Astros Drop Series To A’s, Face Legitimate Race In AL West

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Image 1 of 41 After getting to a bunt by Josh Reddick, A’s pitcher Ryan Buchter shovels the ball to first base with his glove for the second out in the Astros’ eighth. After getting to a bunt by Josh Reddick, A’s pitcher Ryan Buchter shovels the ball to first base with his glove for the second out in the Astros’ eighth. Photo: Karen Warren, Staff / Houston Chronicle Image 2 of 41 Oakland Athletics Mark Canha (20) trots home, past Houston Astros starting pitcher Charlie Morton (50) after Nick Martini hit an RBI double during the fifth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. less Oakland Athletics Mark Canha (20) trots home, past Houston Astros starting pitcher Charlie Morton (50) after Nick Martini hit an RBI double during the fifth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, ... more Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 3 of 41 Houston Astros starting pitcher Charlie Morton (50) reacts after walking Oakland Athletics Jonathan Lucroy to load the bases during the fifth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. less Houston Astros starting pitcher Charlie Morton (50) reacts after walking Oakland Athletics Jonathan Lucroy to load the bases during the fifth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, ... more Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 4 of 41 Houston Astros Jose Altuve (27) is tagged out at second base by Oakland Athletics Marcus Semien after Altuve tried to stretch a single into a double during the seventh inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. less Houston Astros Jose Altuve (27) is tagged out at second base by Oakland Athletics Marcus Semien after Altuve tried to stretch a single into a double during the seventh inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid ... more Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 5 of 41 Houston Astros catcher Max Stassi (12) looks back at the dugout during the eighth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Houston Astros catcher Max Stassi (12) looks back at the dugout during the eighth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 6 of 41 Oakland Athletics pitcher Ryan Buchter makes the toss to first base as Houston Astros Josh Reddick softly ground out during the eighth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. less Oakland Athletics pitcher Ryan Buchter makes the toss to first base as Houston Astros Josh Reddick softly ground out during the eighth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in ... more Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 7 of 41 Houston Astros George Springer (4) reacts after flying out during the seventh inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Houston Astros George Springer (4) reacts after flying out during the seventh inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 8 of 41 Oakland Athletics pitcher Ryan Buchter makes the toss to first base as Houston Astros Josh Reddick softly ground out during the eighth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. less Oakland Athletics pitcher Ryan Buchter makes the toss to first base as Houston Astros Josh Reddick softly ground out during the eighth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in ... more Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 9 of 41 Oakland Athletics Mark Canha catches Houston Astros Alex Bregman's sharply hit line drive during the seventh inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Oakland Athletics Mark Canha catches Houston Astros Alex Bregman's sharply hit line drive during the seventh inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 10 of 41 Houston Astros catcher Max Stassi (12) talks with relief pitcher Chris Devenski (47) during the eighth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Houston Astros catcher Max Stassi (12) talks with relief pitcher Chris Devenski (47) during the eighth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 11 of 41 Oakland Athletics Mark Canha catches Houston Astros Alex Bregman's sharply hit line drive during the seventh inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Oakland Athletics Mark Canha catches Houston Astros Alex Bregman's sharply hit line drive during the seventh inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 12 of 41 Houston Astros Jose Altuve (27) is tagged out at second base by Oakland Athletics Marcus Semien after Altuve tried to stretch a single into a double during the seventh inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. less Houston Astros Jose Altuve (27) is tagged out at second base by Oakland Athletics Marcus Semien after Altuve tried to stretch a single into a double during the seventh inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid ... more Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 13 of 41 Houston Astros George Springer (4) runs back to the dugout after the seventh inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Houston Astros George Springer (4) runs back to the dugout after the seventh inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 14 of 41 Houston Astros starting pitcher Charlie Morton (50) reacts after walking Oakland Athletics Jonathan Lucroy to load the bases during the fifth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. less Houston Astros starting pitcher Charlie Morton (50) reacts after walking Oakland Athletics Jonathan Lucroy to load the bases during the fifth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, ... more Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 15 of 41 Houston Astros starting pitcher Charlie Morton (50) reacts after walking Oakland Athletics Jonathan Lucroy to load the bases during the fifth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. less Houston Astros starting pitcher Charlie Morton (50) reacts after walking Oakland Athletics Jonathan Lucroy to load the bases during the fifth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, ... more Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 16 of 41 Oakland Athletics right fielder Nick Martini (38) hits an RBI double during the fifth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Oakland Athletics right fielder Nick Martini (38) hits an RBI double during the fifth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 17 of 41 Houston Astros starting pitcher Charlie Morton (50) walks back to the dugout after manager AJ Hinch (14) pulled him during the fifth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. less Houston Astros starting pitcher Charlie Morton (50) walks back to the dugout after manager AJ Hinch (14) pulled him during the fifth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in ... more Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 18 of 41 Houston Astros Evan Gattis (11) flips his bat over his shoulder as he grounded into a force out during the fifth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Houston Astros Evan Gattis (11) flips his bat over his shoulder as he grounded into a force out during the fifth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 19 of 41 Houston Astros Tony Kemp (18) celebrates with Jose Altuve after Kemp's two-run home run during the fourth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Houston Astros Tony Kemp (18) celebrates with Jose Altuve after Kemp's two-run home run during the fourth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 20 of 41 Houston Astros Jose Altuve in the dugout during the