Depending on your level of optimism (and your proximity to Houston, Texas) this series between the Cleveland Indians and the Houston Astros could be a playoff preview. The Astros are hot coming into this series, having won seven of their last 10 games and only two back in the American League Wild Card race. They will need some help from the Baltimore Orioles, who look like they are ready to oblige with their recent struggles.
The Astros may be playing well lately, but no team is hotter than the Indians right now. They are coming off of sweeps over the Minnesota Twins and Miami Marlins for a league-best six-game winning streak. Six wins in a row are nice, but it is not quite enough to be the season-high mark for a winning streak, which is 14 and set by... wait, who was it? Oh yeah, the Indians.
Cleveland's AL Central lead is safe for another series, at least. They currently hold a 5.5-game lead over the second-place Detroit Tigers and, at 9.5-games back, the Kansas City Royals are almost irrelevant at this point.
Monday night's Indians-Astros game is one of only two Labor Day matchups to be a night game. This is also the last Indians series to be against a non-division opponent. From here on out they will be fighting their way through the American League Central to, hopefully, a playoff berth.
Monday, 7:10 p.m. ET: Mike Clevinger (RHP) vs. Mike Fiers (RHP)
Hooray, a Mike Clevinger start! The young prospect will make his first start since August 13, although this one will be a bit different. Terry Francona has previously stated that he sees Clevinger's value down the stretch coming from the bullpen, and he has instructed his young starter to treat this as a bullpen day. So, don't expect Clevinger to go much more than three or four innings, depending on how quickly he works.
Clevinger will be facing Mike Fiers, who has failed to provide the spark he did last season with the Astros. Fiers carries a 4.31 ERA in 25 starts this season. Over 144 innings, he has an 18.2 percent strikeout rate, the lowest rate of his career since 2013. He is, however, walking batters at a career-best clip of 5.5 percent.
In Fiers' last outing, he allowed one earned run off of eight hits in five innings against the Oakland Athletics.
Tuesday, 7:10 p.m. ET: Corey Kluber (RHP) vs. Dallas Keuchel (LHP)
Speaking of pitchers who are not the same as they were a year ago, here's Dallas Keuchel. The lefty, who was last year's AL Cy Young winner, has an earned run average that refuses to dip below 4.00. Currently, it sits at 4.55 with a FIP of 3.87. Keuchel's biggest strength last year was his groundball rate (61.7%), but this season he is giving up fewer balls on the ground (56.7%) and he is allowing a little over one home run per nine innings.
Keuchel has been much better in his last two starts. Against the Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles, Keuchel combined to throw 15 innings and allow just four earned runs off of 14 hits.
Corey Kluber is still pretty good.
Wednesday, 7:10 p.m. ET: Carlos Carrasco (RHP) vs. Doug Fister (RHP)
Things might not be going your way if Doug Fister is your best pitcher. Nothing against Mr. Fister, but his 3.91 ERA is not exactly ace-worthy. The 32-year-old is never going to strike a lot of batters out, but he is walking 7.8 percent of the batters he faces this season, the worst walk rate of his career. His last start was an ugly one: A 3.2-inning disaster against the Texas Rangers in which he gave up seven runs off of 10 hits, including two home runs.
There is no doubt about it anymore: Carlos Carrasco is back. The Indians other ace struck out 11 Miami Marlins batters in his last outing, his second 11-strikeout game in the last four. Combined, in his last four starts, Carrasco has struck out 39 batters and walked just two.
Thursday, 12:10 p.m. ET: Trevor Bauer (RHP) vs. Joe Musgrove (RHP)
Joe Musgrove, the Astros' No. 5 prospect according to MLB Pipeline, has looked like a rookie in his first handful of starts. He has a great strikeout-to-walk ratio of 17.1 percent, but he has already allowed seven home runs in his first 37.1 innings and 21 earned runs in total.
Trevor Bauer has been a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter for the Tribe this season. He has career-best marks in ERA (3.70), FIP (3.87), walk rate (9%), and he already has accrued a career-best 2.5 FanGraphs WAR. He had a rough first inning in his last start, but kicked it into high gear for the last 7.1 and turned in an excellent outing, overall, against the Miami Marlins.
The Indians will begin their AL Central gauntlet on the road against the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox, before returning home to host the Detroit Tigers in a pivotal series.
Team in a box
You might be a bit surprised seeing how high the Astros pitching ranks after seeing their dismal starting rotation. That's because their bullpen has been spectacular. As a group, they are second behind only the New York Yankees in FanGraphs WAR (6.8), and strikeouts per nine innings (10.04). They lead all AL bullpens with a 3.34 FIP.
Houston Astros roster
The Houston Astros are led by the best second baseman-shortstop combination in the majors. Yes, even my cold, dead, biased heart has to admit that Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa are probably better than Jason Kipnis and Francisco Lindor. It's close, especially the contest between shortstops, but Altuve and Correa have been worth a combined 11.1 fWAR this season and they are not slowing down.
Altuve leads the team with a 6.6 fWAR built upon a tremendous .346/.409/.557 slash line and 22 home runs. Correa is not far behind with a .274/.360/.462 slash and 19 home runs, although he will never play the kind of defense we are treated to every night with Lindor.
George Springer, who the Indians were rumored to be interested in this offseason, has been great in the Houston outfield. He himself is slashing .256/.359/.460 with a team-high 26 home runs.
Springer, Altuve, have all played in at least 132 games so far this season.
As previously mentioned, they are... not good. Dallas Keuchel is technically the best with a 2.7 fWAR, but Doug Fister leads all active starters with a 3.91 ERA.
On the other hand, the Astros bullpen has been something else. Will Harris was pretty good last year out of the pen with a 1.90 ERA, but some luck may have been on his side. This season, he has been flat-out dominant in terms of walks and strikeouts, but his ERA is a bit higher at 2.36.
Luke Gregerson leads the team in saves with 14 and has pitched the third-most innings out of the bullpen at 48.1.
Christopher Devenski has the distinction of being the most heavily-used bullpen arm at 71.1 innings (a full 14 innings more than second-place Micahel Feliz). The Astros has made good use of the rookie phenom, as he has a 2.16 ERA and a 2.61 FIP. He also started five games. Four early in the season and one in August as a spot start.