CLOSER THAN YOU THINK

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

Night game with roof open at Minute Maid Park
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Allsport/Getty Images
Night game with roof open at Minute Maid Park

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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Justin Verlander will start for the Astros on Friday night. Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images.

Houston Astros (22-28, third in the AL West) vs. Oakland Athletics (21-31, fourth in the AL West)

Oakland, California; Friday, 9:40 p.m. EDT

PITCHING PROBABLES: Astros: Justin Verlander (2-2, 3.97 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 26 strikeouts); Athletics: Ross Stripling (1-8, 5.19 ERA, 1.56 WHIP, 32 strikeouts)

BETMGM SPORTSBOOK: LINE Astros -170, Athletics +142; over/under is 8 1/2 runs

BOTTOM LINE: The Oakland Athletics begin a three-game series at home against the Houston Astros on Friday.

Oakland has a 21-31 record overall and a 12-14 record in home games. The Athletics have hit 65 total home runs to rank third in the AL.

Houston is 22-28 overall and 8-13 in road games. The Astros have a 13-4 record in games when they did not allow a home run.

The teams match up Friday for the fifth time this season. The Astros lead the season series 4-0.

TOP PERFORMERS: Brent Rooker has 11 home runs, 17 walks and 32 RBI while hitting .286 for the Athletics. Max Schuemann is 12-for-35 with a double and two RBI over the past 10 games.

Kyle Tucker leads Houston with 17 home runs while slugging .638. Alex Bregman is 9-for-38 with three home runs and six RBI over the last 10 games.

LAST 10 GAMES: Athletics: 2-8, .225 batting average, 5.25 ERA, outscored by 27 runs

Astros: 7-3, .272 batting average, 3.13 ERA, outscored opponents by 20 runs

INJURIES: Athletics: Esteury Ruiz: 10-Day IL (wrist), Darell Hernaiz: 60-Day IL (ankle), Alex Wood: 15-Day IL (rotator cuff), Paul Blackburn: 15-Day IL (foot), Joseph Boyle: 15-Day IL (back), Freddy Tarnok: 60-Day IL (hip), Luis Medina: 60-Day IL (knee), Sean Newcomb: 60-Day IL (knee), Aledmys Diaz: 60-Day IL (calf), Miguel Andujar: 10-Day IL (knee), Ken Waldichuk: 60-Day IL (elbow), Trevor Gott: 60-Day IL (elbow)

Astros: Oliver Ortega: 60-Day IL (elbow), Bennett Sousa: 60-Day IL (shoulder), Penn Murfee: 60-Day IL (elbow), Luis Garcia: 60-Day IL (elbow), Lance McCullers Jr.: 60-Day IL (elbow), Jose Urquidy: 15-Day IL (forearm), Kendall Graveman: 60-Day IL (elbow)

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