NEW YORK -- The Astros came to Citi Field with momentum on their side Thursday, fueled in part by a Wednesday night victory that saw them excel in every phase of the game.
Houston pitched well, made some timely defensive plays and earned its second straight win over the Mets on a home run by Hunter Pence, an asset that has been exceedingly rare in the first two weeks.
The Astros are 6-4 in their last 10 games after a 1-7 start, a rebound that has taken pressure off the individual players and allowed them to focus on the day-to-day business of fielding a competitive team. Manager Brad Mills said he's been happy with the way his team has responded, and he said a win like Wednesday night can go a long way in the clubhouse.
"It's fun to see all the defensive plays and everything come together," said Mills of his team's mindset. "It's good to string those hits together and put some runs on the board against a tough pitcher. It's good to make those defensive plays, and then Hunter with a big blast to give us a lead in the eighth. Those are all fun things. Not just for the people in the stands, but for us as well."
The home run ball must've meant even more to the Astros, because they just haven't done it a lot this season. Pence is the only Astro with more than one home run this season, and only two big league teams have logged fewer homers than Houston (nine). Houston is middle-of-the-road in batting average and holds out hope that the power will surface soon.
"I think it's something kind of fluky. We may not have hit for a lot of power, but it did win a game for us [Wednesday] night," said hitting coach Mike Barnett. "The thing I'm happy about is our situational hitting. I think we're 20-for-33 with a runner on third base and less than two outs, and we're like 6-for-7 at moving the runner on sacrifice bunts. We've been very good, and those are the things we have to continue to do. That's really how we're putting runs on the board, by taking advantage of those situations."
"We hope it works itself out," added Mills. "We're still doing a lot of things right, still seeing a lot of pitches and having some quality at-bats. At times, there have been games where we haven't been [doing those things], but for the most part, we are. Having some good at-bats is going to lead to more hits and obviously to some more runs. We hope the long ball comes into play as we move along. But when you get them in games like [Wednesday] night, you see how important it is to be able to get them."
Barnett, in his first season as hitting coach after a two-year stint as the team's Minor League hitting coordinator, said that his players have been really diligent about their approach. Barnett singled out second-year first baseman Brett Wallace -- who went into Thursday's game with a .293 batting average -- as one of his most improved players.
"The thing that I love about Wallace is he's very level-headed," he said. "He understands what he's trying to do day in and day out. He understands what pitchers are trying to do to him, and he's able to come back and talk about every pitch in an at-bat to understand what happened and how things went in the at-bat. Anytime he gets a little bit away from something that he's been doing, he's able to make the correction right away. And he can understand it from the previous two or three swings.
"He's not overly analytical, which is a good thing. I think he's got some very simple keys that he sticks with day in and day out, and when you've got that type of ability and that type of work ethic -- and that aptitude especially -- that makes my job easy."
Ankle feeling better, but Hall sits out finale
NEW YORK -- Second baseman Bill Hall appeared to be recovered from a sprained right ankle that he suffered in Wednesday night's game, but the Astros elected to give him at least another day to recover. Hall injured himself while making a catch on a pop fly over near the first-base stands, and after staying in the game, he eventually had to leave early.
"I don't think I did anything that anybody else in here wouldn't have done," said Hall of his perilous play. "You're trying to track the ball, and when the sky's like that, if you take your eyes off the ball, you might lose it. It's just one of those plays where you've got to keep going, and hopefully you catch it far enough where you can stop yourself from hitting anything. On that play, I couldn't, and like I said, it's just one of those plays where I had to catch the ball and my momentum took me into the wall."
Hall spoke before pregame warmups and hadn't tried to run at that point, but he said that he expected to be well enough to play in Friday's series opener in Milwaukee. Manager Brad Mills said Thursday that he'd rather err on the side of caution, but he also said that he hadn't spoke to Hall yet and that the player's availability could be a gametime decision on Friday.
"We thought it was his ribs or his chest area last night when it happened," said Mills. "He kind of got the wind knocked out of him a little bit. ... It took a while for him to get his breath back, and then his ankle started tightening up as the night went on. That's why he finally had to come out of the game. But today, I think it's probably just a little stiff. He feels pretty good."
Hall, one of just two active big leaguers who have played at least 125 games at four different positions, has played exclusively at second base this season, and he's hitting .197 through his first 17 games.
"I feel like it's a chance for me to rejuvenate my career, get back on track and prove that I can go out there and play every day," said Hall. "I feel like my defense has been right where it needs to be so far into the season. ... I've hit some balls right at people where I didn't get hits. It's been a tough first couple weeks for me offensively, but I'm just trying to stay patient, keep taking the same swing and not trying to do too much. Once I start trying to do too much, it's not going to go the right way."
Towles, Quintero delivering offensively
NEW YORK -- The Astros seemed to be in big trouble when catcher Jason Castro went down with a serious knee injury in Spring Training, but Humberto Quintero and J.R. Towles have collectively given Houston a major offensive strength. Quintero and Towles had combined to hit .317 (19-for-60) heading into Thursday's series finale against the Mets, and manager Brad Mills is thrilled at their contributions.
"With Towles, the thing with him is the year of experience," said Mills. "Coming up to the big leagues, struggling a little bit last year and then getting sent down and getting hurt. All those things. Just being a year older, and realizing that he had an opportunity when Jason got hurt. All those things, throw it into the pot, so to speak. And now, he's doing a good job."
Hitting coach Mike Barnett actually started working with Towles last year in his previous position. Barnett first began tutoring Towles during a stint at Double-A Corpus Christi, and the backstop got hurt before he could put the instruction into action.
"I just took a look at him and he was kind of hunched over, his hands had gotten higher. We started working on a couple of those things, and then ironically he breaks his thumb and is done for the year," said Barnett. "But the good thing about it is we got to start working on some things that he didn't even realize he had gotten away from.
"Going into this offseason, he really focused in on those things, and he said that he ended up looking at a couple pictures of what he had looked like when he had come up early in his career and had good success. It just kind of clicked in his mind, where his posture needed to be. Now, he's a little more weight on the backside and his hands are starting a little bit lower, basically firing from the armpit position."
As for Quintero, a 31-year-old veteran, Barnett isn't trying to reinvent the wheel. He's just trying to work with what Quintero does well, and he's been pleasantly rewarded with a .270 batting average through his first 11 games.
"With Q, the big thing is we've worked on making sure that he gets started on time and using his hands," said Barnett. "We've implemented a couple drills that he does before batting practice, and the key one is the heel-down drill, where he just forces himself to stay back behind the ball and let his hands work. He's tremendously strong, and he's starting to realize that he doesn't need to put his body into his swing. If he puts himself in good position and uses his hands, the ball's taking off."
Shortstop Clint Barmes has been cleared for all baseball activities and will begin a rehab assignment with Triple-A Oklahoma City on Sunday. Barmes is expected to get three at-bats Sunday, four on Monday and four-plus on Tuesday. ... Reliever Wilton Lopez, sidelined for seven days by an irritated elbow, will start throwing on the side Friday. ... Right-hander Alberto Arias will undergo an MRI in Houston to determine the health of his shoulder. Arias missed all of 2010 after undergoing shoulder surgery and hasn't been comfortable this season. ... Injured shortstop Clint Barmes took batting practice in the cage on Thursday and could take early batting practice on the field Saturday at Miller Park in Milwaukee. ... Infielder Jeff Keppinger will get two or three at-bats in an extended spring game Friday.
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.