HOUSTON -- The Houston Astros had braced themselves for elevated expectations heading into this season following a series of savvy veteran acquisitions that positioned the club to take the significant leap from ordinary postseason contender to legitimate World Series title threat.
Now, with the unofficial first half of the schedule complete, the Astros (60-29) stand poised to use the final 73 games to claim the American League West pennant, secure homefield advantage throughout the AL playoffs, and complete what has been an arduous journey from a lambasted teardown and protracted rebuild.
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Houston, along with the Los Angeles Dodgers, are the first teams to record 60 wins prior to the All-Star Game break since the 2003 Braves.
"It's special," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said to MLB.com. "We've gotten off to such a great start. We've got a great vibe, fun culture. Winning obviously helps that."
What could help the Astros power toward putting the division title out of reach by the trading deadline is a forgiving schedule out of the break. After facing the Minnesota Twins (45-43), who the Astros host this weekend for a three-game series at Minute Maid Park, Houston will contest 12 consecutive games against teams with losing records.
The Astros, who lead the Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers by 16 1/2 games, need only to maintain the level of play established in the first half to stifle contention hopes in Anaheim and Arlington.
Right-hander Charlie Morton (6-3, 3.82 ERA) will get the start against the Twins on Friday, his second since coming off the 10-day disabled list (right lat strain) July 7. Morton, who owns a 4,76 ERA in one career start against the Twins, allowed one run on four hits and two walks over six innings in a 12-2 victory over the Blue Jays in his previous outing, his first since May 24.
Right-hander Jose Berrios (8-2, 3.53 ERA) will open the second half on the mound for the Twins. He is 1-2 with an 8.03 ERA over three career starts against the Astros, including a May 30 outing at Target Field where he allowed four runs on five hits and four walks over five innings in a 7-2 loss. Berrios owns a 6.23 ERA and has allowed five homers over his previous three starts.
Like the Astros, the Twins have exceeded preseason expectations. Minnesota posted the worst record in the majors last season (59-103) yet stand only 2 1/2 games beyond the reigning AL champion Cleveland Indians in the AL Central.
Despite a minus-60 run differential, the Twins have maintained pace by avoiding extended losing skids (their longest is four games) and by winning 10 of 15 one-run games. Future success is difficult to project, but Minnesota has done enough to warrant continued hope that postseason contention isn't an improbability.
"If you look back at the beginning and see where we are, that'd be encouraging," Twins manager Paul Molitor told MLB.com. "So as a manager you look for the positives, the competitiveness and resiliency we've shown. But you always think there's another level to get to."