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Ronel Blanco has been a bright spot in a shaky start for the Houston Astros

Ronel Blanco's brilliant start to the season is about the only thing going right for the Houston Astros.

Blanco threw 2024's first no-hitter Monday night against Toronto, then made it to the sixth against Texas on Sunday before allowing a hit. The problem for the Astros is what's happened on days Blanco didn't pitch. They have only one victory aside from his two starts.

After seven straight AL Championship Series appearances, Houston is considered a World Series contender again this year. And the Astros' record of 3-7 isn't worth panicking about. They've had a tough schedule, facing the Yankees, Blue Jays and Rangers, and their run differential of minus-4 isn't awful.

Houston has been without Justin Verlander, currently on a rehab assignment working his way back from shoulder issues. Injuries to Verlander and José Urquidy helped Blanco get a spot in the rotation, and he's certainly made a positive contribution so far. Christian Javier has also made two scoreless starts, and Framber Valdez has been solid.

The bullpen's been a different story. Houston relievers are 0-5 with 6.89 ERA, with newcomer Josh Hader taking a couple of the losses.

CENTRAL SURPRISES

It's easy to overlook the AL and NL Central, but Pittsburgh is tied for the best record in baseball at 8-2. The Pirates started 20-8 last year, then quickly sank back under .500 and finished 10 games under. So some skepticism is warranted, and the schedule was favorable early with series against Miami and Washington.

But then Pittsburgh took two of three from Baltimore, with both wins coming in walk-off fashion. Rookie Jared Jones has struck out 17 in 11 2/3 innings for the Pirates in two starts.

Just behind the Pirates at 6-2 are the Milwaukee Brewers, whose starters are 3-1 with a 2.72 ERA after the team traded Corbin Burnes in the offseason.

In the AL Central, Cleveland (7-2) is averaging nearly six runs a game, while Kansas City (6-4) has allowed only 25 in 10 games. Detroit (6-3) is right there near the top of the division as well.

TRIVIA TIME

When is the last time the Pirates won a postseason series?

LINE OF THE WEEK

Blanco's no-hitter was the earliest in major league history by date, beating the previous record of April 4 by three days. He struck out seven and walked two in his eighth career start.

It's the lone complete game in the big leagues so far this season.

COMEBACK OF THE WEEK

Spencer Strider's troublesome elbow is a big concern for the Atlanta Braves, but on the field so far, they're the only team above .500 in the NL East. They also have the best run differential in the National League.

On Saturday, Atlanta allowed six runs in the top of the first inning, and when Arizona took an 8-2 lead in the fifth, the Braves had just a 2.2% chance to win according to Baseball Savant.

Atlanta cut the lead in half quickly on Marcell Ozuna's three-run homer in the bottom of the fifth. Then the Braves scored twice in the seventh and twice in the eighth to win 9-8.

TRIVIA ANSWER

Pittsburgh beat Baltimore in seven games in the 1979 World Series, the Pirates' second championship of the decade. Since then, they've lost in the NL Championship Series in 1990, 1991 and 1992 and in the Division Series in 2013. They did win a one-game wild card round in 2013.

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AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/MLB