The desperation was palpable. The Astros had dropped seven straight entering Sunday's series finale with the New York Yankees and faced the possibility of a winless road trip and the specter of carrying negative vibes back to Houston.
Instead, the Astros walloped four home runs, cruised to a 9-4 win that clinched the season series against the Yankees, and returned home set to embrace an off day before hosting the Pittsburgh Pirates for a three-game interleague set starting Tuesday.
With their season-worst skid in the rearview mirror, the Astros are betting that their triumph Sunday gets them back on track toward winning 100-plus games for a third consecutive season.
"Anything can spark a team as talented as ours," Astros right-hander Justin Verlander said. "Over the course of 162 games, you're going to go through ebbs and flows, you're going to have ups and downs, you're going to slump sometimes as a team, and things are going to always seem to go against you, which is kind of what it was seeming like this last week.
"Sometimes the script gets flipped and things start going your way."
Right-hander Gerrit Cole (6-5, 3.54 ERA) will make his first career start against the team that selected him first overall in the 2011 draft.
Cole went 59-42 with a 3.50 ERA over 127 starts for the Pirates before being the centerpiece of a trade with the Astros on Jan. 13, 2018. He is 1-0 with a 2.16 ERA over four starts this month, allowing a .187 batting average with 36 strikeouts over 25 innings. Cole leads the majors with 148 strikeouts in 96 2/3 innings this season.
Right-hander Trevor Williams (2-1, 4.12 ERA) will open the series on the mound for the Pirates.
After spending more than a month on the injured list, Williams returned to the rotation on June 19 and allowed seven runs on nine hits with seven strikeouts over five innings but did not factor into the decision in an 8-7 win over the Detroit Tigers. Tuesday marks his first appearance against the Astros. Williams is 5-1 with a 3.09 ERA over 11 interleague starts.
The momentum the Astros hope they generated with their win Sunday in the Bronx, the Pirates appeared to have claimed with their aforementioned victory over the Tigers in Williams' previous start. Pittsburgh trailed 7-1 before rallying to win, the first of four consecutive victories.
The Pirates have won six of eight since a seven-game losing skid dropped them eight games under .500. If there was any doubting their mojo it was erased Sunday when Pittsburgh scored three runs in the bottom of the ninth off Padres closer Kirby Yates to force extra innings and then scored four runs in the 11th to snatch an 11-10 victory from San Diego to extend its win streak.
The Pirates are just five games in the loss column behind the first-place Chicago Cubs in the National League Central, and they open their series in Houston with a positive approach as the All-Star break nears.
"Whatever we have going right now, we feel that way," Pirates left-hander Steven Brault said. "We just feel really good about where we're at."
--Field Level Media
Astros ace Cole faces former Pirates teammates