Astros’ spiral continues — when will inflection point for change arrive?

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CHICAGO — Twenty-four games into this gruesome season, start the search for an inflection point, an impetus that will inspire some form of meaningful change for a Houston Astros team teetering toward a total disaster.

Losing 7-2 at Wrigley Field on Tuesday turned them into the 159th team since 1901 to drop 17 of its first 24 regular-season games. Only two of those clubs went on to make the playoffs. Four finished with a winning record, including the 2016 Astros who started their season 18-28.

Houston had not been 10 games below .500 since, authoring the closest thing baseball has had to a dynasty in two decades. Tuesday brought the franchise back to a place it presumed was in the past and further into a hole history suggests is almost insurmountable.

“In good moments, we have stretches where we win eight out of 10, and I say we have a great team. I’m going to say the same thing right now: we have great players, guys encouraging each other to go out there and win games,” second baseman Jose Altuve said.

“We still have that team. One game at a time, but I think we can start a good stretch when we win a lot of games and go back to normal.”

Doubting Altuve or the Astros during this golden era is never wise, but rarely has this team resembled the seven clubs that preceded it. This predicament is one most of this core has never needed to combat. Only five teams in franchise history have ever matched this miserable start.

“I sense guys are tired of the situation we are in,” manager Joe Espada said. “The only way to get over that is, we just have to get over the hump. We have to continue to fight. They’re trying. The effort is there. We just have to be better.”

Things can’t continue this way. Houston’s season is in danger of derailing before Memorial Day, a fate no one who follows the Astros could’ve envisioned. A threshold for futility for the front office and ownership group is a mystery — perhaps because it’s never needed to be pondered. A few clutch hits could solve so much. So does the looming return of Framber Valdez, who may start one of Houston’s two games this weekend in Mexico City.

Neither occurrence is a panacea. Clamors for a roster overhaul or a series of call-ups from an infertile farm system aren’t rational. Neither Espada nor general manager Dana Brown have autonomy to cut ties with José Abreu, either.

It’s worth wondering, then, what real change Espada can enact. Five of his starting pitchers reside on the injured list and the depth stowed at Triple A has already been depleted. That Espada’s bosses did little this offseason to address the deficiency looks more misguided with each loss.

A front-loaded 40-man roster and depleted farm system is being exposed for what little substance it contains. Ire directed at Abreu and Alex Bregman is understandable, but Houston’s lineup still leads the American League with 220 hits and a .263 batting average.

Altuve, Jeremy Peña, Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez have started all 24 games. All four boast an OPS higher than .800.

Tucker, Peña and Alvarez have taken the team’s three most plate appearances with runners in scoring position. Bregman took two more on Tuesday, totaling two more rollover ground balls in a month full of them. Bregman is now 5-for-21 this season with runners in scoring position. Alvarez, for reference, is 5-for-23.

Sliding Bregman down in the batting order, if only to relieve some pressure, is perhaps Espada’s easiest fix, but how it could affect Peña, who appears as comfortable as he’s ever been batting fifth or sixth, is a legitimate question.

“We’re getting the at-bats to the guys that we want at the plate,” Espada said. “Those are our guys that have carried us for years. We lean on those guys. Those guys have carried us for years. We need to just come through and they need to get some big hits for us.”

Before leaving five more runners aboard on Tuesday, the Astros awoke atop the American League with 181 stranded baserunners. Only the Pittsburgh Pirates and Los Angeles Dodgers had left more runners on. Both of those offenses still averaged more runs per game than the 4.17 Houston is mustering.

Before Tuesday’s game pitchers had thrown the Astros 478 pitches outside the strike zone. The lineup swung at 142 of them — a 29.7 percent chase rate. Major-league average is 27.6 percent. Of the 57 hits Houston has totaled with a runner in scoring position, 39 are singles.

“I want the guys just to understand that this will pass, but we need to make adjustments and we need to do things different,” Espada said before the game. “Our at-bats need to change, how we approach certain parts of the game, we need to make some adjustments. They’re on board. These guys are fighters. These guys are not going to quit.”

Espada is facing a situation that would stagger most first-year skippers. If it is affecting him, the affable 48-year-old is hiding it well. A smile and upbeat attitude still permeates most of his public interactions. He repeats some of the same cliches managers across the sport will utter in April.

Nothing ailing the Astros is a direct result of Espada’s in-game decision making. Effort is still apparent —  Alvarez beating out the back-end of a 4-6-3 double play ball during Tuesday’s eighth inning is the latest piece of evidence — and the team isn’t making routine fundamental mistakes.

Espada is managing a flawed roster heightened by an injury-ravaged rotation. Eight times, Espada has handed a save situation to someone in baseball’s most expensive bullpen. Six ended in blown saves. No team in the sport has a lower save percentage.

Opponents have scored 26 first-inning runs against the Astros, including five more against J.P. France on Tuesday. Only two teams awoke Tuesday allowing more in the first frame: the Los Angeles Angels and Colorado Rockies.

“You find yourself trying to do too much from the get-go, trying to establish your offense or get some at-bats going, it’s tough when you’re down five, four, three,” Espada said. “It makes it tougher, but we have to find a way. We have eight, nine innings to try to make up for those runs. It’s not ideal, but we have to find a way.”

France got ahead 1-2 against Christopher Morel and Dansby Swanson, but still allowed both to reach base. Morel worked a walk and Swanson struck a sharp single before Mike Tauchman swatted a three-run home run into the left field seats.

Before Tuesday’s game, Houston pitchers had faced 471 hitters in a two-strike count. The staff had a 1.23 WHIP in those situations. Only the Rockies and Chicago White Sox, baseball’s two worst teams, had a higher one.

The Astros have assembled more talent than both of those teams combined. Whether either club is trying to win is a matter of individual interpretation. Grouping the Astros alongside them is almost unfathomable, but numbers are not lying.

“The biggest thing is we just have to play better,” said Bregman, who now sports a .555 OPS after 90 plate appearances. “I got confidence in us doing that. Guys in here have incredible makeup. Guys know what they need to do. (We’re a) hard-working team, just keep playing ball, try and win the next game and I have all the confidence in the world this team can turn it around.”

Communication has been one of Espada’s emphases since his promotion this winter. He spent Monday’s off day and Tuesday morning meeting with various players in one-on-one sessions.

“I want the guys just to understand that this will pass,” Espada said of his message

Four hours later, it did not, inviting wonder where this woebegone team will go from here.

(Photo: Kamil Krzaczynski / USA Today)

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