Richard Justice: No reason for Astros to push panic button at 3-5. But maybe they should keep it handy just in case.

Apr 2, 2023; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman (2) reacts after striking out during the ninth inning against the Chicago White Sox at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Richard Justice: No reason for Astros to push panic button at 3-5. But maybe they should keep it handy just in case.

   The 2011 Tampa Bay Rays were 0-5 when they boarded their team plane in Florida after yet another disheartening loss. Leadership reveals itself in such moments. Before takeoff, Rays manager Joe Maddon, passed out plastic cups and poured a sip of Charbay whiskey into each one. He returned to the front of the plane, faced his players and proposed a toast.

   “Here’s to the best winless team in the history of Major League Baseball,” Maddon said. With that, he smiled broadly, downed the whiskey and took his seat.

   Later, Maddon would explain the gesture thusly: “I say a lot of crazy things, but actually this one kind of came true. It was the best 0-6 team in Major League Baseball and I’m very proud of our guys.”

   Actually, the Rays were 0-5 at the time of the toast, but the victor writes the history, doesn’t he? The Rays started 1-8 that season, rebounded nicely and finished with 91 victories and a playoff berth.

   The Astros are approaching a moment like that one. They’re 3-5 after a dismal 3-2, 10-inning road loss to the Twins on Friday afternoon. For a team to start 3-5 is no reason to worry.

   The Astros were 3-5 four seasons ago when they ended up winning the American League pennant and getting all the way to Game 7 of the 2019 World Series, which they lost to the Nationals at Minute Maid Park.

    Here’s what’s different this time and what might be causing a bit of unease. At this point, the Astros have nothing to hang their hats on. If just one thing was broken, that’s what the decision makers might have to address. It’s not just one thing.

   Offense? A .671 OPS is 23rd-highest in MLB, and the Astros have struck out at least 10 times in three of eight games and scored three runs or fewer four times. Their right-handed hitters are batting .219, sixth-worst in MLB.

   Bullpen? Their relievers have a 3.90 ERA, 11th-best in MLB and a far cry from last season when largely the same group comprised the game’s best bullpen with a stellar 2.80 ERA.

   Rotation? There’s more than a glimmer of hope here as Astros starters have allowed just four earned runs in 18 1/3 innings over the last three games. So while the rotation’s 3.64 ERA puts it at 11th among 30 teams, its trending in the right direction.

   Mistakes? Catcher Martín Maldonado took the blame for two 10th-inning wild pitches by Ryne Stanek that contributed to Minnesota’s two-run game-winning rally. Dusty Baker and Maldonado said glare off the center-field fence made it difficult to see the pitches.

   However, Maldonado said the glare was no excuse. Those were pitches he should have caught. Whether that’s true or not, it speaks volumes about Maldonado’s leadership that he placed blame for the defeat on his own shoulders.

   “At the end of the day, we get paid for this and we have to find a way,” he said. “We didn’t find a way today. We had a chance to win the game today and I (screwed) it up. Should have (caught) those two fastballs. That’s the game of baseball.”

    With so much going wrong, Baker must make sure his guys aren’t getting discouraged. Maddon’s toast at 0-5 was a smart gesture, but no manager is as good as Baker at setting a no-panic tone. As long as the effort is there and the mental mistakes don’t start adding up, he’ll live with the results.

   The Astros knew their offense would suffer when they started the season without Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley. What they did not figure on is that Jeremy Peña (.171), Alex Bregman (.152), Chase McCormick (.222), Maldonado (.167) and David Hensley (.217) would all start so slowly.

   The Astros production has come from Yordan Alvarez, Jose Abreu, Kyle Tucker and pretty much no one else. In Friday’s 3-2 loss, the Astros collected just five hits and got two runners in scoring position in the first nine innings. 

   They didn’t get a runner into scoring position after the fourth inning until the 10th when MLB rules automatically place a runner on second.

   To see this as anything more than a very good team off to a slow start probably is a mistake. Besides, no one in baseball history has been able to figure out what constitutes a start.

   Also, knowing the makeup of this clubhouse even without Altuve and Brantley, I guarantee they show up every single day thinking, “This is when we break out of it.”

   That seemed to be Wednesday in an 8-2 victory over the Tigers. It’s also important to give the opponent its due. Twins starter Sonny Gray was excellent in allowing in a seven-inning, 13-strikeout, one-run outing. Three relievers after him, including the nearly unhittable Jhoan Duran, did their jobs, too. (The Astros high-strikeout game against a single pitcher last season was 12, which they did twice against Shohei Ohtani.)

   The Astros are one loss away from a 3-6 start, which hasn’t happened since 2016, the last time they missed the playoffs. There’s no need to push the panic button at this point. There’s way too much season left for that. But it would be okay to look around and know where it is. Just in case.

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