(Photo credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)
With their 12-2 victory over the San Diego Padres on Sept. 10, the Houston Astros secured their largest lead in the American League West at 2 1/2 games and appeared well-positioned to claim their sixth division title in the past seven seasons.
With their 7-5 loss to the Kansas City Royals on Friday in the opener of their final home series of the season, the Astros (85-69) dropped out of first place and into the third AL wild-card spot with just eight games remaining. They have lost seven of 10 games since reaching their high-water mark with that victory over the Padres, with five of those defeats coming against the only two teams in the majors with 100 losses this season: the Royals (52-102) and Oakland Athletics.
While their collapse isn't complete, it remains stunning. The Texas Rangers reclaimed first place in the AL West with their 8-5 home victory on Friday over the Seattle Mariners, who remain a half-game behind the Astros for the final postseason slot in the AL. The Astros will open a crucial three-game series in Seattle on Monday, with the Mariners holding the postseason tiebreaker.
But before they depart on their final road trip, the Astros must salvage what appeared to be an easy part of their schedule at the most opportune time. Houston must win this series with the Royals simply to remain afloat, a position no one could have envisioned a dozen days ago.
"You can't think about it, you've just got to come out (Saturday) and do it," Astros manager Dusty Baker said. "You can't cry over spilled milk, you can't bring it back. It's frustrating, it's very frustrating.
"Guys are a little frustrated but we're still in a good position. We'll come back and get them (Saturday)."
Rookie right-hander J.P. France (11-5, 3.84 ERA) has the starting assignment for Houston on Saturday, his second career start against Kansas City. He did not factor into the decision of his most recent start after allowing five runs on five hits and four walks over 4 1/3 innings in the Astros' 10-8 loss to the Royals on Sept. 16. France is 2-0 with a 5.57 ERA in his past four starts. Houston is 3-1 in those games.
Right-hander Jordan Lyles (4-17, 6.43) is expected to start for the Royals on Saturday. He was the pitcher of record in a 7-1 loss to the Astros on Sunday after allowing four runs on six hits and one walk with six strikeouts over six innings. Lyles has completed eight innings an AL-high five times this season.
Lyles is 2-3 with a 4.24 ERA over nine career appearances (seven starts) against the Astros, who selected Lyles 38th overall in the 2008 draft. He was 14-29 with a 5.35 ERA over 72 career appearances (65 starts) with Houston before being traded to the Colorado Rockies on Dec. 3, 2013.
Before left-handed hitters Nick Pratto and Kyle Isbel fueled a three-run sixth inning off Astros left-hander Framber Valdez with quality at-bats from the bottom of the order, Maikel Garcia keyed a four-run first by hustling down the line following his strikeout and a passed ball on Astros catcher Martin Maldonado.
Garcia provided evidence that the Royals haven't mailed anything in.
"If you're given an opportunity for an extra out you've got to take advantage of it, especially against a good team," Royals manager Matt Quatraro said. "I don't expect anything less."
--Field Level Media