HOUSTON — Mired in a slump that resulted in six losses over seven games, the Athletics lurched into Minute Maid Park on Thursday seeking to build momentum going into the All-Star Game break against a rolling club and in confines that had been anything but friendly to Oakland.
Two close wins and one near-win later, the Athletics (38-50) are a victory shy of taking the four-game series against the Astros. Oakland had dropped five consecutive games in Houston entering the series, and the Astros had played exceptionally at home for more than a month.
“This is a team that's playing as well as any team in baseball the last couple of weeks,” Athletics manager Bob Melvin said of the Astros. “We knew coming in for four was going to be tough. It would be certainly nice to go out and win another game tomorrow. This is a tough place to win a series, especially a four-game series.”
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Athletics left-hander Sean Manaea (3-5, 5.85 ERA) will attempt to clinch the series in his second career appearance against the Astros (47-41). Manaea made his major league debut against Houston on April 29, allowing four runs on four hits and four walks with three strikeouts over five innings while not factoring into the decision of a 7-4 victory.
Manaea is 1-1 with a 5.06 ERA in two starts since being activated from the 15-day disabled list (left pronator strain) on June 29. He is 0-3 with an 11.66 ERA on the road with opponents batting .354 against him. Manaea has surrendered six home runs in 14 2/3 innings on the road and was the losing pitcher in his last start, an 11-4 setback at Minnesota.
Left-hander Dallas Keuchel (6-9, 5.02 ERA) will help the Astros seek a series split entering the All-Star Game break. Sunday will mark his first appearance against the Athletics this season but the 13th of his career.
Keuchel is 2-3 with a 2.92 ERA in 12 games (10 starts). His three-game winning streak is his longest of his up-and-down season and the longest since he closed last season on a three-game run.
The Astros had won or split five consecutive home series but now stand to lose two on this homestand. Astros manager A.J. Hinch has leaned heavily on his frontline players — Jose Altuve, George Springer and Carlos Correa — and planned to give Springer the day off Saturday. Springer didn't start but pinch-ran in the ninth inning of a 3-2 loss.
As well as they have played in recovering from a 7-17 first month, the Astros appear to be dragging to the finish line of the unofficial first half.
“I didn't want to play Springer at all,” Hinch said. “I really did want a physical break for George all day. There wasn't an at-bat to have for George. We can win games without any one of our guys. Don't get me wrong, I love playing George Springer, but I think there are nine guys that are pretty damn good players that could have done enough to win.”