KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Houston Astros are athletically gifted, superb in the field and stacked with power bats. And judging from their horrific regular-season record away from Minute Maid Park, they're really bad when they're living out of suitcases and sleeping in hotel beds.
Think Steve Martin and John Candy in "Planes, Trains and Automobiles"-caliber bad.
The Astros' 33-48 road record this season was the second worst since 1900 for a postseason qualifier (surpassed by only the Minnesota Twins' 29-52 record in 1987). But they appear to be warming to the traveling life at the optimal time.
After winning four of the final six regular-season games at Seattle and Arizona to clinch a wild-card berth, the Astros walked into the Bronx and beat the New York Yankees 3-0 on Tuesday to advance to the division series. They had barely put the champagne goggles back in storage when an even more daunting challenge awaited: Fly to Kansas City and take on the defending American League pennant winners, who posted a league-best 95-67 record this season and were aching to get over last year's World Series heartbreak against the San Francisco Giants.
Challenge accepted and passed -- for one night, at least. Houston starter Collin McHugh set the tone with six strong innings Thursday. The bullpen dealt, the defense shined, and George Springer and Colby Rasmus hit solo home runs to lead the Astros to a 5-2 victory and 1-0 American League Division Series lead.
It's been quite a voyage of discovery for the Astros, who are just naïve enough to go into hostile environments with an entire season on the line and think it's supposed to be fun.
"You've got to give credit to these guys," said Houston closer Luke Gregerson. "This is a young team. But they come out with a lot of intensity and a lot of enthusiasm, and they expect to win. That's a great feeling to have. If you expect to just keep it close and maybe pull it out at the end, it's not going to work. This team wants a little more than that."
A lot of teams come into Kauffman Stadium -- which features the biggest outfield expanse in the majors -- and feel disadvantaged because the Kansas City Royals have speed and play defense so aggressively and efficiently. But Houston led the league with 121 steals this season, and Springer, Rasmus, Jake Marisnick and Carlos Gomez are exceptional defenders who take it as a challenge to cover as much ground as possible and "play some pasture," as McHugh put it.
"We just like to have some fun out there," Springer said. "Guys try to see who can make the most plays and stuff like that. I mean, our park isn't small, either."
The Astros also are adept at hitting the ball over the fence regardless of the venue. On the way to slugging 230 regular-season homers -- second most in the majors to Toronto's 232 -- the Astros ranked third in road homers with a representative 102 away from Minute Maid.
Eighteen innings are a small sample size, but Houston manager A.J. Hinch has been a master button pusher through his team's first two postseason games. In New York, Hinch started Gomez, who is touch-and-go from one day to the next because of a strained intercostal, and Houston's center fielder responded with a solo homer against Masahiro Tanaka. In the ALDS opener, Hinch gave Gomez a seat in favor of Marisnick, who contributed a single, double and a terrific catch against Alcides Escobar to help stifle a Kansas City threat in the fifth inning.
And when the game was on the line in the eighth, Hinch lifted reliever Will Harris (who held lefties to a .129 batting average during the regular season) for veteran Oliver Perez, who promptly retired Eric Hosmer on a pop fly to end the Royals' last, best threat.
Hinch understands that "genius" labels tend to fade quickly under the microscope in October, so he's not about to get carried away with two games' worth of inspired moves.
"It makes you look smart," Hinch said. "It makes you feel smart. But you can be humbled in a heartbeat."
Nevertheless, Hinch certainly seems to have a nice feel for the mood and mindset of his team. He is making zero effort to minimize the emotional whirlwind of this experience and portray it as business as usual.
"This is a first for a lot of our team," Hinch said. "We've never denied that. We haven't pretended like we've been there before. We haven't tried to govern any of the excitement or exuberance that goes on when you're on the stage for the first time. We've embraced it. I think our players enjoy the moment. They're enjoying bringing their best to the ballpark every day."
The Royals still have the ability to seize control of this series in a hurry. But after Scott Kazmir and Johnny Cueto square off in Game 2, the Astros will return home and run out Cy Young Award candidate Dallas Keuchel, who was merely 15-0 with a 1.46 ERA at Minute Maid this season.
The Astros are content to take it one at-bat, one inning and one improbable scenario at a time. That approach has already carried them further than anyone had a right to expect. Two more wins against Kansas City, and baseball fans across America will get to know them a whole lot better very soon.