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Inside Baseball: Right on cue, an out-of-this-world season for Astros

TORONTO -- When it comes to the Houston Astros, maybe there won't be a Sports Illustrated cover jinx. It was back in the summer of 2014, when the Giants were in the midst of producing a third World Series title in five years, that SI dropped a bombshell in mailboxes across North America that prompted plenty of guffaws.

"Your 2017 World Series Champs" roared the headline next to a picture of then-rookie George Springer. Fast forward three years later and no one is laughing. You can never predict what will happen in the postseason but one thing is pretty clear: The Astros seem like an overwhelming favorite to get to the Fall Classic.

"We feel we have a great team, a team in all areas of the game," standout shortstop Carlos Correa said prior to a game against the Blue Jays in Rogers Centre. "We have confidence in every player in this room. Every day, you just go out and take care of business."

The Astros entered Saturday with the best record in baseball at 59-28, and holders of a 16 1/2-game lead in the AL West. They lead the major leagues in runs, doubles, home runs, batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage and OPS. The pitching entered the weekend fifth in ERA but tops in strikeouts.

The 2014 Sports Illustrated cover.

The Astros are trying to join the 1948 Yankees and 1995 Indians as the only teams with the highest slugging percentage and fewest strikeouts. They're trying to join the 1911 New York Giants s the only teams with the fewest strikeouts by their batters but the most strikeouts by their pitchers.

Middle reliever Chris Devenski was added to the AL All-Star team on Friday, giving the Astros six reps in Miami. He will join Correa, Springer, Jose Altuve, Lance McCullers Jr. and Dallas Keuchel. That's the most of any AL team and the most in franchise history.

"It's indicative of the special season we've been able to have so far," said manager A.J. Hinch. "We're being recognized in a lot of different ways to prove that. You make statements more by winning divisions and getting to the playoffs and chasing championships. But the midsesason recognition for some of our players is pretty cool for them."

From 2011-2013, the Astros joined the expansion Mets (1962-64) as the only teams in history to lose at least 106 games for three straight years. From records of 56-106, 55-107 and 51-111 and widespread accusations of tanking comes the fruits of their labor.

Springer was drafted No. 1 in 2011 at No. 11 overall and Correa was taken No. 1 overall in 2012. McCullers also came in the first round that year. The 2013 top pick, pitcher Mark Appel, was eventually traded to the Phillies in a deal that brought closer Ken Giles. The top choice in 2014, pitcher Brady Aiken, was never signed and returned to the draft. But the first-round pick in 2015 was LSU infielder Alex Bregman, now the starting third baseman.

There were international free agents signed like Altuve, Rule 5 picks like Marwin Gonzalez, shrewd picks like Keuchel in the seventh round. Now there's some veteran help like Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann.

The Astros lost the division series in five games to Kansas City in 2015, when they had a 6-2 lead and were six outs away from a series clincher in Game Four. They had a setback last year with injuries and inconsistency leading to an 84-win season. There's been no hiccups this year.

After going 4-4 in the first eight games, the Astros finished April 16-9 and went 22-7 in May. They reached 30 games over .500 in game 84, destroying the franchise mark for fastest run to plus-30 -- set in game 130 in 1998. They haven't been this far above .500 since 2001 and they've never led a division by this much since they were born in 1962.

"How many games over are we?" was Correa's response to a question about being 30 games over .500. "It's just fun to play with this group of guys. There's so much talent in this clubhouse. Nobody gets complacent. We're always striving for more. It's really fun."

The Astros had a rare down game here Thursday night, suffering a 7-4 loss to the Jays in a game that saw McCullers leave a couple of balls up and the infield butcher a potential double-play ball with nobody covering the bag at second. They responded in a big way Friday with a two-run homer by Correa in the first and a three-run shot by Springer in the second setting the stage for a 12-2 rout.

The Astros hit the weekend 32-10 on the road and winners of 21 of their last 25 games. They are averaging 6.9 runs per game away from Minute Maid Park, where their record is 27-18.

Correa extended his hitting streak to a career-high 15 games Friday and has reached base in 23 straight, also a career-best. Springer had two home runs in the game to push his season total to 27, the most by an Astro prior to the All-Star break since Lance Berkman hit 29 in 2002. He remains on pace to break the all-time record by a leadoff man of 39 set by Alfonso Soriano for Washington in 2006.

Giles is 19 for 21 in saves and Devenski has been clutch in a deep but probably overworked bullpen, going 6-3 with a 2.09 ERA, and 72 strikeouts in 51 innings. Devenski said he was floored when he learned of the All-Star nod Friday.

"It's going to be cool. Jose Altuve has done it before and it's comforting to know he knows what it's like and what goes on," Devenski said. "You want to enjoy it with them. It's a special group."

