Although the 2012 Major League baseball season is a tad more than one-fifth complete, our Houston Astros’ record isn’t much different today than it was at this time last season.

The names on the backs of their uniforms have changed tremendously and the average age of the players is much younger than last season. The payroll is much lower than it was at this time last year when Hunter Pence and Michael Bourne were still earning their paychecks in the Bayou City.

The ownership of the franchise has changed hands from Drayton McLane, Jr. to Jim Crane. In layman’s terms, the Houston Astros are now owned by someone who has played the game and is very knowledgeable about most of the intricacies of baseball and not a wholesale grocer.

About the only thing constant from last year is Astros’ manager Brad Mills, who has the dubious information etched on his resume that he was the skipper of the team with the worst record (56-106) in major league baseball in 2011 and the lousiest record in the franchise’s history.

The blame can’t be put squarely on Mills’ shoulders because he could only use the 25 players that general manager Ed Wade placed on the active roster. And Wade was under the gun because McLane was trying to dump his high salaried players and lower the payroll as much as possible to make the deal more attractive to Crane and his investors.

Well, McLane is out of the picture this year and Wade was fired by Crane and replaced by Jeff Luhnow, who was responsible for much of the success enjoyed by the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals last season.

Several of the players obtained in last year’s trades to lower the payroll are on the Astros’ present 25-man roster. Others are “seasoning” in Houston’s minor league farm system.

One of the most successful trades involved shipping closer Mark Melancon to the Boston Red Sox for switch-hitting infielder Jed Lowrie, who can play all four infield positions. He prefers shortstop, but the Red Sox used him mostly at second base. Melancon has already been hit hard enough for the Bosox to option him to the minors.

Going into the Pittsburgh series Lowrie was batting around .300 and was ranked fourth among major league shortstops in slugging and fifth in on-base percentage. But the knock against the 28-year-old first-round draft choice of Boston in 2005, was that he was injury-prone.

Although Lowrie started the season on the disabled list with a sprained thumb he suffered diving back into base, most of his injuries were freakish in nature. Now that he’s healthy, Lowrie and has been the 18th most productive position player in the major leagues and third among shortstops so far this season.

The Red Sox questioned his defensive ability at shortstop. Last Wednesday he committed two errors, which were his only ones so far this season. Lowrie ranks as the 11th most valuable defensive player in the majors and tops among shortstops.

Lowrie and second baseman Jose Altuve can make a case for being the best double-play combination not only in the National League, but in the entire major leagues. Altuve leads all major league second basemen in batting (.323) and ranked third in on-base-plus slugging (.869).

The Astros are ranked fourth in the National League averaging 4.45 runs per game, which is significantly higher than the 3.80 posted last season.

So with the offense being productive and the defense and relief pitching being solid, it’s hard to understand why Mills rests .300 hitters like Altuve and third baseman Chris Johnson when the team is battling like crazy to play .500 ball.

Mills really got my goat Sunday when starting pitcher Wandy Rodriguez was breezing along with a 2-1 lead, retiring 21 of 22 batters including the last 14 batters in a row and the skipper pulled him for his ace closer Brett Myers.

It’s not like Wandy is some fuzzy-faced rookie who needs his pitch count closely monitored. He’s their ace for crying out loud, who only threw 94 pitches in eight innings and was dying to finish the game.

But Mills’ book, “ Managing for Dummies” said to use the closer, so he did and as fate would have it, Myers blew his first save opportunity of the season.

The score remained tied at 2-2 until the bottom of the 12th inning. Lefty Wesley Wright had retired the last batter in the 11th inning and the first two hitters in the bottom of the 12th when Mills popped another of his huge supply of stupid pills and yanked Wright in favor of right-hander Fernando Rodriguez because the next hitter batted from the right side.

Three pitches later the game was over as Clint Barmes — a .153 hitter — blooped the first pitch he saw for a double and waltzed home two pitches later on a clean single by Josh Harrison, who raised his batting average to a whopping .188 with the game-winning hit.

This Korner believes that Mills got so accustomed to losing last year that he is searching high and low for new ways to change a potential victory into a loss—and he’s finding success. I don’t think new owner Jim Crane will tolerate too many more of Mills’ “by the book boo-boos” because he is too knowledgeable about baseball.

Don’t be surprised if Crane hands Mills his walking papers in the not too distant future, because Mills is the weakest link on a team that has 25 players who put out 100 per cent effort for nine innings of every game.

There’s a reason why the Houston Astros are 0-4 in extra inning games this year. These are the games in which good managers make the right decisions to win and the others like Brad Mills end up 0-4.

KWICKIES…Although Andy Pettitte claims that he was very comfortable returning to the New York Yankees’ starting pitching rotation, it appears he has “mis-remembered” how to win at Yankee Stadium as he was cuffed for a pair of two-run home runs by the punchless Seattle Mariners, who made the southpaw’s debut after a year’s layoff one he really will remember as the Bronx Bombers lost 6-2. After Pettitte told a Federal grand jury he remembered teammate Roger Clemens taking HGH growth hormones, Clemens accused him of “mis-remembering” the incident.

The second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown—the Preakness– is set to run Saturday at Pimlico in Baltimore. I still like Bodemeister in this classic race but wouldn’t be unhappy if I’ll Have Another can come up with another winning performance.

“A person in a position to really know” claims in Sunday’s Houston Chronicle that football star Junior Seau committed suicide because he was flat broke after being out of the NFL for only three seasons. The article also pointed out that during his long career Seau must have banked paychecks totaling more than $75 million.

Steve Blass, the star pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates when they won the 1971 World Series, is probably only one of a handful of golfing enthusiasts who recorded two holes-in-one during a single 18-hole round of golf.

The first round of the NBA playoffs finally was completed Sunday when the Los Angeles Clippers, the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference, upset the fourth-seeded Grizzlies 82-72 in Game 7 at Memphis. The Conference Semifinals, which already are under way has No. 8 Philadelphia playing No. 4 Boston and No. 2 Miami against No. 3 Indiana in the Eastern Conference while the No. 5 Clippers meet the No. 1-seeded San Antonio Spurs and No. 2 Oklahoma City clash with the No. 3 Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference. This Korner would like to see the Celtics meet San Antonio in the championship round, but it will be difficult keeping home-town pal Pat Riley’s Miami Heat out of the final picture.

The Lamar Cardinal baseball team finally put on their hitting shoes Sunday at Vincent-Beck Field in Beaumont and rapped out 17 hits to breeze past Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 9-1 to salvage the last game of a three-game series. The win gave the Redbirds a 12-18 record in the Southland Conference and just a glimmer of hope of making the SLC Tournament next week and 20-28 overall. The Cards travel to meet UT- San Antonio in the SLC’s final series of the season. It’s not a must-win situation but a must-sweep objective facing the Big Red.

JUST BETWEEN US…A tip of the Korner Kap to the Little Cypress-Mauriceville Bears baseball team for a fine season that ended up with a playoff loss to powerhouse Brenham. And good luck to the LCM Lady Bears in the regional semifinal round against Richmond Foster after winning tough series against Brenham and Barbers Hill. The two teams will play a best of three series at Goose Creek Memorial beginning at 7 p.m. tomorrow. Game two will start at 6 p.m. Friday and game three, if necessary, will be played on Saturday at 1 p.m. I also hope the pitching-rich Bridge City Cardinals have good luck tomorrow (Thurs.) against Huffman. This game also will be played at Goose Creek Memorial at 7 p.m.