Astros prepare for playoffs while facing Rangers

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The final week of the season isn't without its usefulness for the Houston Astros. The American League West champions must settle on a pitching staff and bench with the playoffs on tap.

After two more games against the Texas Rangers, there is the issue of facing Boston in the final series of the regular season before a probable matchup with the Red Sox in the AL Division Series. How the Astros approach the series that starts Thursday at Fenway Park could be interesting.

"Exposing guys to different matchups and things like that is a little tricky, but you can overthink that, too," Houston manager A.J. Hinch said. "You really just need to play the games and compete and let whatever happens happen and not get too caught up in that stuff. We'll address how we're going to attack the Boston series as we get closer to it."

Houston (96-60) first must finish up with Texas, which saw its fleeting playoff hopes essentially erased with an 11-2 loss Monday. The two Lone Star State rivals meet Tuesday night in the second of three games at Globe Life Park.

The Astros may be without AL hit leader Jose Altuve, who left the Monday game in the eighth inning with a left foreman contusion after getting hit by a pitch. X-rays were negative.

The Rangers (76-80) enter Tuesday six games behind Minnesota (82-74) in the race for the second AL wild card with six games to play. Texas will be eliminated from playoff contention with one loss or one Twins win.

"It's been a must-win for us for the last two weeks," said Andrew Cashner, the losing pitcher for Texas on Monday. "We've put ourselves in the hole at different times this season and responded different. We have to come out and win tomorrow. I knew it was a big game and I tried to do my job and wasn't able to do that today."

Houston sends Dallas Keuchel (13-5, 2.96 ERA) to the mound on Tuesday. He is 2-1 with a 3.38 ERA in three starts against the Rangers this season. In 18 2/3 innings vs. Texas, he has 21 strikeouts and eight walks.

The left-hander is 7-8 with a 4.12 ERA in 21 career starts against the Rangers. He lost his most recent outing, allowing two runs on five hits in six innings against the Chicago White Sox on Thursday.

Keuchel lines up to face Boston on Sunday in the regular-season finale, but it is unlikely he will pitch that day as Hinch sets up the order of his playoff rotation.

"There's still a lot that we have to sort through before we decide what starters are going to go, what kind of matchups we're going to go with," Hinch said. "To be honest with you, until things are solidified on all fronts, we're not going to spend a ton of time exhausting the what-ifs."

Cole Hamels (11-4, 3.80 ERA) looks to continue his mastery of the Astros on Tuesday in his second start against Houston this season. For his career, the 33-year-old lefty is 7-3 with 3.78 ERA in 15 starts against Houston, including a win on Aug. 11 in Arlington in which he tossed seven shutout innings.

Hamels is also a perfect 5-0 against the Astros in a Texas uniform. He hasn't lost to the Astros since Sept. 13, 2011, at Houston as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies.
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