CLOSER THAN YOU THINK

In spite of everything, the Astros are still close to the World Series

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Allsport/Getty Images

Major League Baseball is set to announce its post-season schedule and stadiums … and Houston is in the mix!

Unfortunately, MLB is talking about Houston, the city, as in Minute Maid Park. After the first-round of wild card series, the National League playoffs will resume at Minute Maid Park and Globe Life Field in Arlington.

Meanwhile, American League playoff games will pick up at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and Petco Park in San Diego. The idea is to play post-season games at neutral sites. The World Series will be played at Globe Life Field. MLB plans to create bubbles in Houston, Arlington, Los Angeles and San Diego, similar to what the NBA is doing in Orlando.

Arlington was selected to host the World Series for several reasons, not the least being Arlington is in the Central time zone, which would provide optimum TV ratings.

Will Houston, as in the Astros, be part of post-season play? Two weeks ago, the Astros were battling the Oakland A's for first place in the American League West. The only question was, will the Astros finish first or second in the division. Their chances of qualifying for the playoffs all but assured. The Astros were shooting for their fourth consecutive division crown.

Two weeks later, the Astros are swirling down the drain with a gloomy, sub-.500 record, and losers of nine of their last eleven games. The Astros' California dreamin' has turned into a nightmare.

Houston's lead over the red-hot, surging Seattle Mariners has dwindled to a measly one and a half games. As the American League's two wildcard teams most likely will come from the East or Central divisions, the Astros are scratching and clawing for their playoff lives.

With the Astros' season on the brink, fans were surprised and disappointed that the team failed to add a first-rate pitcher or power hitter before the trade deadline.

Still there are embers of hope for the Astros as ailing stars slowly return to active duty. The biggest reason to stay the course is courtesy of Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Justin Verlander, who threw a bullpen session during the Oakland series. Manager Dusty Baker said it's possible that Verlander could take the mound for real this season.

All-Star third baseman Alex Bregman and reliable reliever Brad Peacock already are back from the injured list. Jose Altuve should return in coming weeks. Jose Urquidy had a quality start against the A's.

The Astros have been bedeviled with injuries, with Verlander, Peacock, Blake Taylor, Roberto Osuna, Josh James, Chris Devenski, George Springer and Lance McCullers all missing games. Last year's Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez played only two games before waving bye-bye for the season.

Despite the trials and travails, the injuries and bad breaks, let's remember that the Astros are up on the Mariners for a playoff spot. It's still better to be the Astros than the Mariners. And if the Astros continue to struggle and aren't competing for another title this year, they will be close to the World Series. This time, however, it would only be due to proximity.

Of course, things could also change in a hurry. Just five days ago the Astros had the best AL Title odds according to Baseball Reference. If the Astros string some wins together, things could shift dramatically.

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McCullers Jr. out-pitched friend and former teammate Dallas Keuchel on Father's Day. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

With three impressive wins to start this series against the once AL-leading Chicago White Sox, Houston tried to extend their winning streak to seven games and finish a four-game sweep on Father's Day. Thanks to a big inning against former-Astro Dallas Keuchel, they would win to keep their hot streak going.

Final Score: Astros 8, White Sox 2

Astros' Record: 43-28, first in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Lance McCullers Jr. (4-1)

Losing Pitcher: Dallas Keuchel (6-2)

Rough return to Houston for Keuchel

In his first game against his old squad, Dallas Keuchel would not have a memorable start on the mound for Chicago. Houston made him labor in the first inning, loading the bases though they only came away with one run on an RBI single by Abraham Toro, grabbing the early 1-0 lead. After going down 1-2-3 in the second, they got after Keuchel again in the third.

They ended up batting around against him that inning, including a two-RBI single by Yordan Alvarez, RBI double by Taylor Jones, and bases-loaded RBI-walk by Jose Altuve, which would end Keuchel's day very early and leave the bases juiced. Chicago's bullpen would walk another batter to give Keuchel another earned run, making it a 6-2 game, with all six going against the former Houston ace. Carlos Correa extended the lead to five runs in the next inning, hitting a leadoff solo home run to make it 7-2.

McCullers Jr. gives up two over six

That gave Lance McCullers Jr. a nice lead to work with, and he managed it well. He had one big mistake in the early goings of the game, giving up a one-out single in the second to set up a two-run home run, which at the time put Chicago in front 2-1 before Houston's offense came alive. He followed that up with four scoreless innings, erasing a walk in each with some tremendous defense behind him—his final line: 6.0 IP, 2 H, 2 ER, 4 BB, 4 K, 1 HR, 94 P.

Astros complete the sweep to jump on top of the standings

Still a six-run game in the top of the seventh, Blake Taylor entered as the first reliever out of Houston's bullpen, tossing a 1-2-3 frame. He continued in the top of the eighth, getting two strikeouts in another scoreless inning. The 8-2 score would go final as Ralph Garza Jr. would enter as the third pitcher of the day to wrap things up with a scoreless top of the ninth to finish the four-game sweep. The win, their seventh straight, paired with an Oakland loss earlier in the afternoon, moves Houston into the top spot in the AL West based on winning percentage.

Up Next: This long stretch of consecutive games continues on Monday in Baltimore, as the Astros pick up a seven-game road trip starting with a three-game set against Baltimore getting underway at 6:05 PM Central. Jake Odorizzi (1-3, 5.68 ERA) will get the start for Houston, going opposite of Keegan Akin (0-2, 5.76 ERA) for the Orioles.

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