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09/09/10 6:36 PM ET

Astros riding familiar late-season surge

Even with a new cast of characters, the Astros have continued their trend of late-season surges. Houston made one of the most dramatic comebacks in Major League history in 2004, then followed it up by rallying from deficits in '05 and '06. Thing is, most of the roster has turned over since then.

The roster turnover was accelerated this year, when the Astros got off to a rough start and traded two pillars of their club in the course of two days, pitcher Roy Oswalt and first baseman Lance Berkman. But lo and behold, the Astros are once again picking up steam. Houston is 23-14 since trading Berkman on July 31, including a 3-2 win over the Dodgers on Thursday in the opener of a four-game series.

The Astros turn to one of their newest engines on Friday, left-hander J.A. Happ, in the second game of the series. Since moving to Houston from Philadelphia in the Oswalt trade, Happ has made eight starts, going 5-2 with a 3.21 ERA. Happ was stellar in his last start, when he allowed two runs over seven innings while fanning seven. He said he's finally at full strength after suffering through a flexor tendon injury in his pitching elbow earlier this season while with the Phils.

"It's probably taken me longer to bounce back [from the injury] than I anticipated," Happ said. "When it happened back in April, I thought it was going to be just a few starts. Instead, it took a couple of months. Not being on the mound that long was a bigger deal than I expected. I'm just now beginning to feel like myself again."

Happ will be opposed by Dodgers righty Hiroki Kuroda, who ran into bad luck in his last appearance. Kuroda threw eight innings against the Giants, allowing six hits and three runs, but he took the loss, 3-0.

Kuroda said that he hasn't lost confidence, despite the Dodgers' struggles. He's been helped, he said, by lessons he learned while pitching in Japan. Kuroda's clubs in Japan missed the playoffs in 11 of his seasons.

"I went through this so many times, more than any other pitcher in Japan or in the States," he said. "I've pitched in difficult situations like we're going through now. But when you go through frustrating experiences like this, something good will come out of it. I always believe in that. Right now, it's tough, but it will end in a positive outcome."

Dodgers: Young players maturing
The Dodgers have a core of young players that they believe will carry them through 2011, comprised chiefly of center fielder Matt Kemp, first baseman James Loney and right fielder Andre Ethier. But manager Joe Torre wants the group to work on its mental focus in preparation for next season.

"These guys are very talented," he said. "They are going to be the core of this ballclub, and we've got to figure out what happened this year and how to get it better -- the inconsistency."

Torre said specifically that he wants his young hitters to focus on making the most out of their at-bats.

"When we left Spring Training, I had no doubt we were going to score runs," said Torre. "Scoring runs wasn't going to be an issue. Right now, it's nonexistent. Granted, we lost Manny [Ramirez]."

The Dodgers manager, who is in the final year of his contract, said that it's dangerous for a club to rely on young players, given their swings in performance. He mentioned as an example left-hander Clayton Kershaw, who has excellent numbers but is prone to the occasional rotten start.

"Every time he walks three guys in the first inning or throws 30 pitches in the first inning, you have to remind yourself he's 23 years old," Torre said. "He's been terrific. He's not afraid of responsibility, but he's unpredictable until you get some seasons under your belt."

Astros: Ausmus back to Astros?
Catcher Brad Ausmus became a fan favorite during his 10 seasons in Houston for his heady play and ability to handle a pitching staff. He returned to Houston this week for the final time as a player, now as the Dodgers' backup catcher. Ausmus, 41, has previously stated that he'd like to retire at season's end.

Ausmus said that when his career is over, he'd be open to returning to the Astros in a front-office capacity.

"I certainly would consider it," said Ausmus, who attended Dartmouth College while playing in the Yankees' farm system. "I played here for 10 years, and I would say my fondest memories in baseball happened in an Astros uniform."

It hasn't been the most productive season for Ausmus. At .218, he's hitting nearly 40 points below his career average. He visited the Houston clubhouse on Thursday, though several of the players he played with have moved on.

"There's a handful left, but most of the core guys that were here through the playoff runs [in 2004 and 2005] are gone," he said. "When it's all over and I look back on my career, I'll consider myself an Astro. But now I'm with the Dodgers and I'm trying to beat the Astros."

Worth noting
Following the series against the Astros, the remainder of the Dodgers' schedule is within their division. ... The Astros are 22-9 at Minute Maid Park since June 23. ... Astros third baseman Chris Johnson, who homered on Thursday, is hitting .340 (64-for-188) since the All-Star break with eight homers. ... Astros outfielder Carlos Lee needs three runs to reach 1,000 in his career.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.