Astros try to regain momentum against Nationals

HOUSTON — The Houston Astros already had clinched their series with the American League West cellar-dwelling Oakland Athletics prior to their home loss on Sunday, but that fact did not stem the continuing swell of concern casting a pall over the team with the best record in the AL.

The Astros will keep searching for answers as the Washington Nationals visit Minute Maid Park for a three-game interleague series beginning on Tuesday.

Even after following a season-long five-game losing streak by winning five of eight games, the Astros (76-48) haven’t reclaimed the form that saw them reach 34 games over .500 just three weeks ago. Losing 11 of 14 games will raise question marks alongside the red flags hoisted when the club failed to make a significant roster addition at the non-waiver trade deadline.

From an internal perspective, the answers for the slump are obvious. Houston remains hamstrung by injuries, with seven regular contributors on the disabled list. The Astros can play better for sure, but waiting for reinforcements is a logical means to addressing all the losses.

“I think our guys are going to get healthy,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “I think we’re fighting through a tough stretch.”

Unlike Houston, the Nationals (74-48) are trending in a positive direction at a season-best 26 games over .500. They’ve done so despite recently placing All-Stars Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer on the disabled list.

“It’s a big series because they’re a good team,” Hinch said of the Nationals. “We’ve got to play clean baseball to beat them. Obviously, we get a day off (Monday), which is something a lot of guys need. That’ll be nice to have at home and get back to the ballpark on Tuesday.

“They present a lot of challenges. They do a lot of things well, which is why they’re at where they are. So do we.”

Right-hander Charlie Morton (10-5, 3.69 ERA) will start the opener for the Astros. Morton is 2-4 with a 6.27 ERA over eight career starts against the Nationals, but he has not faced Washington this season.

He is 5-2 with a 3.26 ERA over eight starts following his reinstatement from a month-plus stint on the 10-day disabled list caused by a right lat strain.

The Nationals will counter with Tanner Roark (9-8, 4.70 ERA). The right-hander allowed one run on seven hits and two walks with four strikeouts over five innings in his lone career appearance against Houston, a 6-5 victory on June 17, 2014, at Nationals Park.

Even with the recent losses of Harper (knee) and Scherzer (neck) added to a handful of sidelined starters (Trea Turner, Adam Eaton, Jayson Werth), the Nationals continue to roll in large part due to their exceptional pitching. Left-hander Gio Gonzalez matched Scherzer with his team-leading 12th victory on Sunday in San Diego, while right-hander Stephen Strasburg bounced back from a short stint on the DL to pitch effectively in a weekend loss to the Padres.

And the bullpen, maligned for most of the season, has been reborn with the additions of left-hander Sean Doolittle (11 saves in 15 games with Washington), and righties Ryan Madson (2-0, 0.00 ERA but currently disabled with a sprained finger) and Brandon Kintzler (2-0, 0.90 ERA).

“The main thing is that we pitch well,” Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. “It starts with the pitching. We’ve got good pitching every day. These guys are just trying to find a way to win.”