There are some very nice surprises in baseball so far, you bet, from Yankee Stadium to Coors Field. The Houston Astros just don't happen to be one of them. The Astros still have questions about starting pitching, because just about everybody does, because this is a world where the Mets can come out of Spring Training looking like they have the best starting rotation on the planet, with their manager talking about getting 30 starts from all of his big young arms, and now have you wondering if Terry Collins meant 30 starts for those guys, total.
But the Astros, for now, and maybe for this whole season, are the best team in baseball, the best mix of young and old and hitting and pitching and defense. They are as much fun to watch as anybody around, and that includes the Yankees, even with the way the Yankees keep knocking the cover off the ball. You saw it from the Astros when they played the Yankees last weekend at Yankee Stadium; when they were really one nightmare inning in the first game of Sunday's doubleheader away from showing up on 161st Street and sweeping a four-game series.
So check it out: The Astros lose the first game of that doubleheader, then stand on the top step of the visitors' dugout and watch all the old-Yankees ceremonies of Derek Jeter Night. After that? They are apparently so overcome with the emotion of the moment they go out in the top of the first of the second game against the Yankees' best pitcher, Masahiro Tanaka, and light him up for six runs, four coming on a grand slam by Alex Bregman. The Astros, hot and happening and real, have made a lot of statements this season. The most powerful yet was the one last weekend at Yankee Stadium. It's not as if the stage made them want to hide in the visitors' clubhouse.
"What we're proving is what a really good temperament we have at the moment," A.J. Hinch was saying on Wednesday morning before a 12:10 p.m. ET game in Miami against the Marlins. "We don't take ourselves too seriously. We don't get overwhelmed by what everyone else is talking about."
Then Hinch was talking about how the Astros went out over the winter and added Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann and Josh Reddick and Norichika Aoki to the young talent already in the room, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa and Bregman and George Springer and the rest of them.
"They have," Hinch said, "provided a professional calmness to a team with an exciting core."
The manager, who knocked around the big leagues as a catcher, just turned 43. It makes him just three years older than Beltran. But he has brought a calm and grace and balance to the job of making the Astros matter again. When Altuve came into his office and blamed himself for the Astros losing to the Royals in the 2015 playoffs, telling his manager "I'm the reason we lost," Hinch looked at the kid and said, "No, you're the reason we're here."
The one surprise the Astros have provided over the past year or so, especially since they seemed prime to make an even bigger run in 2016, was starting 6-14 last April and putting themselves in a ditch from which they never properly and fully extricated themselves.
I asked Hinch on Wednesday how much conversation there was in the spring about not letting that happen again.
"Little bit," he said. "Listen, you always want to get off to a good start. I think most teams deliver that kind of message in the spring. But this team had experienced some rough circumstances last season. These guys know about all the missed opportunities we had in close games, because we did lose a lot of one-run games in April.
"But this year we've done a little bit of everything. We've jumped ahead. We've come from behind and erased four- and five-run deficits. We've been clutch at the end of close games. And on top of everything else, we've matured."
Hinch paused, then said this: "I honestly do believe it all comes back to temperament and mindset. I have to tell you: This team was fun to be around before we started winning. Maybe that's what makes what's happening right now so satisfying. Throughout the first quarter of the season, there's never been a single day when I've felt a sense or arrogance or entitlement around this group, or the sense that anything that's happening is supposed to be easy. What I have seen, and felt, is the same methodical churn every day coming to the ballpark."
Perhaps the only moments of real fear the manager of the Astros have felt so far have involved the 5-foot-6 Altuve, who continues to be one of the best and most exciting and most appealing young stars in the game. In April, there was a bad collision between the kid and Teoscar Hernandez when they were both chasing a pop fly to right against the Indians, and both went down and stayed down. Then Altuve took a pitch on the wrist on Monday night against the Marlins. He ended up staying in the game. His manager resumed normal breathing.
"Little bit of fear, little bit of disbelief," Hinch said. "All guys matter on our team. But [Altuve] is such a key cog of everything we do. Now it's been twice this season when I've had to walk onto the field not knowing if he was OK, knowing how small the margin of error is on injuries in this game."
He paused again and said, "The only way to describe Jose is that he's so much right about what we do."
There is a lot going on right with Hinch's Astros. Dallas Keuchel, his ace, is once again pitching the way he once pitched in an AL Wild Card Game at Yankee Stadium, when the Yankees had no chance against him. But Hinch makes the point that no one on his team is having some kind of startling, shocking, breakout season.
"We don't have anybody carrying us for the whole season," Hinch said. "We've just got a collection of hitters who are really good. It's not like we've had somebody hitting 12 homers in a month, or Jose has been hitting .450."
Then he was talking about his veterans again, saying, "Don't forget Aoki. He doesn't get enough credit. This guy played in a World Series."
So might Hinch's team. Like in five months. Again: There will be questions about pitching, especially even more relief depth, though Hinch has watched Chris Devenski become a star this season the way baseball has watched Devenski become a star. The Yankees got him good on Sunday. Didn't change the fact that going into Wednesday's game in Miami, Devenski had struck out 43 men in 23 1/3 innings and mostly looked like Andrew Miller on training wheels.
Smart baseball people say there is a need for a matchup left-hander reliever. The Astros also need another starter and, well, welcome to the world on that one. Hinch has now held his breath twice with Altuve, and knows how easily the outcome with his second baseman -- twice -- could have been much worse. He could have separated a shoulder that night against the Indians. Could easily have broken his wrist. He did not. The Astros keep winning. They won again Wednesday and swept the Marlins. Lance McCullers pitched like a dream, Altuve got four hits to bump his average to .311, Springer knocked in a couple in a 3-0 victory. Who knew a methodical churn could be this much fun to watch?