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Tired Blue Jays gear up for Astros

HOUSTON -- After 20 games in 20 days, the Toronto Blue Jays finally got a much-needed breather Thursday.

Now they pick up again Friday in Houston against the American League's best team.

"Twenty in a row after the (All-Star) break is definitely not easy," said Blue Jays first baseman Justin Smoak, who leads the club with 31 home runs.

Toronto (51-57) finished 10-10 during that stretch despite a minus-14 run differential. The Blue Jays rank 20th in ERA since the break, with only four American League teams (including the injury-plagued Astros) trailing Toronto during the second half.

"I will tell you I think we desperately need the off day," Toronto manager John Gibbons said Wednesday. "Everybody is banged up, everybody is tired -- especially our pitchers."

Right-hander Cesar Valdez (1-0, 5.00 ERA) will start for the Blue Jays on Friday. Valdez is 1-0 with a 4.50 ERA over two games (one start) against the Astros. He allowed three runs on four hits and one walk over three innings while pitching in relief in a 9-4 home loss to the Astros on April 28.

Right-hander Brad Peacock (9-1, 2.62) will start for Houston. Peacock was moved back to the bullpen when left-hander Dallas Keuchel returned to the rotation. Peacock made just one relief appearance, allowing two runs over four innings on July 28 at Detroit. He then rejoined the rotation when Lance McCullers went on the 10-day disabled list. He is 2-0 with a 3.09 ERA in his career against the Blue Jays.

The Astros (69-39) are missing two All-Stars, shortstop Carlos Correa (thumb) and outfielder George Springer (quadriceps), and manager A.J. Hinch has posted lineups reflecting a roster in flux.

For just the 10th time this season, shortstop Alex Bregman occupied the second spot in the batting order Thursday -- a decision borne out of both necessity and reward.

A lengthy stretch of productivity played a role in Bregman escaping the bottom third of the order, with the Astros needing his bat to help keep their offense afloat.

Entering the series finale against the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday, Bregman had produced a slash line of .346/.426/.667 over his last 23 games -- totals that included 12 doubles, four home runs, nine RBI and 25 runs. In just under a month, Bregman bumped his average 24 points.

He finished 3-for-4 with a double and an RBI in the Astros' 5-3 loss Thursday.

"His swing's a lot better," Hinch said. "I think it's a little more direct to the ball. His aggressiveness is still there, but he's become a little smarter with swinging early in the count. He's driving the ball to both gaps, which is key. He can get the ball in the air a little too much at times; he's a line-drive hitter by style. But he's lessened his love affair with the fly ball, which is good.

"All in all, he's learning. Nowadays you want these guys to be perfect from the beginning of their career. They need some at-bats to learn themselves, learn the league, and we ask a lot out of them early. I'm happy with some of the adjustments he's made."

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