Although Albert Pujols' sore right foot has reduced him to a designated hitter down the stretch for the Los Angeles Angels, the veteran first baseman hasn't missed a game in three weeks.
Even with the Angels' tumultuous season teetering on the brink of collapse, Pujols is determined to keep fighting.
"It's bothering me," said Pujols, who has 12 RBIs in his last 15 games. "But you're going to have to chop my leg off for me not to play."
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With 12 losses in their last 19 games and a 16-29 skid since they led the AL West in late July, the Angels (70-69) begin the weekend in third place in their division. They've got only faint hopes of catching the upstart Houston Astros, who open a three-game series at the Big A on Friday night.
The Angels' late rally for a 3-2 win over the Dodgers on Wednesday allowed them to trim Texas' lead for the second AL wild-card spot to three games, but Minnesota is between them in the standings.
Unless the Angels surge in the waning weeks of September, Pujols and Mike Trout will finish their fourth consecutive season together without a single playoff victory. Owner Arte Moreno's big-budget club has only made the postseason once since 2009, getting swept in the division series by Kansas City last fall.
"For us, I keep saying there's no tomorrow," Pujols said. "That's how we need to look at it this whole month, (but) I think we have the team to do it."
Houston (76-64) hasn't exactly been running away with the division, going 3-5 this month. The Astros lost two of three in Oakland this week to begin a 10-game road trip which concludes with another important series against Texas.
"We have a complete understanding of how critical these games are, really for the next three weeks," manager A.J. Hinch told MLB's official website. "... The reality is this time of year, the most important game of the year is the one you're playing. We relish the opportunity to be in the middle of this, and when you set out to start the year, you certainly want to play this pressurized baseball in September."
The up-and-down Angels have 23 games left, and 14 are against Houston, Minnesota or Texas. On Friday, Dallas Keuchel (17-6, 2.29 ERA) will be the third Cy Young Award candidate they've faced in four games.
That's more bad news for a team with season-long offensive woes. After the Angels led the majors with 773 runs last season, they're tied for 24th this year with 560. Their recent lineups regularly include three starters batting below .200.
Trout, the reigning AL MVP, is batting .225 with just two homers and 41 strikeouts since August began. Starting infielders David Freese and Johnny Giavotella have missed extensive playing time recently with injuries.
"Going down the stretch, we're going to get everybody's best, so you've got to be ready," right fielder Kole Calhoun said. "Hopefully, we'll get on a little streak and make it exciting."
It will be tough to get one going against Keuchel. He's gone at least seven innings in six straight starts, yielding no more than three runs in any of them, and has won the last three to get within one victory of Jake Arrieta for the major league lead.
Keuchel, though, served up three homers in an 8-5 victory over Minnesota on Sunday. He had allowed three in his previous 12 starts.
Trout, Pujols and Freese have all homered off Keuchel, and Freese is 8 for 16 against him. However, the left-hander is 4-0 with a 3.24 ERA in his last five starts against the Angels, winning both this season.
Likewise, the Astros have struggled to solve Jered Weaver (6-10, 4.78). He has a 1.46 ERA in his last five against them, most recently firing a six-hitter in a 2-0 win May 8. Jose Altuve is 4 for 7 against him this year, but the rest of Houston's current batters are 8 for 50 (.160).
Weaver is coming off an encouraging performance, throwing six innings of one-run ball against Texas. He had been ripped for 14 runs in his previous two outings.
Houston leads the season series 8-5. Carlos Correa has hit .391 with two homers and six RBIs in the last five meetings, but the AL Rookie of the Year favorite is hitless in his last 11 at-bats.