Astros keep cool ahead of key stretch vs. rivals

Hinch has young club in right frame of mind to keep lead over Rangers, Angels

Astros keep cool ahead of key stretch vs. rivals

ANAHEIM -- For at least the next week, the Astros can cut back on their scoreboard watching. The two teams chasing the American League West leaders -- the Rangers and Angels -- are next up on the schedule, beginning with a three-game series at Anaheim starting on Friday.

The Astros will begin play on Friday with a 2 1/2-game lead on the Rangers and a 5 1/2-game lead on the third-place Angels. Thirteen of the Astros' next 16 games are against the two teams in their rearview mirror. AL Cy Young favorite Dallas Keuchel (17-6, 2.29 ERA) will take the mound against Angels righty Jered Weaver to open the club's next set.

Correa's three-run blast

"We have a complete understanding of how critical these games are, really for the next three weeks," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "I think that everyone circled these series as the most important series, and the reality is this time of year, the most important game of the year is the one you're playing. We relish the opportunity to be in the middle of this, and when you set out to start the year, you certainly want to play this pressurized baseball in September."

These are the most significant games many of the Astros' key players have played. It's the first pennant race for Keuchel, starting pitchers Collin McHugh and Lance McCullers Jr.; second baseman Jose Altuve, shortstop Carlos Correa and catcher Jason Castro, who could return this weekend after straining his right quad.

Hinch on offense, win

Following at the series against the Angels, the Astros will play four at Arlington beginning on Monday. Surging Texas is 8-4 against Houston this year, having swept the Astros at Globe Life Park last month. Both the Angels and Rangers will play at Minute Maid Park later in the month.

Hinch, one of the front-runners for the AL Manager of the Year Award, has done a terrific job of keeping the Astros on an even keel all season, and he knows that's important when games are magnified in September.

"Our personality hasn't changed throughout the year, which I really appreciate about our guys," Hinch said. "We're loose; we're excited to be in it. We all understand how important it is, but it's more of an excitement and it's certainly not nerve-wracking. Our group has been unique from the beginning of Spring Training all the way to now, so there's really no reason to change despite the outside attention that we get, given our place in the standings and the time of year."

Astros' five-run 7th

With veteran starter Scott Feldman sidelined due to a right shoulder injury, the Astros are going with a five-man rotation for this three-week stretch, during which they'll have only one off-day. The team took measures to rest some starters in recent weeks, and that decision should benefit it now.

"In a lot of ways, we've been working toward getting to this point," Hinch said. "Part of the reason we gave our guys so much rest is because we [anticipated] this stretch of 13 in a row and 19 out of 20, and not only that, but the intensity in which these games are going to be played. We tried to be proactive in giving them rest, and our guys will respond fine."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.