HOUSTON — With 32 games left on the schedule, the Houston Astros are in the throes of the pennant race they avoided last season when they claimed the American League West by 21 games.
Their collective resiliency has been taxed during the past two months, with injuries stalling their pursuit of a second consecutive division title and opening the door for the blistering Oakland Athletics to make a serious play for the AL West title.
The Astros survived a bit of a test last weekend by salvaging the finale of their three-game series in Oakland, reclaiming their perch atop the division while preventing the Athletics from securing sole possession of first place.
Those two teams will square off for the final time starting Monday night at Minute Maid Park, with the Astros (80-50) fresh off a 6-3 road trip and riding a five-game winning streak into the opener of a three-game series with the Athletics (79-52), who trail by two games in the loss column.
Houston has already secured the season series by winning 10 of 16 games, but a series victory would provide a bit of a cushion as the Astros prepare for a challenging stretch run.
Aiding the Astros’ cause is their improved health. Second baseman Jose Altuve returned from the 10-day disabled list last Tuesday and Houston hasn’t lost since. Outfielder George Springer is set to rejoin the lineup on Monday after being sidelined for the past week with a sore left quad.
“We finished strong on the road trip and that was key,” Astros shortstop Carlos Correa said. “We wanted to go home playing good baseball and we’ve been able to do that. Now we’ve got a good series against the A’s and we’ve got to keep going.”
Right-hander Gerrit Cole (11-5, 2.73 ERA) will start for Houston with an extra day of rest. After throwing at least 100 pitches in eight consecutive starts through his final appearance of July, Cole has yet to reach the 100-pitch plateau this month, averaging 94.2 in his four starts.
Cole has worked at least seven innings only once of his last 11 starts after opening the season with five consecutive such appearances. The Astros are 1-4 in his last five starts.
Cole is 2-1 with a 2.84 ERA in five career starts against Oakland, including 2-0 with a 2.92 ERA in four starts this season.
Left-hander Brett Anderson (3-3, 3.47 ERA) gets the start for the Athletics. Anderson has produced consecutive scoreless starts, allowing six hits and one walk with eight strikeouts in 14 2/3 innings against the Seattle Mariners and the Texas Rangers. He is 1-0 with a 0.68 ERA this month.
Anderson is 1-2 with a 5.50 ERA in four career outings (three starts) against the Astros. He has faced Houston once this season, allowing nine runs (seven earned), 10 hits and three walks in three innings in a 16-2 home loss on May 7 that qualifies as his worst start of 2018.
Oakland took three of four weekend games in Minnesota to keep pace with the Astros. Matt Chapman slammed two homers in Sunday’s 6-2 win and has 10 homers and a .348 batting average since the All-Star break.
“He’s really quickly adapted to laying off some balls away, and I think some of those strike threes you’re seeing called on him are balls, too, which are frustrating,” Oakland manager Bob Melvin told MLB.com. “But that’s allowing him to move the ball over a little bit and get good pitches to hit. He’s taken to it pretty quickly at the big league level.”
Oakland is 7-0-1 in its last eight series but will arrive in Houston with ace left-hander Sean Manaea on the 10-day disabled list with a shoulder impingement. Right-hander Emilio Pagan will replace Manaea in the rotation.