HOUSTON — Rare are the series when the reigning World Series champions are thoroughly outplayed, yet the Houston Astros had little choice but to acknowledge that reality on Thursday.
The Astros (62-34) dropped their first home series in more than two months when the Oakland Athletics rallied for a 6-4 victory at Minute Maid Park for their third win in four series games. Even in triumph, the Astros were pushed to the brink, needing a swinging bunt and a throwing error to complete an unusual 6-5, 11-inning victory in the second game of the series after the Athletics rallied to pull even with four runs in the top of the ninth inning on Tuesday.
The Astros, who will close the unofficial first half with a three-game set against the Detroit Tigers starting on Friday at Minute Maid Park, had their vaunted starting pitching tested. Right-handers Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander worked six scoreless innings apiece, but both tossed 100-plus pitches and neither factored in the decision once the bullpens got involved.
On Wednesday and Thursday, right-handers Lance McCullers and Charlie Morton each failed to survive the fifth inning, as Oakland hitters made both labor with a patient, tenacious approach.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed that we lose the series but we get on to the next one,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “Three more before the break, but we got outplayed this series.”
Left-hander Dallas Keuchel (6-8, 3.95 ERA) gets the starting nod for Houston on Friday. He has worked seven innings in each of his previous two starts, going 2-0 with a 1.93 ERA in those two. Keuchel allowed no earned runs over consecutive starts against the Kansas City Royals in mid-to-late June, and is 3-2 with a 4.65 ERA over seven career appearances (six starts) against the Tigers. Keuchel last faced Detroit on July 28, 2017, allowing three runs on six hits over three innings.
Right-hander Mike Fiers (6-5, 3.65) will open the series for the Tigers against his former club. Fiers went 21-19 with a 4.59 ERA over 70 appearances (67 starts) spread across parts of three seasons while playing for Houston. He joined the Astros at the non-waiver trade deadline in 2015 and twirled a no-hitter at Minute Maid Park against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Aug. 21 of that season. When injuries ravaged the Houston rotation last season, Fiers kept the Astros afloat, going 4-0 with a 1.72 ERA during a five-start stretch that began May 30. He did not pitch for the Astros last postseason and was non-tendered after Houston won its first World Series pennant.
Fiers went 1-1 with a 1.29 ERA over his last three starts, and he is 1-1 with a 5.25 ERA in two career starts against the Astros. His previous outing against Houston came on his last start of the 2012 season when Fiers allowed five runs on six hits with 10 strikeouts over six innings in a 7-0 loss.
The Tigers (40-55) have dropped seven of their last nine games. They will welcome back closer Shane Greene on Friday when he is activated from the 10-day disabled list. Greene landed on the DL on July 2 with a right shoulder strain. He is 2-5 with a 4.03 ERA and 19 saves in 39 games.
Greene suffered consecutive losses at home against the Athletics on June 25-26 yet has converted nine consecutive save opportunities dating back to May 23 against the Minnesota Twins.