fiers. They are also a steaming 43-21 in the confines of Minute Maid Park, the Astros home field. They have spent almost the whole season in first place, except for a few days around the All-Star game, where a losing streak saw them tumble to second behind the Los Angeles Angels.

Everyone thought they were on the road to becoming a better team in the future. Even Sports Illustrated featured the team on its June 2014 cover, hailing the Astros as the 2017 World Series champs. But success is coming much earlier than expected.

And it’s not like the team went out and bought a bunch of great players for a one-shot chance at the title. The 2015 team is a mixture of farm talent and acquisitions that, on paper looked marginal, but is starting to look like brilliant front office moves.

Players like Evan Gattis, Colby Rasmus, Hank Conger, Jed Lowrie and Luis Valbuena, acquired in the off-season, and not exactly All Star talent, have blended with young players like last year’s batting champion Jose Altuve, former All-Star catcher Jason Castro, George Springer, and utility man Marwin Gonzalez to form the nucleus of the team. When you add in early season call-ups Carlos Correa and Preston Tucker, it’s beginning to look like a winning combination. Especially when you consider Springer and Lowrie have missed a number of games due to injury and the team hasn’t missed a beat.

But the strong point of the team is in the pitching staff. All-Star Dallas Keuchel has won 14 games, Colin McHugh 13, and the Astros’ staff is leading the American League in ERA at 3.38. The Astros added Scott Kazmir and Mike Fiers at the trading deadline to bolster a run for the pennant. And don’t forget rookie Lance McCullars, who was 5-4 with a 3.17 ERA before being shut down for a while to conserve his innings.

Lately, the bullpen has been even better, with Luke Gregerson as the closer and Chad Qualls, Tony Sipp, Pat Neshek and Will Harris shutting down the opposition.

Lost in the excitement of the Fiers no-hitter, is the fact that Houston won three games last week in their final at-bat, two in extra innings. This team has found a way to win games all year and has it been an exciting time for the Astros’ fans.

The Astros are certainly no offensive juggernaut; the team batting average is a paltry .241, good enough for 29th place of 30 teams. They do, however, lead the majors in home runs with 166, but on the down side, are second in batters striking out at 1,087 for the year, trailing only the Chicago Cubs.

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