A's vs. Astros: What you need to know about the most important AL West showdown of the season

There are five weeks remaining in the 2018 regular season and, at this point, the AL West is far and away the most competitive division race in the American League. The Astros (80-50) current leading the surging Athletics (79-52) by 1 1/2 games in the division.

The two AL West rivals will meet for a three-game series at Minute Maid Park in Houston starting Monday. It is safe to call this the most important series of the season for both the Astros and Athletics, at least to date. Here are the pitching probables:

DateTimeTVAstros SPAthletics SP

Mon., Aug 27

8 p.m. ET

ATT SportsNet-SW, NBCS Bay Area

Gerrit Cole (11-5, 2.73)

Brett Anderson (3-3, 3.47)

Tues., Aug 28

8 p.m. ET

ATT SportsNet-SW, NBCS Bay Area, MLB.tv (free) 

Charlie Morton (13-3, 3.05)

Edwin Jackson (4-3, 2.97)

Wed., Aug 29

2 p.m. ET

ATT SportsNet-SW

Dallas Keuchel (10-10, 3.54)

Trevor Cahill (5-3, 3.44)

Justin Verlander will miss the series after starting Saturday, which is almost certainly a good thing for the A's, though they did rough him up for four runs (including three homers) in 5 1/3 innings a week ago. Athletics left-hander Sean Manaea was placed on the 10-day DL with a left shoulder impingement over the weekend. He's struggled against Houston this year, allowing 14 runs in 20 2/3 innings in four starts.

"This is one of those series where, the Astros looked at this on the schedule, and they thought they would have complete distance from the Athletics," said former Marlins president David Samson on CBS Sports HQ. "Now they know if they lose two out of three if they still have the half-game lead, but that's not acceptable to them ... I still look for the Astros to win two out of three here."

The Astros go into this series nursing a 1 1/2-game lead over the A's in the AL West after once leading Oakland by as many as 11 1/2 games. The Athletics are 45-16 since June 15, the best record in baseball, which has turned this race into, well, a race. Here are four things to know going into this week's series at Minute Maid Park.

This is their final series of the regular season

Sadly, this is the last time the Astros and Athletics will meet during the 2018 regular season. Pretty weird that two division rivals wrap up their season series before the end of August, isn't it? It is. Lots of weird stuff going on with the schedule this year.

Anyway, the 'Stros lead the season series 10-6 -- they've outscored the A's 96-64 in the 16 games -- but the Athletics have won their past two head-to-head series. They took three of four in Houston last month and two of three in Oakland last weekend. A quick recap:

  • First 9 games: Astros go 8-1
  • Last 7 games: A's go 5-2

It's too bad we can't look forward to a September series between these two clubs with the AL West race so tight. This is the last time they'll meet this year, at least before a potential postseason matchup.

The Astros are getting healthy

The Astros have won their last five games and, not coincidentally, it has been five games since Jose Altuve returned from the disabled list. He'd been out with a knee issue. Carlos Correa returned from a lengthy stint on the disabled list with a back issue earlier this month, and, on Monday, George Springer is expected back in the lineup.

A quad injury kept Springer out of the lineup for five games last week. He did pinch-hit Sunday, his first game action since last Sunday. Springer is expect to be back in the starting lineup for Monday's series opener.

Furthermore, both Chris Devenski (hamstring) and Brian McCann (knee) are currently on a minor-league rehab assignment and expected back soon. Devenski might even return before the end of this series. Even if not, both he and McCann are on the mend, which means the Astros are that much closer to getting back to 100 percent. That is bad news for the A's.

Oakland's bullpen is a bit taxed going into the series

The A's took three of four from the Twins in Minnesota this weekend, but the Twins did the Astros a solid, and forced Athletics manager Bob Melvin to use his vaunted bullpen quite heavily the past few days. Here is the team's recent bullpen workload:

PitcherSun., Aug 26Sat., Aug 25Fri., Aug 24Thurs., Aug 23Wed., Aug 22

CL Blake Treinen

1 IP, 9 pitches

1 IP, 12 pitches

--

1 IP, 14 pitches

--

SU Jeurys Familia

--

1 2/3 IP, 16 pitches

1 IP, 18 pitches

--

--

SU Lou Trivino

--

2/3 IP, 13 pitches

1 IP, 5 pitches

--

--

SU Fernando Rodney

1 IP, 20 pitches

--

1 IP, 24 pitches

--

1 IP, 15 pitches

MR Ryan Buchter

1 IP, 10 pitches

0 IP, 3 pitches

--

--

1 IP, 17 pitches

MR Shawn Kelley

1/3 IP, 4 pitches

--

1 IP, 18 pitches

--

1 IP, 15 pitches

LG Yusmeiro Petit

1 IP, 20 pitches

--

2 IP, 31 pitches

1 2/3 IP, 24 pitches

--

Treinen, the A's All-Star closer, has pitched the last two days and three times in the last four days. Low pitch counts, sure, but that is a lot of warming up and lot of appearances. I'm certain Melvin would use Treinen a third consecutive day Monday if there's a lead to protect. That might take him out of action the rest of the series, however.

Familia, Trivino, and Rodney have all pitched twice in the past three days while Petit has soaked up a lot of innings the last few days. He's thrown 75 pitches the last four days. That isn't far off from a starter's workload. Kelley and Buchter might be asked to get some big outs at some point this series given the club's recent bullpen workload.

The home/road splits favor the A's

I reckon no team in baseball feels good about going into Minute Maid Park for a series. The Astros are a great team and that's a tough environment to play in. And yet, the Astros have been significantly better on the road than at home this year. They haven't been bad at home. They've just been okay. Look:

  • Home: 33-29 (plus-47 run differential)
  • Road: 47-21 (plus-167 run differential)

Weird. Remember, the Astros recently lost nine consecutive home games. That streak was snapped only two weeks ago and it was the third longest home losing streak in franchise history behind an 11-gamer in 1966 and a 10-gamer in 1966. Not even the back-to-back-to-back 100-loss teams from 2011-13 lost as many as nine straight home games.

The Athletics, meanwhile, have been a dominant road team all season. They are 40-26 away from the Oakland Coliseum, which is the third best road record in baseball. Only the Astros (47-21) and Red Sox (44-24) have better records on the road. Here are the A's home/road numbers:

  • Home: 39-26 (plus-19 run differential)
  • Road: 40-26 (plus-73 run differential)

I know what the home/road splits say, but gosh, I have a real hard time believing any team could go into Houston for a series and be considered the favorite. That doesn't mean the Astros can't lose at home, they've done it plenty this year, it just means I don't think they're nearly as much of a pushover at Minute Maid Park as the numbers suggest.

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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