fourth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Houston Astros Jose Altuve in the dugout during the fourth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 21 of 41 Houston Astros Tony Kemp (18) hits a two-run home run during the fourth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Houston Astros Tony Kemp (18) hits a two-run home run during the fourth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 22 of 41 Houston Astros Tony Kemp (18) celebrates with Alex Bregman (2) after Kemp's two-run home run during the fourth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Houston Astros Tony Kemp (18) celebrates with Alex Bregman (2) after Kemp's two-run home run during the fourth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 23 of 41 Houston Astros Tony Kemp (18) celebrates with Justin Verlander and Stassi after Kemp's two-run home run during the fourth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Houston Astros Tony Kemp (18) celebrates with Justin Verlander and Stassi after Kemp's two-run home run during the fourth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 24 of 41 Houston Astros Justin Verlander spits seeds as he talks with manager AJ Hinch in the dugout during the fourth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Houston Astros Justin Verlander spits seeds as he talks with manager AJ Hinch in the dugout during the fourth inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 25 of 41 Houston Astros Tony Kemp (18) and George Springer (4) celebrate after they scored runs on Alex Bregman's RBI double during the third inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. less Houston Astros Tony Kemp (18) and George Springer (4) celebrate after they scored runs on Alex Bregman's RBI double during the third inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in ... more Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 26 of 41 Houston Astros catcher Max Stassi (12) tried to make the throw to first as Oakland Athletics right fielder Nick Martini singled during the third inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. less Houston Astros catcher Max Stassi (12) tried to make the throw to first as Oakland Athletics right fielder Nick Martini singled during the third inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, ... more Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 27 of 41 Houston Astros Tony Kemp (18) and George Springer (4) celebrate after they scored runs on Alex Bregman's RBI double during the third inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. less Houston Astros Tony Kemp (18) and George Springer (4) celebrate after they scored runs on Alex Bregman's RBI double during the third inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in ... more Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 28 of 41 Houston Astros Tony Kemp (18) steals second base from Oakland Athletics Chad Pinder (18) during the third inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Houston Astros Tony Kemp (18) steals second base from Oakland Athletics Chad Pinder (18) during the third inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 29 of 41 Houston Astros Alex Bregman (2) hits an RBI double during the third inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Houston Astros Alex Bregman (2) hits an RBI double during the third inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 30 of 41 Houston Astros starting pitcher Charlie Morton (50) pitches during the first inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Houston Astros starting pitcher Charlie Morton (50) pitches during the first inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 31 of 41 Houston Astros starting pitcher Charlie Morton (50) pitches during the first inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Houston Astros starting pitcher Charlie Morton (50) pitches during the first inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 32 of 41 Oakland Athletics Marcus Semien (10) gets his helmet from Houston Astros Jose Altuve (27) after losing it running to second base on his double during the first inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. less Oakland Athletics Marcus Semien (10) gets his helmet from Houston Astros Jose Altuve (27) after losing it running to second base on his double during the first inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, ... more Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 33 of 41 Oakland Athletics Marcus Semien (10) loses his helmet as he runs to second base on his double during the first inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Oakland Athletics Marcus Semien (10) loses his helmet as he runs to second base on his double during the first inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 34 of 41 Houston Texand J.J. Watt with A.J. Hinch, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, George Springer and Justin Verlander as he handed out All-Star jerseys before the start of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. less Houston Texand J.J. Watt with A.J. Hinch, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, George Springer and Justin Verlander as he handed out All-Star jerseys before the start of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July ... more Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 35 of 41 Houston Astros Alex Bregman (2) throws baseballs to kids in the stands before the start of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Houston Astros Alex Bregman (2) throws baseballs to kids in the stands before the start of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 36 of 41 Houston Astros Alex Bregman (2) throws baseballs to kids in the stands before the start of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Houston Astros Alex Bregman (2) throws baseballs to kids in the stands before the start of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 37 of 41 Houston Texand J.J. Watt hugs Justin Verlander as he handed out All-Star jerseys before the start of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Houston Texand J.J. Watt hugs Justin Verlander as he handed out All-Star jerseys before the start of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 38 of 41 Houston Texand J.J. Watt waits in the dugout to give Houston Astros their All-Star jerseys before the start of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Houston Texand J.J. Watt waits in the dugout to give Houston Astros their All-Star jerseys before the start of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 39 of 41 Houston Texand J.J. Watt with Alex Bregman, after he handed out All-Star jerseys before the start of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Houston Texand J.J. Watt with Alex Bregman, after he handed out All-Star jerseys before the start of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 40 of 41 J.J. Watt watches the Houston Astros take on the Oakland Athletics during the first inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. J.J. Watt watches the Houston Astros take on the Oakland Athletics during the first inning of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Image 41 of 41 Fans of Houston Astros Alex Bregman in the stands before the start of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Fans of Houston Astros Alex Bregman in the stands before the start of an MLB game at Minute Maid Park, Thursday, July 12, 2018, in Houston. Photo: Karen Warren, Houston Chronicle Astros drop series to A’s, face legitimate race in AL West 1 / 41 Back to Gallery

