MIL@HOU: Pena launches a walk-off three-run homer

HOUSTON -- First baseman Carlos Pena was back in the Houston lineup Wednesday after missing three games because of a death in the family, and the return could not have come at a better time for Pena or a floundering Astros offense.

Pena got the nod at designated hitter against Tampa Bay, batting fifth in the Houston lineup. The death was on his wife's side, preventing a stint on the bereavement list, which is limited to immediate family.

"It's a very difficult time in my life right now, a time to heal," he said. "It doesn't happen overnight."

Houston manager Bo Porter gave Pena Sunday and Monday off. Pena did not make it back in time to be in Tuesday night's lineup, but he was available off the bench.

Pena appreciated the organization's understanding throughout the situation, saying it exhibited a commitment to the players as people, not just ballplayers.

"It shows a lot about what we say here," he said. "You talk about family and look around the clubhouse and see lots of signs about 'Family First,' and the Astros proved that in this situation.

"They did everything they could to make sure my family was all right and taken care of. We really appreciate it. It makes it such a pleasure to play for a general manager and a manager who practice what they preach."

As for baseball, the Astros' offense has been punchless of late. The team is hoping that Pena -- who was batting just .221 before but produced seven RBIs in his last seven starts -- will provide a spark in the middle of the lineup.

Porter said Pena's return was mutually beneficial, with the team getting a key lineup cog back and Pena getting a chance to achieve normalcy after a hectic 72 hours.

"We've missed him," Porter said." A lot of times, it helps when they're able to get back into the atmosphere with their coaches and teammates and do what it is they love to do. Carlos was very appreciative. Like I told Carlos, his wife and her family, it was important for him. I'm glad he was able to be there."

Lineups in flux as young Astros find identities

TB@HOU: Barnes sprints over to make a nice grab

HOUSTON -- Don't blink, or you just might miss a different Astros lineup.

Because of a plethora of injuries, young callups, struggling bats and personal issues, recent Houston batting orders and defensive lineups have rarely looked similar from one game to the next, especially in the outfield.

Including Wednesday's game, the Astros have trotted out 16 different batting orders in as many games, with every player hitting from at least two different spots during that stretch.

"Our lineup is going to remain fluid, because we have guys trying to establish themselves as Major League players," manager Bo Porter said. "Looking at different matchups and scenarios, I'm going to move these guys around to try to give us the best opportunity to maximize some runs."

The Astros certainly have not been maximizing runs as of late, scoring nine times in the last six games and failing to plate a run in 34 of their last 36 innings.

Porter said he was not afraid to tinker with the status quo and players are said not to crave consistency, meaning that a different spot in the order would not change their approach.

With recent Triple-A callups in Brett Wallace, Jake Elmore and Marc Krauss to go with Jimmy Paredes, who was recalled from Oklahoma City after Justin Maxwell's injury, consistency has not been an option for Porter.

"When you don't have established players, you do everything you can to just put them in position to be successful," Porter said. "Sometimes, that comes with leaving it set the way it is. Other times you go, 'OK, I think the same way is the best way to go.' All my decisions are based on what's best for the Houston Astros today, with a watchful eye on tomorrow."

The outfield has been the most fluid area defensively, with Maxwell's myriad of ailments and Trevor Crowe's shoulder injury throwing the unit for a loop.

Houston has run out 10 different outfield combinations over the last 16 games. The most common of those combinations started Wednesday, with Brandon Barnes in center, J.D. Martinez in right and Chris Carter in left. That has been the outfield squad for five of the last seven games.

Barnes has been by far the most consistent player of the bunch, with Wednesday's start making 31 of the last 34 games for the 27-year-old rookie in center. He has not just been a body there, either, turning in highlight-reel-worthy plays seemingly every other game.

"We knew coming into the season how good defensively Brandon can be in center field," Porter said. "The only question mark was: Was he going to be able to handle the duties with being an everyday guy, facing righties and lefties? Defensively, he's one of the best center fielders in baseball. He's holding down that fort for us."

Pain keeping Crowe from rehab assignment

MIL@HOU: Crowe exits after injury in the sixth inning

HOUSTON -- The Astros will not see Trevor Crowe's face around the locker room for a while.

The injured right fielder will head to Florida on Thursday to begin rehabbing the AC joint in his right shoulder he sprained when he crashed into the outfield wall against Milwaukee on June 20.

Crowe, who is on the 15-day disabled list, will report to the Astros' Spring Training facility in Kissimmee, but even he is not sure how long he will be down there.

"The [healing] process is coming along a little slowly, but I'm hoping to start throwing and doing baseball activities this week," Crowe said.

The 29-year-old said Wednesday that the shoulder no longer hurt doing everyday activities but still flared up whenever he tried to complete a baseball motion.

Houston manager Bo Porter said Crowe's timetable for returning to games would be based on how quickly the shoulder pain subsides.

"I think Trevor's been recovering well," he said. "We're going to get him down to Florida and let him get his strength back. The progression will be based on his tolerance and comfort with the pain and playing on it."

There is no set date for a rehab assignment, which Crowe said he expected to have after missing so many games.

"I would imagine, just because of the length of time, that I'll have an extensive Minor League assignment," he said. "I'm just going to listen to the trainers, smarter minds than I, and see what I have to do. I want to get back up here as quick as possible."

Crowe was hitting just .200 in 34 games this season before sustaining the injury.