Astros-Mariners preview

SEATTLE — Two teams coming off vastly different Junes met in Houston just before the All-Star break, and nobody should have been too surprised at the Astros' sweep of the Seattle Mariners.

The Astros had used a hot June (18-9) to get back into the American League West pennant chase, and the once-contending Mariners had fallen on hard times.

The question as the two teams prepare to meet again at Safeco Field, beginning Friday night, is whether Houston can maintain its torrid pace and catch the division-leading Texas Rangers — and if the Mariners will ever get back into contention.

Houston (48-41) comes out of the break trailing Texas by 5 1/2 games, but that's a miniscule separation when considering how far the Astros have come.

After getting swept by the Rangers in a May 20-22 series, Houston was 8 1/2 back, in third place in the AL West. A week later, Texas took three of four from the Astros and stood 9 1/2 games up at 37-23.

Since then, the Astros have posted a 19-8 record and hopped over the scuffling Mariners (45-44) into second place in the standings.

Having survived a 7-17 April and the early struggles of ace Dallas Keuchel, the Astros are riding the wave again.

“I want to win as many games as we can,” manager A.J. Hinch told after the Astros closed out pre-All-Star break play with a 10-inning victory, “and I don't care what order we win them in.”

The turnaround has coincided with some better outings from Keuchel, who has started to look like the Cy Young contender he was last year in his recent starts. Keuchel won his last start on Sunday but isn't scheduled to pitch against the Mariners this weekend.

Friday's starter is listed as Doug Fister, a one-time Mariner who is also coming off one of his better starts of the season. He allowed three hits in eight innings his last time out but suffered the loss, his third in as many starts.

Fister went 7-1 with a 2.66 ERA in May and June but is off to an 0-2 start this month.

Seattle's starter, left-hander James Paxton, has experienced a similar battle with inconsistency. He has a 98 mph fastball and front-of-the-rotation stuff but opened the season at Triple-A and has gone 2-3 with a 3.91 ERA since being promoted.

The success of Paxton could be a big factor in how Seattle closes out the season, as the 27-year-old southpaw has helped ease the blow of three injuries to the Mariners' starting rotation. Wade Miley is already back, and the Mariners hope to get Taijuan Walker (foot soreness) and Felix Hernandez (strained calf) into the rotation in the next week or two.

Hernandez made his first rehab start last weekend and is scheduled to pitch for Triple-A Tacoma on Friday. If all goes well in that start, Seattle could have him back in the rotation as soon as next week.

Hernandez's first rehab start, at Class A Everett, didn't go that well. He allowed six hits and three runs in 3 2/3 innings, but he came out of it optimistic.

“I had some mechanical problems a little bit,” Hernandez told after the start. “I didn't feel comfortable, but it was OK. I wasn't sharp enough. It's been awhile, so that's what we expected.”

The Mariners have Paxton going Friday, veteran Hisashi Iwakuma scheduled for Saturday and TBA listed for Sunday.

The Mariners have struggled against the Astros in recent years, with an 11-18 record since the start of 2015. Houston's Jose Altuve, who hits well against just about everyone, has been a particular challenge, as evidenced by his .417 batting average against Mariners pitching this season.