Monday night, the surging Oakland Athletics and red-hot Houston Astros will open an important three-game series at Minute Maid Park in Houston. The Astros have won five straight and have a comfortable lead in the AL West at the moment, though the A's have been cutting into that lead the last few weeks, and this series is a chance to cut their deficit in half.

Here are the AL West standings as of Monday morning:

  1. Houston Astros: 64-37
  2. Oakland Athletics: 57-43 (6 1/2 GB)
  3. Los Angeles Angels: 52-49 (12 GB)
  4. Texas Rangers: 50-49 (13 GB)
  5. Seattle Mariners: 40-62 (24 1/2 GB)

A's closer Liam Hendriks had his 21-inning scoreless streak snapped in Sunday's walk-off loss to the Twins (MIN 7, OAK 6). Had he been able to protect the lead, Oakland would be 5 1/2 games behind the Astros right now, making the AL West a little more interesting. Sunday's loss stung for the Athletics. There's no doubt about that.

Here are the details for this week's important three-game series at Minute Maid Park. Select games can be streamed regionally via fuboTV (try for free).

DateStart TimeStarting PitchersTV

Mon., July 22

8:10 p.m. ET

RHP Homer Bailey (8-6, 4.69) vs. RHP Gerrit Cole (10-5, 3.12)

NBC Sports California, AT&T SportsNet Southwest

Tues., July 23

8:10 p.m. ET

RHP Mike Fiers (9-3, 3.64) vs. LHP Wade Miley (8-4, 3.25)

NBC Sports California, AT&T SportsNet Southwest, MLBN 

Weds., July 24

2:10 p.m. ET

RHP Chris Bassitt (7-4, 3.96) vs. RHP Justin Verlander (12-4, 2.99)

NBC Sports California, AT&T SportsNet Southwest  

Both teams are starting their three best starting pitchers in the series -- a case can be made Brett Anderson has been better than Bassitt this year, though it's close enough that it's probably not worth arguing -- and that'll make for some great baseball. This series will determine whether we have a true AL West race down the stretch or the Astros run away with it.

Here is what you need to know going into this week's three-game set in Houston.

The Astros have dominated the season series

The A's and Astros have played eight times this season and the 'Stros have won seven of those eight games. They've outscored Oakland 42-20 head-to-head as well. Yikes! The season series has been very lopsided. Here are the individual results:

At Minute Maid Park

At RingCentral Coliseum

The season series is the difference in the division right now. Had the A's been able to turn those three one-run losses into three one-run wins, they would be a half-game game back right now, and the AL West race would be much more interesting. Alas, baseball doesn't operate in hypotheticals. The Astros are 7-1 against the A's this year and it's helped them build a nice lead.

Oakland's bullpen is gassed

The A's are not going into this series with a rested bullpen. Manager Bob Melvin worked his relief crew hard in their weekend series with the Twins -- that makes splitting the four-game series an even tougher pill to swallow -- and it figures to limit the availability of some relievers this series.

Here are pitch counts for Oakland's relievers over the last five days:

Sun., July 21Sat., July 20Fri., July 19Thurs., July 18Weds., July 17

RHP Liam Hendriks




RHP Blake Treinen



RHP Joakim Soria




RHP Yusmeiro Petit




RHP Lou Trivino



LHP Ryan Buchter



LHP Wei-Chung Wang



Hendriks, who replaced Treinen as closer a few weeks ago, has pitched three straight days and will likely be unavailable Monday, maybe Tuesday as well. Soria and Petit have both pitches three times in the last five days, and both Trivino and Wang had longer outings Sunday. A well-rested bullpen this is not.

Brantley has been on fire in July

Michael Brantley
HOU • LF • #23
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I'm not sure there's a better pure hitter in baseball right now than Michael Brantley. The former Indians star owns a .442/.500/.769 batting line in July -- that's even after going 1 for 9 in his first two games this month -- and a .400/.463/.714 batting line since the All-Star break. Brantley had three hits Saturday and three hits Sunday, including two homers.

Among the 151 hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, Brantley owns the fourth highest batting average (.332), the 14th highest on-base percentage (.391), and the second lowest strikeout rate (9.6 percent). He is close to the perfect hitter in this era of high strikeouts. Brantley makes a ton of contact and he drives the ball to all fields.

Laureano is even hotter than Brantley

Ramon Laureano
CLE • CF • #10
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As good as Brantley has been this month -- and he's been great -- his hot streak pales in comparison to Athletics center fielder Ramon Laureano, who's authored a .434/.484/.962 batting line in July. Nine singles, seven doubles, and seven homers in 53 at-bats is how you get a slugging percentage flirting with four digits. Laureano had three hits Saturday, including a homer.

From July 6-20, a 10-game span, Laureano went 20 for 37 (.541) with six doubles and six homers. He's been out of this world good in July, and it has raised his season batting line to a stout .284/.334/.518. Add in his stellar defense and you have a borderline star. Not too shabby for a guy the A's acquired in a minor trade two years ago with ... the Astros.

"We had a feeling (Laureano) was going to be a pretty good big league player, but he's gotten off to a faster start in his career than we thought. So, yeah, he's one that I'd love to have back," Astros GM Jeff Luhnow told Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle in April.

The Astros have help on the way

At some point this week the Astros are expected to get utility man Aledmys Diaz and superstar shortstop Carlos Correa back from the injured list. Diaz has been out with a hamstring injury since May 27. A fractured rib has sidelined Correa since May 29.

Here's what Astros manager A.J. Hinch told reporters, including Mark Berman of KRIV Fox 26, about Diaz's imminent return:

"They have a day game in (Double-A Corpus Christi on Sunday) and he's not going to play, but he's going to work out with the Double-A team, and then we're going to meet and decide what's next for him. Whether it's a return here for (Monday's game) or whether he's going to play in Double-A. He'll play somewhere (Monday)."

Diaz is 1 for 13 (.077) through four minor league rehab games, but, for a veteran like him, results are a secondary concern. The primary concern is how he feels, both his hamstring and with his timing on the field. Once he feels good, the Astros will activate him, and that could be as soon as Monday's series opener with the A's.

As for Correa, he is 6 for 15 (.400) in four minor league rehab games. He is on the 60-day injured list and is not eligible to be activated until Friday, so he won't factor into the Athletics series. All signs point to Correa returning when eligible Friday though, which is a plus for the Astros and a negative for the A's going forward.

These teams will see each other plenty

It is July 22 and, as noted earlier, these two division rivals have played each other only eight times this season. They have a lot -- a lot -- of head-to-head games remaining. Here is their remaining head-to-head schedule:

  • Three games in Houston (July 22-24)
  • Four games in Oakland (August 15-18)
  • Four games in Houston (September 9-12)

For all intents and purposes, one out of every 5 1/2 games the Astros and Athletics play the rest of the season will be against each other. Seven of their remaining 11 head-to-head games will be in Houston, which is good news for the Astros, but for the Athletics, the sheer volume of games is a plus. It gives them plenty of chances to gain ground in the standings.


What better way to close out a preview than with a prediction? The Athletics have been great lately, winning 21 of their last 28 ballgames, and I expect them to remain in the hunt all season. That said, the prediction here is the Astros win two of three this week. Oakland's bullpen is taxed and I don't love Bailey and Bassitt again Houston's offense. The Astros will win Monday's and Wednesday's games, and at some point during the series Myles Straw will hit a big home run. Yes, Myles Straw.