OAKLAND, Calif. — The Houston Astros are no strangers to nerve-wracking wild-card playoff races.
Last year, they didn't clinch the American League's second wild-card berth until the final day of the regular season, finishing one game ahead of the Los Angeles Angels.
This year, the Astros are in what shapes up to be an even tougher wild-card race.
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The Astros are three games behind the Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles, who are tied atop the wild-card standings. Detroit trails by 2 1/2 games, and Seattle is tied with Houston.
Houston needed a come-from-behind, 4-2 victory against the Oakland A's on Monday night to prevent losing ground. The Astros will face the A's again Tuesday night at the Oakland Coliseum.
“I think our guys are comfortable playing in important game,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “We played an entire month in September last year and into October where it was very similar to this year, where every game was magnified, every detail within the game is magnified.
“Most of these guys are very comfortable in their own skin to play in these type of games. I think it has to help. It certainly doesn't hurt. We've been there before. We've seen the schedule have to play out all the way to the last game before we clinched last year, and we'll have to play even better down the stretch this season to factor in.”
The Astros are facing a young A's team that has been eliminated from playoff contention but showed how dangerous it can be by going 6-1 on its recent road trip against Kansas City and Texas. The A's batted .318 and scored 65 runs, sweeping four games from the Royals and going 2-1 against the Rangers.
Rookies such as third baseman Ryon Healy, second baseman Joey Wendle and catcher Bruce Maxwell have helped energize the A's. Healy and Maxwell each hit a solo home run Monday.
“Anytime you're winning the vibe's going to be upbeat,” Wendle said. “That's the goal every game, to come out and win and compete. It's been really fun for me to be part of this, kind of joining some of my teammates from (Triple-A) Nashville and then the guys that have been here for a while. Some of the veterans have just been great. They're really leading the younger guys and kind of showing us the ropes. It's been fun.”
Hinch said the A's are playing “loose,” which makes them dangerous.
“This time of the year when you play a team that's out of contention, that's got some new blood in their lineup, it can be a little bit of a challenge, because they don't have a ton of anxiety around them,” Hinch said.
“They've got some guys that are trying to make a case to make their team next season or become interesting over the offseason, and there are a lot of new names. It doesn't surprise me that (A's manager) Bob (Melvin) keeps it loose and keeps them playing hard. They're hungry to do some things. If you're not going to be in it, you want to beat the teams that are.”
A's left-hander Sean Manaea will face Astros right-hander Joe Musgrove in a battle of rookies.
Musgrove (3-4, 4.71) pitched 5 1/3 scoreless innings in a 6-0 victory against Manaea (6-9, 4.23) and the A's on Aug. 29. Manaea left the game after 3 1/3 innings because of a strained upper back, but returned to action Wednesday and pitched five scoreless innings in an 8-0 victory at Kansas City.
Musgrove will make his 10th career major league appearance and ninth career start since being recalled from Triple-A Fresno. In his last start on Wednesday, he allowed three runs over 6 1/3 innings in an 8-4 victory against Texas. He struck out seven and walked two.
“I've had moments up here of joy and happiness and I've had some real tough ones as well,” Musgrove said. “Adapting and learning and making the little adjustments that are necessary.”