Opposite dugout: Astros' midsummer doldrums likely temporary

AstrosLogo.jpgManager: A.J. Hinch (3rd season)

Record: 63-32

Last 10 games: 5-5

Who to watch: 2B Jose Altuve (.353/.420/.556, 19 stolen bases), CF George Springer (.307/.384/.597, 27 home runs, 66 RBIs), 1B Yuli Gurriel (.292/.320/.479, 47 RBIs) RHP Collin McHugh (13-10, 4.34 ERA in 2016), Lance McCullers Jr. (7-2, 3.28 ERA), Ken Giles (.331 ERA, 20 saves)
Season series vs. Orioles: 3-0

Pitching probables:
July 21: RHP Mike Fiers vs. RHP Ubaldo Jiménez, 7:05 p.m., MASN
July 22: RHP Collin McHugh vs. RHP Chris Tillman, 7:05 p.m., MASN
July 23: RHP Lance McCullers Jr. vs. RHP Dylan Bundy, 1:35 p.m., MASN

Inside the Astros:

The Houston Astros boast the American League's best record but have been playing like mere mortals lately, having dropped five of their last 10 games. Given that the Astros hold a double-digit lead in the AL West, though, we can't fault them too much for a mid-July plateau. Besides, they've lost the services of All-Star shortstop and team RBI leader Carlos Correa, who this week underwent surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb. The Astros also have had to get along without dominating lefty Dallas Keuchel, who posted a 1.67 ERA and a 9-0 record before landing on the disabled list June 8 with a nerve problem in his neck, and starter David Paulino, suspended for the remainder of the season on a performance-enhancing-substance rap.

Any conversation about the Houston Astros begins and ends with second baseman Jose Altuve. The 5-foot-6 powerhouse is currently bidding for his second straight batting title and his third in four seasons. Even during the Astros' recent uncharacteristic stretch of mediocrity he tore it up, going 23-for-45. Altuve also poses a threat on the base paths, and leads the club in stolen bases. First-time All-Star George Springer could find a lot to like about homer-prone Camden Yards as he looks to add to his 27 taters, especially since he hasn't had one since he tagged two in Toronto July 7. Right fielder Josh Reddick is hitting .305 in his first year with Houston. As that's well above his lifetime .260 average, the club would seem to have gotten a bargain for its one-year, $13 million with Reddick. In his first full year in the big leagues, first baseman Yuli Gurriel is putting up the sort of numbers that might stand out on another team, but his 26 doubles, 47 RBIs and .292 batting average don't amount to anything special for the 'Stros.

Mike Fiers (6-4, 3.75 ERA) starts tonight's series opener. The right-hander is susceptible to the longball and has struggled at times this year to get past the fifth inning. He got through six in Toronto July 8, but gave up a three-run homer to Josh Donaldson and took the loss. In his most recent start, however, Fiers earned a win as he scattered four hits and struck out 11 batters over seven innings against the Twins. The two homers he surrendered were ultimately harmless solo shots. Collin McHugh makes his 2017 debut with Saturday's start after being sidelined with an elbow impingement during spring training. McHugh won't blow up any radar guns, but if he comes to Baltimore with the kind of curveball he's had in the past, he can induce a fair number of swings-and-misses. The same holds true for de facto Astros ace Lance McCullers Jr., who also throws a Britton-esque hard sinker that batters tend to turn into weak ground balls. McCullers has struggled of late, however, going just 4 1/3 and 4 2/3 innings, respectively, in his last two starts.

The right-handed trio of Luke Gregerson, Chris Devenski and Michael Feliz split much of the setup duty. Brad Peacock is likely to pick up his share when he returns to the bullpen after exceeding expectations as a temporary member of the Astros rotation, going 6-1 in 10 starts. Closer Ken Giles comes into Baltimore well rested. He last worked July 17, pitching a spotless ninth inning as the Astros fell to the Mariners. Giles last recorded a save the day before, despite giving up a run on one hit and one walk.

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