The A's are more than a fun underdog story, they're now a legitimate threat to win the AL West

The transformation is complete. The Oakland Athletics have gone from fun, feel good baseball story to bona fide contender and a threat to make noise in the postseason.

They're also a threat to win the AL West.

Tuesday night, thanks to their win over the Mariners (OAK 3, SEA 2) and the Astros loss to the Rockies (COL 5, HOU 1), the A's climbed to within one game of Houston for the division lead. At one point earlier this year Oakland was 11 1/2 games back in the AL West. They were 10 games back as recently as July 10. Since then:

  • Athletics: 21-7 (plus-49 run differential)
  • Astros: 11-15 (plus-4 run differential)

The A's started their hot streak exactly two months ago, on June 15, and since then they have baseball's best record at 38-12. The rotation is improved, the bullpen is deep, the lineup packs a punch, and they have a legitimate MVP candidate in third baseman Matt Chapman, who makes plays like this on the regular:

As for the Astros, they've lost five straight games and they've also lost nine consecutive home games, if you can believe that. It is the third longest home losing streak in franchise history. Not even the back-to-back-to-back 100-loss teams from 2011-13 lost nine consecutive home games.

Here are the longest home losing streaks in Astros franchise history:

  1. 11 games: July 23 to August 17, 1966
  2. 10 games: July 22 to August 11, 1962
  3. 9 games: July 15 to August 14, 2018
  4. 8 games done several times

The Astros have been hit hard by injuries recently, for sure. They are currently without Jose Altuve (knee), Chris Devenski (hamstring), Brian McCann (knee), Lance McCullers Jr. (elbow), and George Springer (thumb), among other. They only recently welcomed Carlos Correa back from the back trouble that caused him to miss 37 games.

The injuries help explain Houston's recently slide in the standings but they are not an excuse and the Astros themselves would be the first ones to tell you that. Every team deals with injuries. The A's have some of their own. The Astros have dealt with an inordinate number of injuries to key players, but that's baseball. The strong survive.

Between Oakland's hot streak and the Astros' suddenly inability to win at home, the A's are just one game back in the AL West, and here's the best part: These two teams will play three games in Oakland this weekend. The tentative pitching matchups:

On paper, the 'Stros have the pitching advantage because they have the starting pitching advantage in pretty much every series they play, though that dominant rotation hasn't stopped them losing five straight overall and nine straight at home.

"What's disappointing to me is that team should never lose five games in a row," said former Marlins president David Samson on CBS Sports HQ (video above). "They go through that rotation, they've got stoppers all along the way. (Gerrit) Cole's lost three in a row. You've got Verlander who comes in last night, he's had a hard time winning at home this year. So the Astros are now worried."

The Astros lead the season series 9-4 over the A's, but the two teams haven't played since before the All-Star break, and the last time they met Oakland took three of four in Minute Maid Park. It took a minor miracle for the Astros to win the one game they did win that series too. Remember this?

The Astros have the starting pitching advantage this weekend (on paper) and the edge in the season series. The Athletics won the last series these two teams played and they're playing much better overall right now. Erasing a double-digit deficit in the standings in a little more than a month is no fluke. That doesn't happen by accident.

Here's one more thing to keep in mind: There is no pressure on the A's. Not many picked them to make the postseason, let alone be within striking distance of the division crown in mid August. They are not supposed to be here. The Astros, meanwhile, are the defending World Series champions and pretty much everyone expected them to win the AL West with ease. They won the World Series last year and they were among the favorites to win it again this year. Still are, really.

I have zero doubt the Astros can handle any pressure the A's put on them. Houston showed they can deal with all this last year. This is more about the A's having zero pressure on them and he benefit of playing expectation-free baseball. They are what a successful Athletics teams always seems to be, and that's an underdog that sneaks up on everyone. It's a great place to be.

At this point, the Athletics are no longer just a fun underdog story though. They're a bona fide contender that has played as well as any team in the game for two months now. They are a game out in the division and, if things go their way this weekend, they could be in first place in a matter of days. The Astros won't go away quietly, but no one should expect the A's to at this point either.

"The A's are nipping at their heels," Samson added. "(The Astros) didn't have to worry about that when they lost five in a row earlier this season. What are they going to do now? This is the first test really for (manager A.J.) Hinch in a while. How are they going to rebound? It's going to be very, very telling."

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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