With Mariners in town, Astros move closer to division title (Sep 16, 2017)

HOUSTON — The Astros have spent most of this season focusing on the daily grind, even after their torrid opening two months yielded a double-digit lead in the American League West.

But on Friday, with the inevitable in clear view, the Astros (89-58) began to consider and embrace the fruits of their labor. For the first time since 2001 when they won the National League Central, the Astros will claim a division title. And, as an added benefit, they will do so before their supporters at Minute Maid Park, with the increasing likelihood that the celebration will touch off this weekend following their 5-2 victory over the Seattle Mariners on Friday night.

“It’s trending towards looking like it’s going to be a fun homestand,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “In front of our fans, with our families, with everything that can happen it’s an opportunity that you set out for in the beginning of spring training. If we could draw it up perfectly we’d have done it last homestand, but the chance to close out a division is hard.

“It’s hard doing what we’re doing. We have an opportunity here. We’ve got games in front of us to focus on getting as many wins. We win three times no one can do anything to us.”

Left-hander Dallas Keuchel (12-4, 3.03 ERA) will start on Saturday for the Astros. It will mark his 21st start of the season and third against the Mariners, against whom Keuchel is 2-0 with a 1.23 ERA this season and 7-5 with a 2.78 ERA in 14 career appearances (including 13 starts).

Right-hander Erasmo Ramirez (5-5, 4.25 ERA) will start the middle game of the series for the Mariners. He will make his ninth career appearance against Houston, including his sixth start. He is 3-1 with a 3.31 ERA in his career against the Astros, 3-1 with a 3.07 ERA as a starter.

While left-hander James Paxton recorded just four outs in his return from the disabled list on Friday, the Mariners felt emboldened by his presence along with that of right-hander Felix Hernandez, who started Thursday at Texas in his first appearance since July 31.

Seattle has struggled against suboptimal health among its pitchers all season. Paxton has pitched brilliantly, but his recent stint on the disabled list was his second. Hernandez has made just 14 starts this season while right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma only six. The Mariners lost left-hander Drew Smyly to injury before the season even began, starting the ugly chain reaction.

With Hernandez and Paxton sidelined the Mariners leaned on Andrew Albers, Marco Gonzalez and Andrew Moore. Now that the veterans are back in the fold, Seattle finally has depth.

“We have numbers,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “We certainly have a bit more numbers than we’ve had in the past, options in the starting rotation. It’s all good.

“We’ve got the two younger guys, Moore and Marco have done a better job. Obviously, Albers continues to impress no matter what role we put him in. We’ve got some other options.”