Over a 162-game schedule, the valleys of the long baseball season are often unpredictable and unwelcomed. The difference between good and bad teams is the ability to truncate the eventual struggles and maximize silver linings. Turning the valleys back into peaks is what playoff teams do faster than the others.
For the Oakland A's, a team hitting .171/.250/.249 over its last nine games (5-4), the silver lining of their struggles is in the standings. Despite the offense's recent downturn, Oakland has gained two-and-half games on the Texas Rangers, who haven't been able to capitalize. Now the A's find themselves in the advantageous position of getting three games against the Houston Astros.
Oakland (51-47) is undefeated against the Astros (33-64) since Houston joined the American League West for the first time this year. The A's have more than doubled up Houston in run differential (68 to 31), but the teams haven't played in nearly two months.
The Angels' starting pitchers had no trouble buzzing through the struggling A's lineup Friday and Saturday, gaining a game on the division leaders during the three-game set in Anaheim. But by winning Sunday's game in decisive fashion, with the Halos throwing the ball around and getting roughed up on the hill, the A's haven't come away from the series feeling too defeated. Had the A's lost Sunday to Jerome Williams, a desperate team would be going to Houston.
The Astros are a welcomed site for the A's, to be sure. Not so much because of the A's recent hitting woes, but more because of what lies ahead. After the three games against the Astros, the A's return home for 10-game homestand, where they can make significant dents in the playoff hopes of the Angels and Blue Jays before a three-game showdown with the Rangers.
There's not a team the A's have hit better against than the Astros. The A's .301/.391/.505 slash line against Houston for 2013 is a product of playing six of the nine games in Minute Maid Park, where Oakland is batting .306/.391/.523. If the A's can replicate that success before heading home, the last two weeks will be nothing but a blip on the radar.
The series starts Monday night with Tommy Milone (8-8, 4.24 ERA) going against Dallas Keuchel (4-5, 4.62 ERA). Milone hasn't pitched since before the All-Star break in Pittsburgh and has put up his best numbers with six-plus days of the rest throughout his career. With 19 home runs given up already, however, he's likely to surpass his 2012 total of 24 over his next few starts.
Milone has a 6.33 ERA over his last five outings, but the A's have still managed to win three of those games. He threw the last time the team was in Houston, allowing five runs on eight hits in seven innings. Oakland wound up winning that game, 6-5.
The 25-year-old Keuchel will be pitching at home for the first time since July 1. Since then, he's made two road starts against the Rangers and Rays, allowing five earned runs in 10.1 frames with seven strikeouts. He pitched against the A's on May 26 and allowed six runs on 10 hits.
The left-hander throws five different pitches, varying his off-speed offerings well and allowing a line drive rate of less than 19 percent. He threw three scoreless innings in relief against the A's on April 16.
Tuesday's second game will feature a good matchup of young right-handers when Jarred Cosart (1-0, 0.00 ERA) and Jarrod Parker (6-6, 3.95 ERA) square off. Cosart recently started the Triple-A All-Star Game in place of Sonny Gray, who missed the game because he was in the A's bullpen.
One of Houston's top prospects, Cosart couldn't have been much better in his major league debut, no-hitting the Rays through six innings on July 12. He finished by allowing just two hits over eight innings to get his first win.
In the minor leagues, walks counterbalanced Cosart's good strikeout numbers. With Triple-A Oklahoma City this year, he walked a career-worst 4.8 batters per nine innings. The right-hander has a similar profile to Gray in that they both feature mid-90s fastballs and just a pair of off-speed pitches. Cosart threw 75 percent fastballs in his outing against Tampa Bay.
Like Milone, Parker is also making his first start after a lot of time off. He last pitched against the Red Sox on July 12, allowing just two runs over seven innings of three-hit ball. That outing pushed his ERA below four for the first time all season, but he was outdueled by John Lackey in the A's 2-0 loss.
After his terrible start to the season, Parker has steadied himself into one of the American League's more consistent pitchers. He hasn't allowed more than three runs in an outing since early May, with hitters slashing just .176/.236/.298 since. Oddly enough, he hasn't pitched in any of the A's nine games against the Astros this year.
Houston hasn't announced who will throw Wednesday, but whoever they chose will face A.J. Griffin (8-7, 3.82 ERA). Griffin has struggled with home runs, allowing a rate of 1.5 every nine innings, up about 50 percent from his quality rookie season in 2012. The last time he pitched in Houston, the right-hander allowed three homers. As long as Griffin continues to throw up a 3.38 K:BB rate, he should continue to see success much of the time out on the mound.