(Photo credit: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports)
The Houston Astros are putting heat on the Texas Rangers with the regular season just two days away from ending.
Houston has a chance to move into a first-place tie in the American League West when it visits the Arizona Diamondbacks on Saturday night in Phoenix.
The Astros (88-72) have won their past two games while Texas (89-71) dropped its past two to tighten up the division race. If that trend continues Saturday, the two teams would be tied heading into the final day of the season.
Houston also resides in the third wild-card spot, one game behind the Toronto Blue Jays and one game ahead of the Seattle Mariners (87-73).
The Mariners and Rangers are playing a four-game series in Seattle, with the Mariners winning the first two.
The Astros boosted their chances of making the playoffs for the seventh straight season with Friday's 2-1 victory over the Diamondbacks in the first contest of the three-game series. Jose Abreu hit a two-run double to provide the offense and fill-in starter Jose Urquidy pitched six innings of two-hit shutout ball.
"We've got to focus about us," Houston catcher Martin Maldonado said afterward. "It's easier said than done. Everywhere you go you see the scoreboard. But I think we've got to come in (Saturday) with the same energy. I thought we had good at-bats today. I think we've got to continue to do that over and over tomorrow."
The Diamondbacks (84-76) have lost two straight games after winning eight of their previous 10. They are attempting to make the postseason field for the first time since 2017.
Arizona remains in the second wild-card spot in the National League and also controls its fate. The Diamondbacks are a half-game ahead of the Miami Marlins and two games in front of both the Cincinnati Reds and Chicago Cubs.
Arizona manager Torey Lovullo will know immediately if a development occurs in his club's favor.
"I look at the scoreboard and the out-of-town scoreboard 50, 60 times a game, and I know everybody else does," Lovullo said. "I don't want to run from the obvious."
The Diamondbacks certainly will face a tall task on Saturday when the Astros send three-time Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander (12-8, 3.32 ERA) to the mound.
"We know the landscape and we know what he's capable of doing," Lovullo said of the future Hall of Famer. "He's clearly a big-game pitcher and he's looking forward to this challenge, as are we."
Verlander is 6-3 with a 3.57 ERA in 10 starts since Houston reacquired him from the New York Mets at the trade deadline.
The 40-year-old Verlander is coming off a strong outing in which he went eight innings while defeating the Mariners. He allowed one run, three hits, one walk and struck out eight.
Verlander was roughed up for eight runs and 16 hits in 13 innings over his previous two starts, losing to the hapless Oakland Athletics and receiving a no-decision against the playoff-bound Baltimore Orioles.
Verlander is 4-1 with a 1.99 ERA in six career starts against Arizona. Tommy Pham (5-for-12) and Evan Longoria (9-for-36) each have homered against Verlander, while Ketel Marte is just 2-for-13.
Arizona will counter with right-hander Merrill Kelly (12-7, 3.38) on Saturday.
Kelly received a no-decision against the New York Yankees in his most recent outing when he gave up two runs and four hits over five innings.
Kelly had given up one run or less in four of his previous six starts. That includes an outing in which he gave up one hit in seven scoreless innings and matched his career high of 12 strikeouts in a no-decision against the Cincinnati Reds on Aug. 24.
The 34-year-old Kelly received a no-decision in his lone career start against the Astros on April 13, 2021. He gave up three hits in 5 1/3 scoreless innings before exiting.
Jose Altuve is 2-for-3 against Kelly.
--Field Level Media