A's set for key showdown with Astros in weekend series

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OAKLAND — The A’s never thought they could challenge for the AL West division title until about two weeks ago.

They still were in third place on July 24, a whopping 7½ games behind the first-place Houston Astros, the defending World Series champions. Houston is a premier franchise, starting a three-game series Friday at the Oakland Coliseum that will determine who leads the division.

The A’s are not a premier franchise, haven’t been for years. But they have been good since mid-June.

“We started making a push for the wild card a little before the All-Star break,” right fielder Stephen Piscotty said. “Once we got there, we were like, ‘Oh, wow, we’re not that far out of the division.’”

The A’s took hold of the second wild-card spot on Aug. 2, passing the Seattle Mariners. At that point, Oakland was five games behind the Astros for first place in the AL West.

“The focus was on the wild card,” A’s radio play-by-play announcer Ken Korach said. “Then, the A’s just kept winning. And the Astros have stumbled a little bit. They’re 7-11 over their past 18.”

Now, the A’s merely are two games behind Houston heading into the weekend series. This is the biggest series of the season for the A’s, their biggest series in years. If they sweep, they’ll lead the Astros by a game.

“The Astros have injuries,” A’s radio color commentator Vince Cotroneo said. “That’s a factor.”

A major factor. Astros All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa missed 15 days with a back injury. He returned Aug. 10, but has just two hits in 18 at-bats since he came back.

Astros All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve, perhaps their best player, has a right knee injury and hasn’t played since July 25. He will not play in this series. And Astros All-Star outfielder George Springer has a sprained left thumb. He hasn’t played since Aug. 5, although he may return Friday against the A’s. Call them the Astros Lite.

“Even though Correa’s back, he’s not really back yet,” Cotroneo said. “He hasn’t gotten into a rhythm yet, and that might be the same with Springer when he returns. But they have a very good starting rotation. They still have Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton. You have to pitch with them to win.”

Those three are the Astros’ best pitchers, and the A’s will face each one during this series. Morton will pitch Friday against Edwin Jackson. Keuchel Saturday against Trevor Cahill. And Verlander, Houston’s ace, goes Sunday against Sean Manaea.

Advantage Astros.

But the A’s have closed the gap with Houston in other areas, such as fielding, power hitting and relief pitching.

“The Astros are so athletic that when they’ve dominated the A’s the past couple years, they did it because they had playmakers,” Korach said. “Guys that made plays that impacted the game. Now, the A’s have playmakers.”

The A’s All-Star second baseman, Jed Lowrie, agrees. “All around the infield we’ve got guys who make plays. In the outfield, we’ve got Ramon Laureano who has a cannon and can run balls down. Piscotty has a good arm and makes a lot of great diving plays. Jonathan Lucroy, he has made as big of a difference as anybody else. Having that veteran presence behind the plate helps the staff immensely.”

Lucroy, the A’s starting catcher, also has thrown out 20 attempted base stealers — tied for the most in the majors. Oakland signed him this offseason.

“I’ve been around long enough now that I recognize talent when I see it,” Lucroy said. “Our third baseman, Matt Chapman, is one of the best players in the league all around, no question in my mind. We’ve got unbelievable power with Matt Olson and Khris Davis.”

The A’s also have a veteran leader in Lowrie. “He has set a tone, grinding every at bat,” Korach said. “He can go from an 0-2 count to a 3-2 count. When you have a guy like that, he has a profound influence on the young guys.”

And between relievers Lou Trivino, Ryan Buchter, Yusmeiro Petit, Fernando Rodney, Jeurys Familia and closer Blake Treinen, the A’s could have the best bullpen in baseball.

“It took us a little while to figure out how good we were,” Lucroy said, referring to the entire team. “But I’ll tell you what, after we went to the East Coast and played Boston and New York back to back, should have taken two out of three from the Yankees, took two out of three from the Red Sox, that’s when we said, ‘We’re actually a pretty good team.’”

That was back in mid-May. So far this season, the A’s have beaten the Red Sox four times in six meetings. The Red Sox have the best record in the majors.

The A’s also took three out of four from the Astros in Houston during their most recent meeting. “That was another little feather in our cap,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said.

But the Astros have a feather of their own. They’re 6-0 in Oakland this season. And the Astros won some of those games by huge margins — 8-1, 11-0, 16-2 and 13-5.

“We respect them and know they’re really good,” Melvin said. “Last year, we beat them four in a row at our place at the end of the season, which gave us confidence. And then, to watch them win the World Series, our guys were watching and saying, ‘Hey, look, we can play with anybody.’”

Now, the A’s get to prove it when it counts. The next three games will be like a playoff series, something many current A’s never experienced.

“There still are 41 games left,” Melvin said. “That’s the way it’s going to be all the way to the end.”

Forty-one crucial games left to compete with the champions for first place. Forty-one crucial games to dethrone them. What an honor for this team on the rise.

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