The gum is back on our shoes. The ants have returned to the picnic. The neighborhood brat is breathing down our necks again, screeching in our ears.

We go through this every summer in Central Illinois, yet we're taken by surprise.

That is our fault.

We get consumed by our allegiances, focusing so intently on the baseball feud around us we lose sight of any and all teams outside Chicago and St. Louis.

We develop tunnel vision while reading the National League Central Division standings, checking only to see where the Cubs are in relation to the Cardinals.

Bragging rights and the occasional wager ride on what we find. Nothing else matters.

So we forget the Pirates, the Reds, even the shirttail flapping Brewers.

Worst of all, we forget the Astros.

In our defense, they make it easy. They start each season as if baseball was a new endeavor, as foreign to them as curling or synchronized swimming. They kick ground balls, miss cutoff men, groove fastballs and strand runners.

By June 1, they are 10, 15 games below .500, tumbling down the NL Central basement steps. We don't bother to listen for the thud.

This year, they were 9-13 in April and went to bed on May 30 at 19-29, having lost at Pittsburgh of all places. Even in a mediocre division, they were fading fast.

Now look at them.

Go ahead.

They've left us no choice.

Wednesday night's ninth-inning rally and 4-3 win over the Cardinals left Houston a mere one game behind first-place St. Louis, tied with the Cubs for second place.

In climbing to 49-46, they have gone 13-6 in July and 30-17 since that late-May defeat at Pittsburgh. Another season, another rebirth, and again, we should have seen it coming.

In 2004, Houston was 64-63 and seven games behind the Cubs in late August. Boneheaded Cubs catcher Michael Barrett awoke the sleeping giant on Aug. 27 at Wrigley Field, picking a fight with Astros' pitcher Roy Oswalt.

Houston went on a 28-7 tear the rest of the way, winning the NL wild card while the Cubs missed the playoffs.

In 2005, the Astros were 15-30 in late May and left for dead. They won the wild card on the season's final day, finishing 89-73, and ultimately advanced to the World Series.

Only one other team in baseball history had gone from 15 games below .500 to reach the postseason. No word on how the 1914 Boston Braves did it.

The Astros have been sparked in the past by picking up star pitchers at midseason: Randy Johnson in 1998 and Roger Clemens in 2004.

Johnson went 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA, helping Houston win the division. Clemens was 18-4 with a 2.98 ERA, fueling the second-half surge.

This year, they have simply picked up steam, even with a gimpy Lance Berkman. Leg problems kept the face of the franchise on the bench for two games against the Cardinals, yet the Astros completed a three-game sweep anyway.

Can they keep it up? Don't bet against it.

They have two hot pitchers at the top of the rotation in Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez. They have a proven closer in quirky, hard-throwing Jose Valverde. They have formidable bats in Miguel Tejada, Hunter Pence, Carlos Lee and, when healthy, Berkman.

Beyond all of that, they're the Astros, which seems to count for a lot the deeper you go into any season.

They are gum on our shoes.

Still.

Randy Kindred is at rkindred@pantagraph.com. The Kindred Blog: www.pantagraph.com/blogs

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