Devenski said the special feeling has stretched right from spring training until the edge of the All-Star break for a franchise that has never won a World Series game. Its only appearance came in 2005, a four-game sweep by the White Sox.

"It really is one pitch at a time," Devenski said. "Everyone in here loves what they do and they bring it to the park every day. It helps you stay grounded, stay in the moment."

"We keep our standards pretty high and our goals pretty lofty. We want to win the division," Hinch said. "Until we do that and if we do that, then there's really no letup. Our group is really noteworthy for how we want to win every day. It's not going to be hard to motivate them. It's not going to be hard to push them."

The Astros probably need another starting pitcher for the postseason, especially since Keuchel (9-0, 1.67) has been out since June 2 with a second recurrence of a nerve problem in his neck. But if Keuchel returns in Cy Young form and stays healthy, the Astros will have their ace for October. And maybe November.

"I understand how the numbers play out and how much of a lead we have," Hinch said. "But this league will humble you if you're not careful. For us, getting through the break and getting rested for three-quarters of our team will be nice and then we can get started hopefully on bringing a special second half of the season to Houston."

Division doldrums

The Cubs' 11-2 loss to the Brewers Thursday at Wrigley made quite a statement in the NL Central. Milwaukee jumped to a 9-0 lead and dropped the Cubs 4 1/2 games out of the division lead, their biggest deficit since the final week of 2015.

"Honestly, there is not a whole lot to talk about," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "That game goes in the trash can as quickly as any game we've ever played. We just didn't pitch well early and it's very difficult to fight back from that moment."

With the Brewers, Red Sox and Dodgers starting to create breathing room in their divisions, you're starting to wonder if the three-way battle we have in the AL Central between the Indians, surging Royals and Twins might be the only true tussle left. At least the wild-cards will keep things interesting.

Inside Baseball: Cubs struggling to recreate magic of 2016

All-Star anecdotes

---Best wishes to Indians manager Terry Francona, one of the game's true good guys, after a heart irregularity was found and repaired Thursday in the Cleveland Clinic. Francona will miss the All-Star Game but the team said he will be available when the second half begins Friday in Oakland. Taking over the AL team will be Indians bench coach Brad Mills, whom Francona insists is the real brains of the operation and deserves another chance to manage after directing the Astros' 2011 and 2012 tank seasons.

---It was hard to reconcile the fact that homefield advantage in something as important as the World Series was determined by the winner of the All-Star Game, but there's no question the midsummer classic had some added juice to it because of that. With Commissioner Rob Manfred moving off that rule for Tuesday night's game in Miami, you wonder if we'll be back to the days of the late '90s and early 2000s, where players took their one or two at-bats and hit the private jet home before the game ever finished. That was simply never a good look. Perhaps with games now resuming on Friday instead of Thursday, there will be fewer quick exits.

---A potential matchup of Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton going for that hideous but somehow iconic Home Run Statue in Marlins Park? Sign me up. On paper at least, Monday's Home Run Derby looks more interesting than the game itself -- even if tickets somehow still remain in Miami.

---This corner is very thankful we have advanced to All-Star festivities. The incessant droning of teams' Twitter feeds changing their names and stomping for votes -- for both the starters and the Final Vote winner -- is just so overplayed. For the last couple weeks, it's been hard to find actual baseball information because social media staffers have just gotten completely out of control. Enough already.

Minor matters

---Some futures for the Bisons and Blue Jays? Infielder Bo Bichette and outfielder Vladimir Guerrero Jr. are playing in Sunday's All-Star Futures Game in Miami and then getting promoted from Class A Lansing to Class A Dunedin of the Florida State League, two rungs below Buffalo. Guerrero, whose father may be a Hall of Famer in the next couple of years, entered the weekend batting .316 with seven homers and 45 RBIs. Bichette, son of long-time big leaguer Dante Bichette, is leading the Midwest League with a .384 average, collecting 10 homers and 51 RBIs.

---Lots of attention in the Class A California League this week as Angels outfielder Mike Trout will play on injury rehab for Inland Empire through Monday and Giants ace Madison Bumgarner has struggled to a 10.97 ERA in three rehab starts at three levels. Wednesday at San Jose, Bumgarner was torched for an eight-run fourth inning against Rancho Cucamonga -- as 21-year-old outfielder D.J. Peters hit two home runs in the inning for the Dodgers affiliate.

---Big congrats are in order to longtime Indianapolis Indians voice Howard Kellman, who broadcast his 6,000th game for the team on June 30. Kellman, 65, is a fixture on the air in Indiana and has been the voice of Indianapolis baseball virtually nonstop since 1974. He is also a revered figure as a visitor to the Bisons press box, traveling here each season since the Herd returned to Triple-A in 1985. Indy, now a Pittsburgh affiliate, leads the IL West and makes its only trip here this season Aug. 15-17.

Inside Baseball: Blue Jays' struggles mean another wash for the Bisons

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