This year’s edition of the Houston Astros leaves many long-time followers like myself scratching our noggins, trying to figure out whether the team really is bad enough to become the franchise’s first 100-game loser, or is merely yo-yoing good weeks with bad ones.

With the season into its third month, generally some kind of pattern gets established as to what kind of team the Astros really have this year.

The Astros got off to their usual horrid start and plunged into the cellar very early in the season. And except for just a few days, they have become pretty permanent residents of last place in the National League Central Division’s standings.

The sale of the team by Drayton McLane, Jr. has played a significant role in the demise of the Astros, simply from the standpoint that the annual payroll was pared from $115 million to $82 million to make the deal more attractive to prospective buyer Jim Crane.

Not only has the annual payroll taken a tumble, but the average age of the current roster also has dropped from 32.88 years in 2009 to 28.10 years today.

But with several bargain-basement buys on the 25-man roster, the losses began to pile up early and often. Add the injury bug putting several key players on the disabled list and the wins simply became more difficult to attain.

Carlos Lee dove for a ball and bruised some ribs, putting him on the shelf for a week. The Astros’ five- million –dollar closer Brandon Lyon tried pitching with a partially-torn rotator cuff and it cost the team four blown saves in one week before someone realized he was hurt and placed him on the disabled list.

Jason Bourgeois filled in nicely in left field for Lee and started tearing the cover off the ball. He hiked his batting average all the way up to .407 and then pulled an oblique muscle on his side and was on the disabled list for a month.

Shortstop Clint Barmes, who the Astros got in a trade, started the season on the D/L, but since being activated last month has provided solid defense and the power punch the team was looking for when they signed him during the winter.

But the second base situation that the Astros had hoped would be filled by winter acquisition Bill Hall didn’t work out nearly as well. This Korner always thought Hall was an undisciplined hitter and last Friday General Manager Ed Wade must have agreed and handed the veteran his release. Hall only hit .224 with two home runs and 55 strikeouts in 147 at-bats.

Luckily, last year’s starter Jeff Keppinger finally came off the D/L and was activated last week. He picked up where he left off last year batting around the .300 mark and Hall became expendable quickly and was given his walking papers.

Within a two-day period, the Astros’ Latino battery of lefty-ace Wandy Rodriguez and catcher Humberto Quintero both went on the disabled list. Wandy complained of soreness in his left elbow and an MRI confirmed an inflammation while Quintero was bowled over on a force-play at home and suffered a high ankle sprain.

Rodriguez was replaced by 20-year old Jordan Lyles, who looked great in his debut against the Chicago Cubbies but very mediocre Sunday at San Diego.

The end result has been an almost daily shuttle of minor leaguers replacing low-salaried major leaguers in Houston and then returning to the minors when somebody comes off the disabled list.

Surprisingly, the Astros have been playing decent baseball during all the turmoil, but doing it in spurts. Last week they won four games in a row for the first time this season and on the road to boot, but then they lost three in a row at San Diego, still resulting in a 4-3 road trip.

But those three losses to the Padres put their record for 60 games at 23-37, once again putting the Astros on pace to lose 100 games this season.

Unlike last season when a good pitching staff was hampered by a poor offense, all parties are below average so far in 2011. The team is averaging less than four runs per game which ranks ninth in the NL, starting pitchers’ ERA is 14th, relievers’ ERA is 15th and the fielding is dead last at 16th by committing an average of 0.82 errors per game.

The Astros are 12-8 (.600) when entering the eighth inning with a lead while the rest of the National League is a combined 274-37 (.881). Houston has the worst save opportunity conversion in the entire major leagues with 38.9 per cent (7 of 18).

The team returned to Houston for a 10-game home stand after Sunday’s 7-2 loss at San Diego, was off Monday and then began a three-game series with the first-place St. Louis Cardinals Tuesday, four games with Atlanta and three with the Pittsburgh Pirates. They are slated to play 16 games in 16 days.

This week’s major league draft won’t help the Astros for a couple of years down the road, but if Major League Baseball approves the sale of the team BEFORE the trading deadline on July 31, perhaps the new regime can give the team some immediate assistance.

KWICKIES…The Rice Owls got bounced from the NCAA Regionals by California 6-3 after committing a season-high five errors in that loss. The Owls (42-21) came into the tourney as the No. 8 national seed after winning the Conference USA regular-season and tournament championships.

Steve Stricker, who had never finished in the top 10 at the PGA Tour Memorial in 11 tries, found the right stuff to win this year’s event at Muirfield Village by one stroke over Matt Kuchar and Brandt Jobe, pocketing a winner’s check for $1,116,000 with rounds of 68-67-69-68—272.

And while on the subject of pro golf, Orange’s Scott Sterling finished tied for 11th place in last weekend’s Melwood Prince George’s County Open on the Nationwide Tour with rounds of 69-69-69-66—273. He earned $12,720 for his effort.

It’s good to see that former Lamar University head basketball coach Steve Roccaforte has landed on his feet and has been hired as an assistant coach at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Lamar is probably happy too, because it was responsible for the one year remaining on his $136,500 annual contract when he was fired in mid-March if another school didn’t hire him for the 2011-12 season.

If and when the NFL ends its current lockout of the players, the league should gain another criminal as former New York Giants’ wide receiver Plaxico Burress was released Monday from New York’s Oneida Correctional Facility. Burress spent 20 months in prison for illegally carrying and firing a gun at a Manhattan nightclub. His agent Drew Rosenhaus sent an e-mail to the Associated Press stating that his client “will be a top free agent” and “will be signed shortly after the lockout ends.”

JUST BETWEEN US…If the first three games are any indication of things to come in the NBA Championship Finals, it should be an exciting finish. We still like the Miami Heat, only because their president Pat Riley is a long-time hometown friend.