- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 3, 2014

HOUSTON (AP) - When strangers approach Chris Carter, he’s ready for the question. His reply is usually something like: “No, I don’t play for the Houston Texans.”

Carter is a 6-foot-4, 250-pound designated hitter for the Astros. He is tied for third in the majors with 33 homers, moving past his early season struggles to become a prime candidate for one of the most anonymous home run titles in years.

Aside from Jose Altuve, who leads the majors with 193 hits, Carter has put together the best season of any Astro. Most of the team toils in relative obscurity after years of losing, but Carter is little known even by Houston standards.

He is not part of the Astros’ marketing campaign around the stadium and in the city despite leading the team with 29 homers and 82 RBIs last season in his first year in Houston following a trade from Oakland. And while the team store at Minute Maid Park had jersey T-shirts for rookies George Springer and Jon Singleton within a week of their promotion, Carter’s No. 23 isn’t available.

“Under the radar, that’s fine with me,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I don’t really need all the attention. I’m not really a big guy for that.”

Until recently, any attention Carter received was the unfavorable kind. He took a beating in the media and from fans last year when he finished third in major league history with 212 strikeouts. Hitting .181 through July 1 did nothing to abate that criticism.

The 27-year-old Carter was out of options and couldn’t be sent to Triple-A, but didn’t worry about the possibility the Astros might release him, even at his lowest point.

“I was never mentally defeated but more frustrated with myself because I knew I could do better,” he said. “It weighed on me every day knowing that I wasn’t being productive and being the DH, if you’re not hitting then there’s nothing else you can really do.”

Houston catcher Jason Castro has a long history with Carter. He was so good for Double-A Midland in 2009 (hitting .337 with 24 homers and 101 RBIs) that Castro said trying to call a pitch with him at the plate taught him lessons he still uses today.

Even when Carter was struggling, Castro knew he’d turn things around.

“We’ve seen over the last two months the kind of hitter that he can be,” Castro said. “He’s got the tools that can singlehandedly change a game. He’s a pretty special player to have in the lineup.”

Former manager Bo Porter, who was fired on Monday, lauded Carter for his even demeanor, saying: “He’s always the same guy.” Shy and soft-spoken, Carter hates doing interviews and routinely mumbles four- or five-word answers when surrounded by a gaggle of reporters after a big game.

He’s always flashing his megawatt smile though, making it impossible to tell when things bother him. That doesn’t mean he isn’t keenly aware of what’s been said - and written - about him or that it doesn’t hurt.

“I still remember the people who were bashing me back then, but I’m not going to hold it against them,” he said.

Carter’s turnaround has many of the same people who called for him to be benched or released suddenly praising him. His teammates are having fun with the rebound, with several of them suggesting he should change his walk-up song to the 2005 hit “Back Then” by Houston rapper Mike Jones.

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