Key things to watch for in today's games

Key things to watch for in today's games

For nearly a month, the Astros and Scott Kazmir have been a perfect marriage.

The southpaw, traded back to his hometown team in late July, has pitched well with Houston, and the Astros have held sole possession of first place in the American League West for all of August. They'll be challenged today by the Twins, who are trying to creep back into the postseason picture.

Kazmir is 2-3 with a 2.41 ERA in six starts with Houston, and since his arrival, the Astros have the best team ERA (2.57) and rotation ERA (2.60) in the Majors. Kazmir tied his season high by allowing six earned runs two starts ago, but his 2.39 season ERA is third among all AL starters.

The Twins are right in the thick of the hunt for the AL's second Wild Card, and they went into Thursday's action leading the race by a half-game. Kyle Gibson, who has a 6.35 ERA in August and has not won since July 12, will get the ball for Minnesota in Friday's series opener against Houston.

Here are a few other matchups and games to look forward to today.

Crunch time: BAL @ TEX, 8:05 p.m. ET
The Orioles and the Rangers are both in the same boat, paddling down the rapids of a perilous Wild Card race. There are five teams within three games of the second Wild Card slot, so every game will matter down the stretch, and the Orioles and Rangers will fight to separate themselves this weekend.

Kevin Gausman, one of Baltimore's top young arms, is still trying to establish himself as a starter, but he's been showing progress recently. Gausman, the fourth overall pick in the 2012 MLB Draft, has registered a 3.88 ERA over his last seven games but has a 1-4 record to show for it.

Gausman will be matched against veteran Cole Hamels, who was picked up at the non-waiver Trade Deadline for pressure games in the playoff hunt. Hamels has completed at least six innings in each of his first four starts for Texas, and he picked up his first AL victory by beating Detroit in his last outing.

Hamels' first Rangers win

Foreshadowing: CHC @ LAD, 10:10 p.m. ET
Clayton Kershaw has some unfinished business in October, and the Cubs are on a mission of their own. The Dodgers maintain control of the NL West and Chicago has a solid hold on the second Wild Card slot, which means these two teams may face off against each other in October.

Kershaw, who currently leads the NL in both innings pitched (177) and strikeouts (222), has posted a career postseason record of 1-5 with a 5.12 ERA. The three-time Cy Young Award winner might be peaking at the right time, though, as he's gone 4-0 with a 1.00 ERA since the All-Star break.

Chicago veteran Jason Hammel will get the start today, and he's gone 7-5 with a 3.35 ERA in his first 24 starts this season. Hammel took a no-decision against the Dodgers at home in June despite throwing 7 2/3 innings of shutout ball, but he's 5-3 with a 3.17 ERA in 11 road starts this season.

Kershaw's 10-strikeout start

National treasures: STL @ SF, 10:15 p.m. ET
The Giants have beaten the Cardinals in the NLCS twice since 2012, and between the two franchises, they've won four of the last five World Series. The Cardinals have cruised to the best record in the Majors this season, but the Giants need to buckle down in September.

San Francisco trails the Dodgers in the race for the NL West title, coming off a contentious series against the hard-charging Cubs. Mike Leake, acquired from the Reds at the Trade Deadline, has made just two starts for San Francisco due to a hamstring injury, but he'll return on Friday.

Michael Wacha, working his way through a breakthrough season, will start for the Cardinals. Wacha is 15-4 with a 2.80 ERA, and he's set career highs in wins, innings (151 1/3) and strikeouts (128). The Cardinals are 19-5 when Wacha pitches, and he's 4-0 with a 1.09 ERA in his last five starts.

Wacha's one-run outing

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.