After tightening up the AL West race, the Oakland Athletics have a chance to take a slim lead if they can avoid a letdown against the lowly Houston Astros.
The A's have dominated the Astros for much of this season and the starter for Thursday night's series opener, Sonny Gray, played a part with a stellar outing last month.Oakland (80-59) moved into a tie with Texas atop the division after winning two of three at home over the Rangers this week. The A's punctuated that series with an 11-4 rout Wednesday, their eight victory in 10 games.Coco Crisp's fourth home run in five contests was one of four longballs Oakland had in that win, and Josh Donaldson hit a three-run shot. Texas is idle Thursday, giving the A's a chance to take sole possession of first place for the first time since Aug. 9."It's going to be fun," Donaldson told the team's website. "This is what it's all about. This is where everyone wants to be right now, in this position to control your own destiny and hopefully win a division title. I feel like everyone's feeling good about themselves, and we're playing pretty good baseball right now."Oakland needed a sweep of Texas in its final series to clinch last season's division title but will try to avoid the drama this season by adding to its sterling record against Houston (46-93).The A's have won 12 of 15 meetings this season and 17 of 21 all-time. The Astros, though, nearly swept a three-game series in Oakland from Aug. 13-15 before Gray (2-2, 2.57 ERA) had one of the best performances of his brief career in the finale.The rookie right-hander struck out a career-high nine over eight innings in that 5-0 win and heads into this matchup after another superb outing. He pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings and fanned seven in a 2-1 win over Tampa Bay on Saturday."Sonny is fun to watch I don't care who you are," catcher Stephen Vogt said. "I've been fortunate to have a front row seat for many of his starts. He's an electric pitcher."Gray, 2-0 with a 0.83 ERA in three career home starts, will face a Houston team that's had double-digit hits and scored six runs in three straight games. The Astros batted .212 and produced a combined 10 runs in their previous six contests.Houston, though, was nearly swept by Minnesota until coming back from a blown three-run lead in a 6-5 victory Wednesday. Trevor Crowe ended the game with his second RBI single of the day.Crowe is 7 for 18 (.389) in four games since being called up from the minors."It's definitely a good start," he said. "I owe a lot of credit to (manager Bo Porter), I was in a good rhythm and he put me right in the lineup and I feel like I'm still in that rhythm."Brad Peacock (3-5, 5.98) will try to lead the Astros to back-to-back victories for the first time in nearly two weeks by bouncing back from the end to his only win streak this season.Peacock failed to win a third straight start when he gave up five runs, seven hits and four walks over 4 2/3 innings Friday in a 7-1 defeat to Seattle.Peacock is 0-1 with a 5.19 ERA in two starts against Oakland with both in April. Crisp and Eric Sogard are both 3 for 4 against the right-hander.