Rays-Astros preview

HOUSTON — Seemingly on the brink of collapse following a pair of interleague home losses to the St. Louis Cardinals last week, the Houston Astros rebounded with a successful swing through Baltimore and Pittsburgh and set the table to remain in the thick of the American League wild card chase with a six-game homestand opening Friday.

The Astros (66-61) finished 5-2 during their seven-game stretch against the Orioles and Pirates and are 9-5 over their last 14 road games. Once 10 games above .500, the Astros slipped to 61-60 after dropping the opener in Baltimore on Aug. 18. And while they remain are four games behind the Orioles for the second wild card spot, the Astros' recent road run breathed new life into their postseason hopes.

“It's one that we needed,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said following a 5-4 victory over Pittsburgh in Wednesday's series finale. “We played two good teams and came away 5-2. I'm really proud of our guys. We have a small margin of error these days and we've responded by playing well.”

If the Astros are to surpass Baltimore, Detroit and Seattle in the wild card picture, they will need to take full advantage of their upcoming schedule. Houston hosts the Rays (54-72) and Athletics during their upcoming homestand, two teams well below .500 and long since realistically eliminated from playoff contention.

Right-hander Mike Fiers (9-6, 4.41 ERA) starts the opener for the Astros seeking to win consecutive decisions for the first time since he defeated the Rays and Reds on June 11 and June 19. Fiers allowed two runs on five hits and one walk with three strikeouts over seven innings while beating the Rays in his first career start against them.

Fiers is 2-1 over his last three starts but has posted a 4.86 ERA while surrendering six home runs over 16 2/3 innings, a hallmark of his inconsistency. While he is 2-2 with a 4.37 ERA this month, opposing batters are slugging .494 against Fiers during August and he has alternated wins and losses over his last seven decisions.

Left-hander Drew Smyly (6-11, 4.88 ERA) looks to continue his exceptional run of pitching for the Rays. He is 4-0 with a 2.79 ERA over his last six starts and the Rays have claimed victory in each of his previous five appearances. Smyly has lowered his season ERA by 0.76 runs over his last six outings, with 30 strikeouts against nine walks over 38 2/3 innings while limiting opponents to a .577 OPS.

Smyly is 1-2 with a 6.10 ERA over four appearances (two starts) against the Astros.

The Rays completed their most successful homestand of the season Thursday with a 2-1 victory over the Red Sox, winning consecutive games to split the four-game series. Tampa Bay finished 7-3 against the Padres, Rangers and Red Sox.

“We needed a lot of things to come together for us to get that win,” Rays manager Kevin Cash told MLB.com. “It seemed like they all did today.”