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Astros start last homestand amid wild-card dogfight

HOUSTON -- What appeared on paper to be a forgiving closing schedule is playing out that way for the Houston Astros, who concluded a successful road trip Wednesday while also continuing to get help from their wild-card competition.

The Astros (81-71) capped a three-game sweep of the Athletics with a 6-5, white-knuckle win, closing a six-game swing through Seattle and Oakland with just one loss. Houston has won six of seven games to climb back to 10 games over .500, its high point on the season, catching fire at the right time with the Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles slumping just enough to enable the Astros to close the gap in the American League wild-card standings.

Houston will enter a four-game series against the Los Angeles Angels on Thursday tied with the Detroit Tigers (80-70) one game behind the Orioles (82-70) for the second wild-card slot and just two games in back of Toronto (83-69) for the first.

After closing a rugged 13-game stretch against first-place teams 5-8, the Astros appeared to be on life support. However, with the Angels and the Mariners, against whom the Astros are a combined 21-7 in 2016, upcoming on the final homestand, hope springs eternal.

"It's starts with a winning road trip, which would have been 4-2, obviously," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "We were one game short of perfect, and we're really taking this one game at a time, which is the worst cliche you can use this time of year, but it's the reality of how we show up every day in trying to win today's game.

"We try to focus on ourselves and not on what's going on around us. We know if we win, good things will happen to us. We still need some help, but we start from that premise that we're going to try to win today's game, and the day can only get better."

Houston will send right-hander Mike Fiers to the mound against the Angels (66-86) on Thursday night. Fiers (11-7, 4.46 ERA) took the Astros' lone loss in the season series, allowing seven earned runs over 3 2/3 innings on May 27. He won his second start against the Angels and is 1-1 with a 5.92 ERA against them in four career appearances.

The Angels will counter with right-hander Ricky Nolasco (6-14, 4.78 ERA overall, 2-6 with a 4.03 ERA for Los Angeles).

Nolasco, 5-1 with a 4.38 ERA against the Astros over eight career games (seven starts), recorded scoreless outings in his two wins with the Angels, twirling a shutout against the Cincinnati Reds and working six scoreless innings against the Blue Jays on Sept. 17 in his most recent start.

Even with the Angels playing out the string tied for last place in the AL West, center fielder Mike Trout remains an overwhelming force and a potential obstacle on the Astros' road to the postseason. Trout cranked a three-run home run in the Angels' 5-4 win at Texas on Wednesday night, his 28th, and his statistical profile befits that of an AL MVP candidate despite the team's overall struggles.

"Mike is making a big case for MVP," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, according to MLB.com. "He's done everything you could ever ask a player to do, and unfortunately, we haven't had the depth around him to take advantage of some of the things he's done."
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