Houston is 1-5 over their last six

Valdez returns, Astros fall apart in extras to Padres

Framber Valdez made his long-awaited 2021 debut Friday night. Photo by Harry How/Getty Images.

After splitting a high-profile two-game series with the Dodgers earlier in the week, the Astros welcomed in another daunting opponent on Friday night for a three-game weekend series, the San Diego Padres. After a tight game in regular innings, the Padres would take advantage of another rough outing by Houston's bullpen, handing the Astros the loss in extras.

Final Score (11 innings): Padres 10, Astros 3

Astros' Record: 27-23, second in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Mark Melancon (1-0)

Losing Pitcher: Brooks Raley (2-3)

Valdez makes his 2021 debut

After starting the season on the IL with a fractured finger suffered in a Spring Training game, Framber Valdez made his long-awaited 2021 debut at Minute Maid Park Friday night. He would not be expected to go deep into the game, being on a pitch count; instead, trying to build momentum for the season by getting a successful outing to build upon for the future.

He probably reached his pitch limit quicker than he would have liked but could hold a potent Padres lineup to just one run over four innings. That run came on a solo homer in the top of the third, giving San Diego a 1-0 lead at the time. Valdez went on to finish that inning along with one more, keeping his team within reach. His final line: 4.0 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 4 K, 1 HR, 72 P.

McCormick pushes Houston in front, Tatis Jr. ties it late

After getting in scoring position a couple of times but coming away empty against Dinelson Lamet in the first three innings, the Astros would get on the board in the bottom of the fourth. Carlos Correa reached base by legging out an infield single, setting up Chas McCormick's fourth home run and fifteenth RBI in his 46th at-bat, giving Houston a 2-1 lead.

With Valdez's night done after four, Cristian Javier would come in to make his first appearance as a reliever this season in the top of the fifth. He erased a leadoff walk for a scoreless frame, then followed that with a 1-2-3 sixth. After another leadoff walk was stranded in the top of the seventh, the Houston offense threatened to extend the lead in the bottom half.

They put two on base with a walk and a single, and with two outs, the Padres intentionally walked Carlos Correa to face McCormick, who was responsible for the only runs so far in the game. He drove one deep the opposite way to right field, missing a grand slam by mere feet. That proved to be a pivotal turn of events, as in the top of the eighth, with Javier still going, Fernando Tatis destroyed a ball to tie the game, 2-2.

Houston falls apart in extras, Padres take the opener

Ryan Pressly entered in the top of the ninth, keeping the game tied by sitting down the Padres in order, giving his offense a chance at the walk-off. They would not, entering another decisive extra-inning matchup. San Diego scored their free runner with a leadoff double in the top of the tenth against Ryne Stanek, who would load the bases before getting out of the inning down one run.
Alex Bregman started the bottom of the tenth on second base, moving to third on a groundout by Yuli Gurriel. Chas McCormick would bring him in, getting a sac fly to re-tie the game.

Houston would load the bases with two outs, bringing Jose Altuve to the plate, who would fly out to extend the game one more frame. Brooks Raley came on for the eleventh, but after allowing three-straight hits to make it a 5-3 San Diego lead with no outs, he was lifted in favor of Brandon Bielak, who would watch five more runs come in before getting a merciful end to the inning. Houston would not make the miraculous comeback in the bottom half, giving them their fifth loss in the last six games.

Up Next: The middle game of this three-game set will get underway at 3:10 PM Central on Saturday. Jake Odorizzi (0-2, 10.13 ERA) will make his return from the IL for the Astros looking to make a better impression on his new team than he did before he went down, while Yu Darvish (5-1, 1.75 ERA) will start for San Diego.

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These next six games will be very telling. Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images.

Houston has six games left in the 2022 regular season, two three-game series in which they need just one more win, or a Yankees loss, to secure the top seed for the AL side of the postseason bracket. They've accomplished what they set out to do over the 162-game drudge that is the regular season, so you're likely to see them use the opportunity to get some players off their feet in the remaining games.

Even so, having one of the best teams means that while putting out a lineup with some starters missing, they can still beat most teams on any given day. So then, what could that mean for the teams still vying for postseason spots or positioning in the remaining games?

Affecting the NL playoffs

It's a relatively sure bet that if they haven't locked up that top seed by the time they enter the final three games, they will before that last series is over. That means that when the Phillies come to Minute Maid Park to close out the season next week, Philadelphia will have much higher stakes in those games than Houston.

Under the expanded playoff format starting this season, the two best teams in each league receive a bye, while the remaining four teams square off in a Wild Card series, with all those games taking place at the better seed's stadium. That means teams will be very motivated to secure their best Wild Card positioning.

As of now, the Phillies hold just a half-game lead over the Brewers for the third and final Wild Card spot for the National League. Things could change this weekend, but whether they still lead or have fallen back and have ground to makeup, the games will matter to them against the Astros.

They also sit 2.5 games behind the Padres, meaning that Philadelphia could potentially be looking at a chance to jump into the second Wild Card spot. However, it's questionable if that's an envious position or not. With the juggernaut battle between the Mets and Braves coming down to the wire, with one team winning the NL East and a first-round bye and the other starting with home-field advantage in a Wild Card series, whoever gets the second Wild Card spot is going to be heading to face a really tough, and potentially angry, team on the road.

It will make things interesting for the Phillies when they face the Astros. They could be playing for their playoff lives or jockeying for position. Either way, the games will be meaningful.

Affecting the AL playoffs

There's a similar scenario at play for the American League side of things with the Astros' three-game series against the Rays this weekend. Just like the Phillies, the Rays enter the weekend holding on to the third and final spot in the AL Wild Card race.

Tampa Bay is only 0.5 games back of the Mariners for the second spot and two games back of the Blue Jays for the first Wild Card spot. Farther behind, the Orioles still have a chance for something crazy to happen, sitting five games behind.

So based on the result of their series with the Astros and how the other teams fare this weekend and in the final stretch of games, the Rays have a range of outcomes that could cause havoc in the AL bracket. They could end up taking the top Wild Card spot and hosting a series, traveling to face the Blue Jays, Mariners, or Guardians, or, less likely, missing the playoffs altogether.

This variance in positioning could have ramifications for the Astros directly in the ALDS round as well. The Astros are likely to be favored regardless of the three potential teams they face; however, some matchups would make things easier.

Houston went 2-4 against the Blue Jays this year and are currently up 3-0 on the Rays with the three games remaining in the season series. And while the Astros took the season series 12-7 against division-rival Seattle, that could give the Mariners all the more reason to be ultra-motivated for the ALDS if they faced the Astros.

So, while the Astros may not have any direct milestones to play for other than locking up their top seed, these remaining six games will have plenty of storylines and drama to follow for them and their opponent.

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