Since purchasing the Houston Astros two summers ago, new owner Jim Crane realizes that right now he is among the least popular sports figures around the city of Houston.

“People like to win—and certainly I like to win—and we’re not comfortable where we’re at,” Crane said last week in a radio interview by ESPN.

“Hopefully, people will turn around and come in our direction, but that’s gonna come when we start winning more ballgames than we’re losing,” Crane continued. “We know that, and that’s what we’re working for.

“We seem to go in streaks,” Crane pointed out. “When the pitching is good, we can’t score any runs, and then it goes the other way. But the team is playing competitive baseball. We have been in every game for quite a while and had a couple of winning streaks (six straight wins before the last road trip and now four in a row through Sunday) so hopefully we’ll turn it around quickly.”

One of the first positive moves the former college pitcher did was to get rid of team president George Postolos and quickly replaced him with Reid Ryan, oldest son of Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, a move loudly applauded in baseball circles.

Other changes Crane has made since his group took over the Astros were not so obvious, like the team moving its spring training headquarters from Kissimmee to West Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. within three years and to have their Class AAA franchise re-located from Oklahoma City to The Woodlands.

And more important, to field a team that goes to spring training dreaming big, with a competitive payroll that is at least among the top 10 in major league baseball, Crane promises.

“I think you’ll see the payroll move up to the $100 million range in the next three or four years, Crane predicted. “You’ll see it move up significantly. It won’t go any lower, I can tell you that.”

But in reality, Crane instead has a team that probably won’t be very good for at least a couple of years, 60 per cent of the fans have no television to watch the team’s games and the Astros’ attendance is next-to-last in the American League.

So when your team bottoms out, fortunately there is only one way to go and that is up. And this year’s edition of the Houston Astros appears to be moving in the right direction.

The Astros are 16-14 in the last 30 games through Sunday’s 5-4 win over the Chicago White Sox, and manager Bo Porter has to take some of the credit for their recent success. “I give these guys (players), staff and this entire organization credit,” Porter said.

“Everybody stayed positive and comes to the ball park each and every day ready to fight and put out maximum effort,” Porter continued. He singled out catcher/designated hitter Jason Castro as rivaling second baseman Jose Altuve as the Astros’ most All-Star-worthy athletes.

“Jason has found his groove,” said Porter, who credits the Astros’ move to the American League with allowing Castro to stay fresh by balancing the demands of catching while occasionally serving as the DH. “He understands exactly what he is doing, he’s healthy and his legs are underneath him, and its allowing him to put together an All-Star-type season.”

Another reason the Astros are getting better is that during the club’s 16-14 run, the starting pitchers have gone 11-8 with a 3.03 ERA. The pitchers regularly credit their coach Doug Brocail, Castro and reserve catcher Carlos Corporan with guiding their turnaround.

And last, but not least, many of the young prospects the Astros picked up when they traded off most of their high-dollar veterans are really blossoming at their Class AA Corpus Christi club.

Hooks manager Keith Bodie, who was the 2012 Texas League Manager of the Year, said his 2013 squad is the best collective unit he has been around in about five years and he is in his sixth year in the Astros’ farm system.

The talent-laden 2013 Hooks are playing at a .625 winning percentage, which is the best among any of the Astros’ four full-season minor league affiliates and some of the best baseball in the entire minor leagues.

The Hooks’ trio of right-handed starting pitchers—David Martinez (9-0), Jake Buchanan (7-0) and Mike Foltynewicz (3-0)—are a combined 19-0 with 150 strikeouts. Through last week the team had won 15-of-21 contests and had six players named to the Texas League All-Star team.

“Help is coming, Houston,” bubbled Hooks’ hitting coach Tim Garland. “We’ve got pitchers that are throwing no-hitters down here and hitters that are hitting the ball 500 feet and a defense that is phenomenal. Just hold on, Houston, help is on the way. I can’t stress that enough!”

KWICKIES…Phil Mickelson finished second Sunday in  the U.S. Open for the sixth time, but unlike many previous tourneys, he didn’t crash and burn in the final round. The popular lefty remained in contention throughout the entire tournament, and did have his worst round Sunday when he shot a four-over-par 74, but he kept rallying back after a bad hole and merely ran out of holes to finish two strokes behind eventual winner Justin Rose, who won with a one-over-par 281. Pre-tourney favorite Tiger Woods never was in contention and finished in the middle of the pack with a 13-over 293. Tiger’s putter went sour for him as he used 126 putts over the 72 holes.

One of the U.S. Open highlights involved former Lamar University golfer Shawn Stefani’s hole-in-one on the 229-yard No. 17 Par 3 on Sunday. What makes it such a feat is that the 31-year-old Baytown native is the first golfer to make a hole-in-one at any of the five U. S. Open tournaments hosted by Merion Golf Club just outside of Philadelphia. He used a four-iron and it was only the second ace in his life. The first one was recorded at Goose Creek Country Club in Baytown when he was 13 years old.

And while on the subject on holes-in-one and closer to home, Dave McClenan used a Hybrid 2-wood to ace the196-yard Par 3 No. 6 hole at Sunset Grove Country Club last Thursday. The feat earned Dave a check for $200 for being an active member of the Men’s Golf Association.

Still on the topic of golf, Orange native Scott Sterling fired a four-under-par 67 on Sunday’s final round of the Tour Air Capital Classic at Wichita, Kan. to finish with 278,  tied for 28th  place. Sterling collected a check for $4,274 while the tournament winner Scott Parel earned $117,000 for his winning score of 18-under par 266.

Baylor All-American basketball player Brittney Griner seems to fit right in with the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA as she scored 16 points Sunday to help her team beat Tulsa Shock 108-103 in overtime. Griner hit six-of-10 shots and was 4-for-4 at the free-throw line.

I hope County Record outdoors writer Capt. Dickie Colburn doesn’t catch too much heat for anything I may have written over the past four weeks because HIS byline has been attached to MY column all four times. Somebody putting the paper together almost got it right five weeks ago when they had my byline as an outdoors writer for MY column. I just hope nobody putting this newspaper together gets bitten by their SEEING EYE DOG!!!

JUST BETWEEN US…If the San Antonio Spurs can win just one game in Miami this week they will snatch the NBA World Championship trophy from the Heat players, who have been the NBA kingpins for a year. The Spurs went ahead in the best-of-seven series 3-2 after shooting 60 per cent from the field Sunday night in San Antonio to win 114-104. The two teams played last night (Tues.) in Miami as the Heat tried to even the series, setting the stage for Game 7 Thursday night in Miami.