ASTROS TAKE A STAND

BY: Richard W. Humphrey

Houston took two of three from the Rangers this weekend in a series that could have knocked the Astros almost completely out of the West Division race. Instead, they cut the Rangers’ lead to 2.5 games, three in the loss column. The Rangers’ win on Friday night reduced the magic number to five, but it stayed at five as the Astros won Saturday and Sunday. Meanwhile, the Angels took three from Seattle this weekend to make it a three team race. They are tied with Houston in the loss column, and trail Texas by three games in the standings.

Houston has six games remaining – all on the road – with three in Seattle and three in Phoenix against the Diamondbacks. Los Angeles and Texas have seven games remaining including a four-game set against each other to conclude the season next weekend in Arlington, a series that could well decide the division champion. The Angels start the week by hosting Oakland for three games, while the Rangers are at home against Detroit.

The Astros have not played well on the road this year, but in Seattle, they will not face the Mariners’ top two starters Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. Seattle’s rookie sensation Taijuan Walker has been shut down for the season. Despite their road woes, the Astros are in position to have a good week. The Angels are also hot having won five games in a row, and eight of their last 10. Their Monday through Wednesday opponent – Oakland – has won just three of their last 10 games, so the Angels have a good chance of arriving in Arlington Thursday in the thick of the pennant race.

The bottom line is that the race to win the American League West is far from over.

In the Wild Card race, New York, which is four games behind Toronto in the East, has all but wrapped up the first Wild Card spot and thus is the probable host of the Wild Card play-in game. Houston currently holds the second Wild Card position, one-half game ahead of the Angels and 1.5 games ahead of Minnesota.

Texas got iffy starting pitching this weekend. They won game one of the series 6-2. The Rangers built a six run lead by scoring one in the first, two in the second, and three in the fourth. Prince Fielder drove in the first and sixth runs; and in between, Sin-Shoo Choo hit a home run with a runner aboard. The Astros answered with two runs in the fourth inning and threatened again in the fifth to drive Ranger starter Yovani Gallardo to the showers before he could complete five innings to qualify for the win.

Ross Ohlendorf (3-0) was awarded the win in relief. Houston’s Scott Kazmir was knocked out in the fourth inning to take the loss. He’s 7-10.

On Saturday, the Astros out-slugged the Rangers. They hit six home runs, one shy of the club record, including three off Ranger starter Derek Holland. Holland was staked to leads of 3-0 and 4-1, but couldn’t hold them. He exited in a tie game after five innings. Alex “Chi Chi” Gonzalez followed Holland and surrendered a home run to Chris Carter, a monstrous shot of almost 450 feet to center field. Texas never caught up, so Gonzalez took the loss. He’s 4-6.

Houston starting pitcher Collin McHugh gave up four runs in 6-2/3rds innings to win his 18th game of the year against seven losses. Will Harris, the last of five relievers that followed McHugh retired the last batter of the game to earn the save, his second, as the Rangers’ comeback fell short. 9-7 was the final score.

On Sunday, Dallas Keuchel continued his record breaking season. He won his 19th game by allowing a run on two hits over seven innings. He’s a perfect 15-0 at home. He struck out 10 Rangers to run his season strikeout total to 213, a new Astros record for a left-hander. Martin Perez was shaky early as he allowed a pair of second inning runs. Both runs were unearned and both scored after the first two batters were retired. Perez righted the ship to complete six innings. It was the best starting pitching performance of the weekend for the Rangers, but he took the loss to fall to 3-6. Houston’s Luke Gregorson pitched a perfect ninth inning to earn his 29th save.

The pitching matchups for the three contenders on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are Texas – Colby Lewis (17-8) vs. Justin Verlander (4-8), Cole Hamels (5-1 and 11-8) vs Daniel Norris (1-1), and Yovani Gallardo (12-11) vs Matt Boyd (1-3); Houston – Lance McCullers, Jr. (5-7) vs. Roenis Elias (5-8), Mike Fiers (7-10) vs. Vidal Nuno (1-5) and Scott Kazmir (7-10) vs. TBA; Los Angeles – Hector Santiago (9-9) vs. Felix Dubront (3-3), Nick Tropeano (2-2) vs. Chris Bassitt (1-7), and Garrett Richards (15-11) vs. TBA.

NOTABLE:

* The six home runs that Ranger pitchers allowed on Saturday were one shy of the club record. It was the sixth time in club history that the Rangers have allowed six in a game, the first in nine years. The most home runs allowed in a game this season is eight, done twice by Philadelphia.

* The Rangers finished with a 13-6 record against the Astros this year.

* The Rangers are 42-25 (.627 winning percentage) since the All-Star break. They are tied with St. Louis for the second best record since the break behind Toronto’s 45-19 (.703).

* The Astros duo of Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh have combined for 37 wins, the most by any pair of teammates on any team in the Majors. With two home runs on Saturday, Houston shortstop Carlos Correa set a club record for home runs by a shortstop (21 to Dickie Thon’s 19) and tied Lance Berkman for the most home runs by an Astros’ rookie.

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