They’re not laughing at Astros any more

 The Houston Astros with former Blue Jays Jake Marisnick, Colby Ramus and Luis Valbuena are off to their best start since 1986 and own the best record in the American League … 12 games over .500 after sweeping the Blue Jays in a four-game series.

 The Houston Astros with former Blue Jays Jake Marisnick, Colby Ramus and Luis Valbuena are off to their best start since 1986 and own the best record in the American League … 12 games over .500 after sweeping the Blue Jays in a four-game series.

HOUSTON _ They were the laughing stocks of baseball.

They had a position of power in their organization with a strange title.

They didn’t sign the No. 1 draft choice in North America.

Yep, baseball people were laughing a lot at the Houston Astros.

That was last year.

The Astros, who failed to sign the top amateur (Brady Aiken) plus two others they had agreed to sign and were paying someone to have the title of vice president, strategy and analytics, were a downright hoot last year.

This season they sit in first place — 11 games over .500 — after a 6-5 win over Your Toronto Blue Jays before 27,102 fans at Minute Maid Park.

This year people are laughing at another team.

“How can they expect to win with that pitching?” said one evaluator watching the Astros beat the Blue Jays. “I looked at their lineup. Everyone has injuries but how can they have six of nine guys in (Saturday’s) lineup who were in the minors either this year of last.”

Coming soon on the MLB Network: a DraftKings add for a pool on when/if the Jays will win again.

Mark Buehrle starts Sunday afternoon for the Blue Jays.

To paraphrase Paul Simon’s song Mrs. Robinson:

“Where have you gone, Jays pitching?
“A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”

Either Buehrle saves the day Sunday or the Jays go oh-four-Texas to finish the seven-game Baltimore-Texas trip with one win.

The Jays fell to four games below .500 having dropped six of their last seven.

Manager A.J. Hinch came out to remove starter Scott Feldman and he flung the ball towards the Astros dugout. So either Devon Travis was a milestone strikeout (it was his 10th of the game, the 705th of his career) or he was upset as the skipper’s presence.

His rationale could have been “you don’t think I can get THESE guys out?”

 

Like a Band-Aid
There used to be drama involved when Dennis Lamp, Bill Caudill and Roy Lee Jackson blew Jays leads.

Aaron Loup threw 10 pitches before spitting up a two-run lead on Wednesday.

First Jeff Francis and Liam Hendricks were given a one-run lead and 11 pitches later the lead evaporated quicker than someone could dial 7-1-6 B-U-F-F-A-L-O.

Left-handed hitting Preston Tucker singled to right on a 2-1 pitch and some guy named Colby Rasmus bounced an 0-2 pitch over the centre field wall. That was it for Francis. Hendriks came on and Chris Carter hit a 1-2 pitch 393 feet to right for a three-run homer.

One out later — a smash to the base of Tal’s Hill in centre field by No. 8 hitterHank Conger — Marwin Gonzalez hit a 3-1 pitch 392 feet into the Astros bullpen, just as the noise and smoke had cleared from Carter’s home run.
Carter still has the best home run trot in baseball. He runs the baseball in old-timey fashion. No pimping and no styling.

“It’s frustrating losing leads like that,” said Russell Martin. “We’ve got lots of horses down there.”

Last time 4 below
The Jays, now 17-21, have not been four games below .500 since May 3 whenTodd Redmond gave up two runs on a Neil Walker double in the eighth to the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. The next day the Jays began a five-game winning streak as Dustin McGowan, J.A. Happ, Marcus Stroman, Buehrle and R.A. Dickey pitched wins over the Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies.

Keeping it close
Marco Estrada gave the Jays five solid innings in his third start of the year. He allowed a two-run homer to Evan Gattis in the third, which scored Jose Altuve ahead of him. The Gattis drive travelled 395 feet and hit the arch of the left centre field facade between the Monego and Root Apparel signs.

Estrada threw 98 pitches (64 strikes) since replacing demoted Daniel Norris. He threw nine pitches to Altuve before the defending American League hit leader bounced to third in the fourt. He struck out eight fanning both George Springer and Carter twice each.

Estrada did what Dickey didn’t do on Friday — he gave his team a chance to win.

