When the Houston Astros entered the 2011 regular season, the starting rotation of Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, J.A. Happ, Bud Norris and Nelson Figueroa arguably represented the team's biggest strength on paper.
However, with the exception of Myers, the rotation got off to a slow start, which contributed to the Astros' 1-7 record right off the bat.
Myers ranks 10th in the National League with a 2.39 ERA and 26 1/3 innings pitched, but now, it appears that Rodriguez and Norris have turned a corner.
Rodriguez earned his first win of the 2011 campaign Tuesday night at New York, allowing an earned run on three hits with three walks and a season-high seven strikeouts over seven innings.
He consistently moved the ball up and down in the strike zone, which enabled him to utilize his curveball to establish a solid rhythm.
Norris was able to follow Rodriguez's strong performance Wednesday, as the 26-year-old right-hander surrendered three earned runs on 10 hits with one walk and six strikeouts over six innings to earn the no-decision and lower his ERA down to 4.91 over four starts.
"Bud did a really good job," Astros manager Brad Mills said. "He was getting behind some guys and got into trouble in the first inning, but was able to get out of it. He left a couple of runners on in the third inning, as well. He was getting behind in the count, but was able to come back and get himself back in the count. I know he gave up 10 hits and struck out six, but at the same time, he still made some pitches to stop innings from continuing to build."
Figueroa took a positive step forward in his last outing Sunday in Houston, allowing three runs (two earned) on six hits with two walks and five strikeouts over 6 2/3 innings to earn a no-decision.
He's scheduled to take the mound for Houston's three-game weekend opener Friday night against 2010 NL All-Star right-hander Yovani Gallardo and the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park.
Now, it's up to Happ, who took the loss last Friday against San Diego at home, to keep the momentum of the starting pitching going, as the Astros attempt to sweep the Mets Thursday night at Citi Field.
Happ has tossed at least seven innings in his previous two outings, but the 28-year-old left-hander is just 1-2 with a 5.79 ERA over three starts.
"It's not just Wandy, but with Brett [Myers], Bud [Norris] and all the guys, we're good, but we have to get things rolling," Mills said. "When you see Brett throwing the ball like he has this year, and now Wandy's starting to get going, if Bud sees that, he wants to do it, too.
"It has the kind of effect that snowballs."
Although the Astros' offense was a severe liability last season, it's already shown remarkable improvement over the first 18 games in 2011.
They've done their part to keep the starting pitching in line for victories, ranking sixth in the National League in runs scored (79), fourth in hits (162), seventh in doubles (34), first in triples (five), eighth in RBI (73), and seventh in batting average (.264).
Not bad for a team that ranked last in nearly every NL offensive category in 2010.
Also, the Astros continue to see improvement from the bullpen, especially with southpaw Fernando Abad and right-hander Mark Melancon stepping up while setup man Wilton Lopez recovers on the 15-day disabled list from nerve irritation in his right elbow.
Closer Brandon Lyon recorded his fourth save Wednesday, and has yet to allow a run since the infamous Opening Day meltdown at Philadelphia, thus lowering his ERA from 81.00 to 4.25 in seven appearances.
"The guys out of the bullpen are really starting to throw the ball well," Mills said. "They're also making good defensive plays to get us out of innings."
Although the Astros (7-11) find themselves in last place in the NL Central, they're only two games behind the first-place Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals -- all of whom have posted a 9-9 record heading into Thursday's action.
The Astros won back-to-back games for the first time in 2011 with a 4-3 victory over New York Wednesday night to secure its first series win of the season.
With Houston starting to receive effective balance across the board from the offense, starting pitching, bullpen and defense, they have the ability to make the NL Central more interesting moving forward.