Opposite dugout: Despite injuries, Astros coasting toward postseason

Manager: A.J. Hinch (3rd season)
AstrosLogo.jpg

Record: 76-48

Last 10 games: 5-5

Who to watch: 2B Jose Altuve (.362 with 171 hits, 29 SB), 3B Alex Bregman (.277 with 15 HR, 48 RBIs), OF George Springer (.303 with 28 HR, 70 RBIs), LHP Dallas Keuchel (11-2, 2.58 ERA, RHP Charlie Morton (10-5, 3.69 ERA).

Season series vs. Nationals: First meeting (0-4 in 2014)

Pitching probables:

Aug. 22: RHP Tanner Roark vs. RHP Charlie Morton; 8:10 p.m., MASN2
Aug. 23: RHP Edwin Jackson vs. RHP Mike Fiers; 8:10 p.m., MASN
Aug. 24: RHP Stephen Strasburg vs. LHP Dallas Keuchel; 8:10 p.m., MASN

Inside the Astros:

The Astros have spent all but five days in first place during the 2017 season. Yet with a rash of injuries, and a dismal 7-12 record in August, there are some out there wondering: Houston, we may have a problem?

Of course, “problem” is a relative term. The Astros are still a lock to capture the American League West, the franchise’s first division title since 2001. And the team boasts the top offense in the majors. Seriously, this unit is stacked. Heading into Monday’s action, the Astros led all of baseball in the following categories: batting average (.287), on-base percentage (.351), slugging percentage (.491), runs (699) and home runs (195). That’s all thanks to a balanced lineup, though its biggest contributor is easily its littlest player. Now in his seventh season, Jose Altuve is the leader in the Astros offense, and one of the frontrunners for the AL Most Valuable Player Award. Altuve leads the league with a .362 average and is a unique combination of power and speed with 35 doubles and 29 stolen bases, respectively. He’s hit well against every opponent throughout his career, including the Nationals, against whom he sports a .317 average. Meanwhile, outfielder George Springer provides a strong dose of power. The 27-year-old leads the club with 28 home runs to the tune of a .303 average. And third baseman Alex Bregman is enjoying a solid first full season in the majors. He’s hitting .277 with 15 home runs on the year. Still, despite the success, it’s a nasty string of injuries that may be the culprit behind the Astros’ recent slide. Shortstop Carlos Correa landed on the disabled list in mid-July with a thumb injury and is expected to miss eight to nine weeks. And catchers Evan Gattis and Brian McCann are both nursing injuries, though McCann is expected to return for Thursday’s series finale. In the meantime, Max Stassi and Juan Centeno will fill in behind the plate, while ageless wonder Carlos Beltr├ín gives the Astros some much-appreciated experience to balance out its crop of youthful players.

On the pitching side of things, Houston’s fared nicely, even if the numbers aren’t as impressive as the offense. Right-hander Charlie Morton has emerged as one of the team’s top pitchers in his first season with the club. He’s 10-5 with a modest 3.69 ERA and will aim to set a career high in wins in today’s series opener. Morton will have to hope for a turn-around in fortune, however, as he’s just 2-4 with a 6.27 ERA lifetime against the Nationals. For righty Mike Fiers, 2017 has been a bit of a roller coaster ride. Fiers began the season winning five of his first seven decisions, but since then has gone just 2-6. In fact, he hasn’t registered a win since July 21 and has issued multiple walks in five straight starts. On Thursday, Houston will send Dallas Keuchel to the mound against Stephen Strasburg, in a matchup featuring two of the game’s top pitchers. Keuchel began 2017 red hot, posting a 9-0 record with a stingy 1.67 ERA on June 2. Unfortunately, a pinched nerve in his neck ushered the former Cy Young Award winner to the disabled list, where he was sidelined for nearly two months. It’s taken a bit of time for Keuchel to return to form, but the southpaw has won his last two starts, allowing just one earned run in more than 13 innings of work.

Right-hander Ken Giles handles the closing duties for Houston. On the year, Giles has a 2.70 ERA and has picked up 24 saves. He’s joined by relievers Chris Devenski, Luke Gregerson and James Hoyt.

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