By Alex Hall
Special to S.F. Examiner
OAKLAND — Midway through August, the Oakland Athletics find themselves just two games out of an AL West division that no one thought would be in question entering the 2018 season. On Friday, they open a series against the team ahead of them in the standings, as the Houston Astros come to town for three games at the Coliseum.
Whereas the A’s are among the hottest teams in baseball over the last couple months, the Astros have stumbled lately. Houston has dropped 11 of its last 18 games, thanks in part to injuries to key hitters like Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and George Springer. However, Correa returned to action last week and Springer is set to rejoin the lineup tonight, bringing the Astros closer to full strength as they look to get back on track.
“To be able to be in this position to play the world champs, in the fashion we are right now, is an exciting time,” said A’s manager Bob Melvin before the game. He’s certainly not taking anything for granted, though, even with Houston missing the reigning AL MVP in Altuve. “Even if they’re down a couple guys, they’re a challenge.”
Oakland has gotten particularly good work from its starting rotation lately. The starters have posted a 1.83 ERA over their last 14 games, helping the team capture some contests in which the offense was quieter than normal. “They kind of push each other, and it can be a contagious thing with starters,” said Melvin.
Leading the charge has been Edwin Jackson, an unlikely hero who signed with the A’s in June on a minor league contract. The 34-year-old journeyman hasn’t allowed an earned run in his last three starts, helping Oakland to victories each time, and he’ll look to extend that streak on Friday against the Astros. He and the other starters often haven’t been asked to pitch deep into games lately with a stacked bullpen behind them, but Melvin noted they might have a longer leash the next few weeks with games the next 20 straight days.
“They know they don’t have to go eight innings to be successful here, that we have a good bullpen, so they’re just going out there and trying to contribute like the rest of the team does,” said Melvin. “We have 20 in a row. We’re going to have to lean on them a little bit harder. We can’t go to the bullpen early every game when you play that many games in a row.”
Meanwhile, the A’s will face Astros starter Charlie Morton. The right-hander made his first All-Star Game this season, but he was roughed up in his only outing against Oakland. The A’s faced him in July and knocked him out in the fifth inning, after quickly pushing his pitch count up over 100 and scoring three runs against him in an eventual victory.
– Outfielder Matt Joyce has been out for more than a month with a back injury, but Melvin reported that he’s making progress in his recovery. Joyce has been taking batting practice and running the bases, but the team isn’t trying to push him too hard after he experienced previous setbacks in his rehab. They hope to potentially get him back in September.
– Starting pitchers Andrew Triggs (arm nerve irritation) and Paul Blackburn (elbow) have resumed throwing, with Triggs doing so off of a mound.