On Thursday, for the third year in a row, the Astros picked first overall in the First-Year Player Draft. On the field, they are trying to prove that drafting the right players can eventually turn the franchise around.
Houston heads into Friday's series opener against the Twins 11 1/2 games back of the first-place A's in the American League West. But thanks to several potential young stars, the Astros have reason for hope.
Right fielder George Springer, selected in the first round in 2011, was named the AL Rookie of the Month for May after belting 10 home runs. First baseman Jon Singleton, originally drafted by the Phillies in 2009 before being traded to Houston two years later, agreed to a five-year, $10 million deal on Monday before homering in his big league debut on Tuesday.
Less highly-touted than all of those players was Dallas Keuchel, Friday's starter, whom the Astros drafted in the seventh round in 2009. The 26-year-old southpaw is in the midst of a breakout season: He boasts a 2.70 ERA, good for seventh in the AL, and is one of just seven players in the Majors with multiple complete games.
Keuchel's performance in May was one of the best in team history. He posted an ERA of 2.14 with two complete games and a 4-2 record. The last Houston pitcher to post a lower May ERA was Roger Clemens in 2005 -- he was at 1.54 heading into June.
Keuchel will face Twins right-hander Phil Hughes, another pitcher having a renaissance season. After a lackluster 2013 with the Yankees, the right-hander is 6-1 with a 3.12 ERA in his first year with Minnesota.
In his return to Yankee Stadium on Sunday, Hughes held his former squad to two runs on three hits over eight innings. Over his last seven starts, he is 6-0 with a 1.99 ERA. On Sunday, he had a streak snapped of 178 batters faced without a walk.
"This game can be pretty cruel sometimes and I went through that last year, so I never take any wins for granted," Hughes said after Sunday's victory. "So I try to view this as another win and a positive outing to keep it rolling. There were some emotions before the game, but the satisfaction postgame is equal to any other win."
Astros prepare for brief road trip
The Astros will play five games on the road from Friday through Tuesday, with three in Minnesota and two in Arizona.
The team flew to Minneapolis following a seven-game homestand against Baltimore and Los Angeles, during which they went 4-3.
Keuchel and fellow pitcher Scott Feldman threw at Minute Maid Park before flying out to Minnesota on Thursday afternoon, while the rest of the team is scheduled to arrive around 3:00 a.m. CT Friday morning.
Houston last went on the road for a 10-game stint between May 19-28, going 6-4, with a five-game win streak to close out the trip.
Springer took off during that stretch, batting .400 with six home runs and 12 RBIs in eight games.
Twins: Kubel searching for rhythm
Jason Kubel got off to a hot start in his return to Minnesota this season, posting a .319/.395/.472 slash line in his first 20 games.
Since then, though, Kubel has just 12 hits in his last 80 at-bats (.150 average), driving in one run during that span.
He entered Thursday in an 0-for-22 rut and was out of the starting lineup against Milwaukee. The Twins hope he can get back to contributing soon.
"He's working hard, the ball is jumping off the bat," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Can he carry that over? That's what we have to see. Can he carry it over to the game when they're coming at him?"
"Even BP's feeling better," Kubel said. "Hopefully I could carry that over into the game."
• Shortstop Jonathan Villar was out of the Astros' lineup for a second straight day Thursday after getting hit in the right elbow with a pitch in Tuesday's win against the Angels. X-rays on his elbow came back negative, and Villar is listed as day to day.
• Twins outfielder Josh Willingham entered Thursday's game riding an eight-game hitting streak. During that stretch, he hit .440 with four home runs, 11 RBIs and a .960 slugging percentage.
Aaron Leibowitz is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.