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10 to go: Winning tight ones big for Astros

Valdez's 11 K's, Tucker's HR help club move 3 ahead of Mariners
@brianmctaggart
September 18, 2020

HOUSTON -- Despite being .500 with 10 games remaining in the truncated regular season, the Astros’ postseason chances are in relatively good shape. Their 2-1 victory over the Rangers at Minute Maid Park on Thursday night moved them three games ahead of the Mariners for the last automatic playoff berth

HOUSTON -- Despite being .500 with 10 games remaining in the truncated regular season, the Astros’ postseason chances are in relatively good shape. Their 2-1 victory over the Rangers at Minute Maid Park on Thursday night moved them three games ahead of the Mariners for the last automatic playoff berth in the American League West.

The Astros aren’t writing off the Mariners just yet -- especially with a three-game series in Seattle beginning Monday, which will likely be a make-or-break series for the Mariners. With Oakland closing in on the AL West title, holding off the M's is the Astros' biggest focus entering their final home series of the season against Arizona.

“All we have to do is take care of our business,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said.

Box score

The final 10 games also represent a chance for the Astros’ sputtering offense to get on track. Houston trotted out its healthiest lineup of the season in the three-game series against the Rangers, but managed just six runs. One day after Kyle Gibson threw a shutout, another struggling right-hander, Jordan Lyles, held the Astros to two runs and three hits in seven innings.

“It doesn’t matter what the score is,” Baker said. “You’ve got to win those close games, too, and you’ve got to depend on your pitching sometimes, depend on your bullpen sometimes and sometimes depend on your offense, and sooner or later it’s all going to be clicking. Right now, we’re trying to win every game we can and get to .500 and put some distance between us and .500.”

The only offense the Astros mustered against Lyles -- who had a 7.80 ERA entering the game -- was a two-run homer by Kyle Tucker in the second inning, which stood up thanks to Houston’s pitching. Lefty Framber Valdez tied a career high with 11 strikeouts -- all coming on his curveball -- in 6 1/3 innings, and relievers Josh James and Brooks Raley finished off the Rangers, with Raley earning his first career save.

“No drama in the ninth inning,” Baker said. “We needed it, big time -- especially when you see that Seattle had already lost during our game. That was big for us to win.”

Valdez bounced back from a series of rough outings -- he had a 6.92 ERA in his previous four starts -- to spin a gem. He threw 60 of his 100 pitches for strikes and got 12 swings and misses on his curveball. The Rangers struck out 15 times overall.

“We couldn't solve the guy's curveball,” Rangers manager Chris Woodward said. “We know he's got an elite curveball. It is what it is. The characteristics of it, it's a really tough pitch to hit. We helped him too many times. I think that was the biggest thing. He only had a couple where it was looking, like later in the game, where it was actually a strikeout looking on a curveball. The other ones were all in the dirt or balls. We have to do a better job of recognizing that and not allowing that to happen.”

Tucker’s homer came in the midst of a 3-for-30 stretch, and the Astros didn’t get a runner to third after the long ball, which traveled 364 feet with an expected batting average of .100. Had the ball traveled a few feet shorter, Houston could have been dealing with being shut out for the second game in a row.

“It landed in the first seat out there,” Tucker said. “I was hoping for it, obviously, but it was close. [Rangers right fielder Joey] Gallo gave it a nice effort. Almost got it. I’m happy it got out and put some runs on the board for us.”

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.