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Hard not to root for Houston right now

MLB.com @RichardJustice

The Astros are a team you can rally around. It's more than just who they are. It's what they represent: a great city pushed to its breaking point.

At a time when an entire country is pitching in to help Houston, Mother Nature is arch rival No. 1.

The Astros are a team you can rally around. It's more than just who they are. It's what they represent: a great city pushed to its breaking point.

At a time when an entire country is pitching in to help Houston, Mother Nature is arch rival No. 1.

The storm that wouldn't go away has sent the Astros and Rangers to Florida to play a three-game series at Tropicana Field beginning tonight. It's believed to be just the fourth weather-related neutral field series in history. Additionally, the Astros and Major League Baseball have partnered to donate all ticket, concessions and parking revenue from the series to the Hurricane Harvey relief efforts.

If they're unable to return to Minute Maid Park this weekend for a series with the Mets, the Astros will have endured an epic six-city, 19-game, 21-day, 9,931-mile trip that included a one-night stopover in the Metroplex on Monday and a doubleheader in Oakland on Sept. 9.

Change of clothes? When the Astros departed Houston last week, they packed for three nights, and some players were wearing pajamas as part of team hijinks.

They say these moments of adversity can either draw a team together or split it apart. In the case of the Astros, an extremely close team, they're likely to be BFFs when they land back in Houston on Sept. 15.

Regardless, this series in St. Petersburg could be must-see action.

Sometimes we sell these sports metaphors too hard. We understand nothing the Astros do against the Rangers this week at Tropicana Field will stop the rains or push the floodwaters away. Not a single life will be saved.

On the other hand, baseball does matter. It's inexorably woven into the fabric of our world and part of who we are. As Astros pitcher Collin McHugh tweeted on Sunday, "I hope today's game brought a smile to someone's face in Houston. Know that every one of us has the city on our hearts and in our prayers."

That's why even some Rays fans just might root a little for the Astros this week. Not just for parochial reasons (the Rays, after all, and the Rangers are both in the American League Wild Card hunt). Not just because it's $10 open seating at Tropicana Field, where, by the way, The Fish Shack sandwich and 4-Seam American Lager come highly recommended.

"Fans can get up close in a way they might not normally get to," Rays President Brian Auld said.

Shouldn't Rays fans root for the Astros?

He wouldn't bite.

"We're focused on pulling off these games," he said. "MLB asked us to do it. There's not one bit of competitive motivation."

Root for the Astros because of the television shots and the devastation in Houston. You cannot look at Houston's baseball team without thinking of Houston. As McHugh said, if the baseball team provides even a minute of escape, that's enough.

You should also know this: these players love their battered city. They love its diversity and culture and appreciate its huge Bohemian heart that in so many ways represents the American spirit at its best.

The Astros themselves are not suffering the way thousands of Houstonians are suffering. But they are distracted and worried and stressed for their families and friends and homes.

To them, the television shots back home are personal. As second baseman Jose Altuve asked manager A.J. Hinch on Sunday, "How many days do I have to play with this on my heart?"

Altuve is trying to focus on baseball while his wife and baby are in a city that is paralyzed with first responders that are overwhelmed. Altuve's family is safe and dry, but they could not leave even if they wanted to.

"It's really hard for our players, hard for our citizens of Houston," Hinch said.

The Astros have been in a place like this before. In 2008, Hurricane Ike forced the relocation of a two-game series with the Cubs to Milwaukee. By the time the Astros showed up at Miller Park, they were physically drained and emotionally spent.

Cubs right-hander Carlos Zambrano threw a no-hitter against a distracted bunch of Astros, and that was the beginning of the end of Houston's postseason hopes.

They'd won 14 of 15 to get to 80-67 before the no-hitter. They promptly lost seven of the next nine games to tumble from contention.

This time, it should be different. The Astros are young and way, way better. George Springer and Alex Bregman and others play with an aggressiveness that is unlikely to change regardless of where the game is played or how long the trip.

The Astros (79-51) lead the American League West by 13 games and are five games in front of the Indians and five and a half ahead of the Red Sox in the race for the AL's best record.

In this stretch, the Astros are hoping to get whole again with the return of All-Stars Carlos Correa and right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. And a 2016 All-Star, reliever Will Harris, is also expected back shortly.

If the Astros return home on Sept. 15 in position to line up Dallas Keuchel, McCullers and McHugh for the postseason, and if they have Altuve, Correa and Springer all on the field together, it may not matter how many miles they flew to get there. And that would give Houston something really cool to celebrate.

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.

Houston Astros