ARLINGTON, Texas - This time of year, Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker is usually starting to think about getting some rest for his everyday players and putting together pitching plans for the playoffs.
Not yet this season in what is shaping up for a wild West finish in the American League.
The reigning World Series champion Astros will go into the final 10 days of the regular season with only a half-game lead in the AL West over both Seattle and Texas after all were off Thursday. The Mariners play their final 10 games against those other two teams.
"These tight (races), they can build character. So, let’s see what kind of character we’ve got," Baker said.
"It’s kind of cool to see three teams fighting for one spot, two spots with the wild card," Mariners first baseman Ty France said. "It’s exactly how we wanted to finish, and hopefully we can take care of business."
Seattle opens a three-game series at Texas on Friday night with those teams tied for the American League’s third and final wild-card spot, and Toronto right ahead of them. The Mariners then go home for three games against Houston and four more against the Rangers.
Houston has 85 wins after their walk-off victory Wednesday over AL-best Baltimore to stay in front and avoid being swept at home. That is one more win than the Mariners and Rangers — all three teams have 68 losses.
The Astros pretty comfortably won each of the last five AL West titles determined over full 162-game schedules, including by 16 games last season. They have been to the AL Championship Series six years in a row, even as a 29-31 wild card during the COVID-altered 2020 season. They went to the World Series four times in that span, winning two of them.
Only 39-39 at home, the Astros host 102-loss Kansas City this weekend before going to Seattle and NL wild-card contender Arizona.
"I don’t think it’s going be a problem for us to go out there and focus and win some games," said Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, adding that their past success should help them.
Texas, already ensured its first winning record since 2016, led the AL West for 148 of the season’s first 149 days through Aug. 26. But the Rangers had lost 20 of 30 games before back-to-back wins over Boston.
"It’s been a heck of a ride ... some steep, steep hills, up and down. It’s unlike I’ve seen, to be honest, when you look at this roller-coaster ride," said Rangers manager Bruce Bochy, a three-time World Series champion with San Francisco before being out of the dugout the past three seasons.
"But I missed it. ... If you told me I’d been in this situation last year when I wasn’t doing this, I would have done a cartwheel around this ballpark."
The Rangers have two multiple Cy Young Award winners, but Jacob deGrom (elbow surgery) hasn’t pitched since April and trade-deadline acquisition Max Scherzer is on the injured list with a strained muscle in his shoulder. Five of their six All-Stars have been on the IL since that July 11 game, with slugger Adolis Garcia and rookie third baseman Josh Jung the last to return this week.
Seattle and Texas last met the first weekend in June, when the Rangers swept three games at home, including 16-6 and 12-3 wins. The Mariners, who last season made the playoffs for the first time since 2001, were then 29-30 and 9 1/2 games out of the division lead.
While only 1-5 against Texas so far, the Mariners have won eight of 10 against the Astros. Houston went 9-4 against the Rangers, hitting 16 homers and outscoring them 39-10 in a three-game road sweep just two weeks ago to take sole possession of the division lead for the first time all season.
The Mariners had a pair of eight-game winning streaks in August while led by their young star Julio Rodriguez, whose 176 hits are tied with Texas leadoff hitter Marcus Semien for most in the AL. But they lost at least three games in a row three times in September before they swept three games in Oakland this week.
Seattle does have experience with the emotions and swings of a playoff chase. The M’s won 90 games each of the last two seasons, just missing a postseason berth in 2021. They won in the wild-card round against Toronto last year before Houston swept them in the AL Division Series.
"You lose two games in a row and oh my god, the sky is falling. And then you win two games in a row and everybody’s, ‘Oh we’re a lock.’ It just comes and goes so quickly," Seattle manager Scott Servais said. "After you’ve gone through it once or twice like we’ve done the last couple of years, you understand it’s just about today’s game first of all, then move on to the next day. You really can’t control anything else."
No team controls its destiny as much as Seattle because of the schedule, though the Rangers will try to seize that same opportunity.
"We’ve got a seven-game set with the team that we need to beat the most," Texas first baseman Nathaniel Lowe said. "It’s right in front of us. ... It’s going to a week full of like just-about playoff baseball."