This could end up being the most important week of the season for the Athletics. Oakland will host three-game series against both Seattle and Houston, as the three teams battle for the AL West crown. The A's trail the first-place Astros by 2 1/2 games, and lead the Mariners by 1 1/2 games for the second Wild Card spot. We take a look at what each team must do to take control of the division down the stretch.
The biggest key for the Astros will be their health. Star shortstop Carlos Correa finally returned to the lineup after missing six weeks with a lower back injury, but Jose Altuve, George Springer, Brian McCann, and Lance McCullers Jr. are still on the disabled list. Not coincidentally, Houston is just 9-11 since the All-Star break, and 12-15 in its last 27 games.
The good news for the Astros is that Altuve, Springer, and McCann are all expected to return soon. Altuve in particular should provide a major boost to the lineup. The reigning MVP leads the team with a .329 batting average and .392 on-base percentage, while holding down the number three spot in the order. Springer is also extremely valuable as the leadoff hitter, ranking third on the Astros with 19 home runs and 58 RBI.
Houston is the defending champion for a reason, and having the top half of its lineup back at full strength will make a significant difference. Even without McCullers, the rotation is stacked, with Cy Young candidates Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Charlie Morton leading the way, and Dallas Keuchel back on track after a slow start. Even if they don't get McCullers back in September, the Astros will be tough to catch.
The Athletics are the hottest team in all of baseball, having won 36 of their last 48 games. Oakland has one of the best bullpens in the league, and the lineup has plenty of firepower. The key for the A's down the stretch will be starting pitching.
Sean Manaea has anchored the rotation all season long, leading the team with 10 wins and 144 innings pitched. He will need to keep pitching like an ace for the A's to make a run at the division title. Edwin Jackson and Trevor Cahill have been pleasant surprises, combining for an 8-4 record and 3.02 ERA. They will also have to continue their solid seasons for Oakland to catch Houston.
Mike Fiers might end up being the X factor. The 33-year-old was impressive in his Oakland debut, allowing just one run in 5 1/3 innings against the Dodgers last week. At his best, Fiers gives the A's another top of the rotation weapon. Backed by that deep and talented bullpen, that could be enough to put the A's over the top in the AL West.
Let's be honest, the Mariners are the long shot of the trio. Sure, Seattle has the sixth best record in MLB at 69-50, but its -22 run differential ranks just 18th, behind teams like the Rays and Angels, both well out of playoff contention.
The Mariners will have to hope for a spark from the return of Robinson Cano, after his 80-game suspension for violating MLB's performance-enhancing drug policy. Cano is eligible to return Tuesday and could help an offense that has averaged fewer than four runs per game since the All-Star break.
Before his suspension, Cano was slashing .287/.385/.441. If he gets hot down the stretch, the Mariners might finally have some help for Nelson Cruz in the lineup. Add Dee Gordon, Ryon Healy, and Mitch Haniger to the mix, and Seattle could have a fighting chance in the division.