“You have to go deeper in the game than that,” said Estrada, “I jumped up quickly from 75 to over 90 plus pitches. Maybe next start I’ll get over 100.”

In Game: Edwin Encarnacion hit his second career pinch-hit home run to make it close with two out in the ninth … Second baseman Travis left after seven innings replaced by Steve Tolleson. Travis departed with left shoulder irritation swinging the bat when he struck out against Feldman … Josh Donaldson started off the first-inning inning rally with a one-out double to right. Donaldson has reached safely against the Astros in 34 consecutive contests which is the longest active streak in the majors for any player against one club. Donaldson passed Jose Bautista, who has reached 32 consecutive against the Seattle Mariners, on Friday. After Bautista followed with a walk, Russell Martin went gap to right centre scoring both … Martin’s two-run triple in the first was the eighth of his career and his first since Sept. 9, 2007 off Matt Cain in a 4-2 loss to the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park. Then Justin Smoak hit a run-scoring single.

Lance in the big dance
The Astros promoted right-hander Lance McCullers, a first round draft in 2012 as a Tampa high schooler. He will start Monday night against the Oakland A’s. In 1985, the San Diego Padres promoted his father, also named Lance, to the majors joining the manager Dick Williams’ club when it was Montreal. From there the Padres flew to New York.

McCullers made the mistake of falling asleep on the team bus to the hotel, the Padres got off and McCullers did not wake up until the bus parked at the depot. He had zero idea of what hotel the Padres were staying at. Welcome to New York.

Edwin sits for a while
Manager John Gibbons didn’t have first baseman Encarnacion in the starting lineup for the first time this season Saturday night. One reason was Encarnacion could use the rest and the other was that Justin Smoak was 5-for-11 against Astros right-hander Feldman with two homers, five RBIs, two walks and a 1.571 OPS. Encarnacion is 1-for-9 (.111) facing Feldman. Smoak delivered a run-scoring single in the first. It was Smoak’s second start since May 5. Encarnacion pinch hit for Tolleson with two out in the ninth. He complained on strike one call by umpire Clint Fagan and then hit an 0-2 pitch from Luke Gregerson to left centre for a two-run homer. It was his second pinch-hit homer, the other coming May 5, 2007 as a member of the Cincinnati Reds against Colorado Rockies starter Aaron Cook. Third baseman Donaldson, outfielder Kevin Pillar and Encarnacion are the only Jays to have appeared in all 38 games.

Friends are friends
Except when separated by 60 feet, six inches. Jays right-hander Drew Hutchison faced Houston Astros outfielder Jake Marisnick in the series opener on Thursday.

When the Jays failed to sign James Paxton and their next two picks in the 2009 draft they had the needed cash to sign: Marisnick, a third rounder for a $1 million signing bonus, sixth rounder K.C. Hobson for $600,000, 15th rounder Hutchison $400,000 and Daniel Webb, 18th, $450,000.

Marisnick and Hutchison went to extended spring together as deadline signs in 2009, then they were together instructional ball, extended spring and class-A. This was the first time they had faced each other since intra-squad days. The two remain close friends and exchanged texts before and after Hutchison fanned his pal three times.

“I can get him out 15 straight times, he can take me deep and I still lose the battle,” said Hutchison.

Pitching woes
Dickey allowed three runs in both the second and fourth innings on Friday night in the 8-4 loss to Houston. In 23 innings (of the 321 pitched this season) heading into Saturday night’s game the Jays pitchers have allowed three or more runs. They have allowed six runs once, five runs twice, four runs eight times, three runs 13 times. How does that compute? Well, 46.7% (87 of 186) runs allowed have come in 7.3% (24 of 329 1/3) innings worked.

Yer out
Catcher Russell Martin has thrown out 46.2% of base stealers, which includes 12 runners attempting to steal along with one pick off. He’s second behindDerek Norris of the San Diego Padres. In his last 24 games heading into Saturday night Martin is hitting .345 (29-for-84) with eight doubles, seven homers, 16 RBIs and a 1.107 OPS.

Jays bullpen
After going 2-3 with two saves and a 5.73 ERA through May 3, the Jays relievers have reduced their ERA to 3.03 since May 4, going 0-2.