Houston taking on teams that are battling for a postseason spot
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LOUIS -- The Phillies roared into Minute Maid Park last week having won seven games in a row to get back into the National League playoff hunt and were primed to feast on the struggling Astros.
With a handful of jobs and their pride on the line, the Astros stunned Philadelphia by winning three out of four games to throw a huge road bump into the Phillies' playoff express. The Astros have been out of the playoff mix for months, but playing meaningful games in September has given the young club the kind of satisfaction usually reserved for contenders.
The Astros' next 12 games, beginning with Tuesday night's series opener against the Cardinals at Busch Stadium, are against teams that are currently in the playoff hunt. They have six remaining with the Cardinals, three against the Pirates and three at Milwaukee.
If playing the role of spoiler is as good as it gets for the Astros at this point, sign them up.
"It's definitely something we want to do," pitcher Lucas Harrell said. "These are teams that are going to be making the playoffs, and we want to play as well as we can against them, because the fact is, it's going to be something that's going to lead into next year. All of us are fighting to be here next year, so it's a good measuring stick, and they'll be a good momentum builder going into Spring Training. We'll try to finish strong and play well against these teams."
Astros interim manager Tony DeFrancesco, whose club had won eight of its last 15 games entering Tuesday, held a team meeting prior to Tuesday's game to remind the players how important these games are -- to the Astros and the opposition.
"We can make or break their seasons," DeFrancesco said. "If we could factor into the playoff race, that's rewarding for a team that's been out of it for a while, a team that's trying to come back to life. I think we showed over the weekend we're capable of beating any team."
The Astros don't have postseason aspirations, but there is plenty on the line. Most of the players on the roster are playing for jobs next year, so each at-bat and inning pitched is as crucial to them as it would be to a contending club.
"I think it's important at the end of the season when you know you're not going to be in the playoffs to play meaningful games," general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "Yes, we're auditioning guys for roles next year, but at the same time, everybody's got that competitive spirit. Tony D. wants to win as many games as he can. Players want to show us they're capable of doing it, and I certainly do as well."
DeFrancesco is also battling for a job. He's one of a handful of people the Astros have interviewed for their full-time manager position, and he's not been afraid to use all of the 35 players on his roster to try to win games, even if it means matching up relievers against opposing hitters beginning as early as the fifth inning.
"Even after last year and a disappointing year this year, at some point we're going to turn the page -- and hopefully sooner than later -- and these games are going to mean as much to us as they do to the Cardinals," DeFrancesco said.
So excuse the Astros if they don't roll over in the final two weeks. After the disappointing summer they experienced on the field, getting a chance to have a hand in the playoff race is providing an emotional boost in the final two weeks.
"The season we've had, we all want to finish on a high note and kind of create some momentum and a good vibe going into the offseason and Spring Training next year," first baseman Brett Wallace said. "The best way to gain real game experience is to play against teams that are playing for a playoff spot or are going to be a playoff team. These teams are playing for their life, and that's something we need to learn how to do, and I think we're kind of relishing that opportunity."