It will not be as easy this year.

The Astros needed Game 7 of the World Series to win it all for the first time in 2017. But they were the American League’s best team for much of the season, and their superiority in the AL West was never in doubt.

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A year later, A.J. Hinch’s club returned to the home clubhouse after falling 6-4 to Oakland on Thursday with the second-highest victory total in baseball as the All-Star break approaches. But Boston is becoming the team to beat, while the Yankees are just one win behind Hinch’s team and involved in major trade-deadline rumors.

Then there’s the division that the Astros absolutely owned last year, winning by 21 games and leading by 16½ at the break.

Seattle hasn’t gone away in 2018 and entered Thursday just three games out of first. The Angels entered Thursday still one game above .500. And the constantly retooling/rebuilding/readjusting team that struggles to fill its own ballpark by the Bay? The Bob Melvin-Billy Beane Athletics are 53-41 after taking three of four games from the AL West leaders at Minute Maid Park.

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Astros denounce slur by Papa John’s exec

In a statement released late Thursday night, the Astros condemned a racial slur hurled by Papa John’s founder John Schnatter but gave no indication they will cease their partnership with Houston Pizza Venture, the Houston business that owns the local Papa John’s franchises.

“The Astros are incredibly disappointed with the statements made by Papa John’s founder John Schnatter,” the team said in a statement. “We do not condone discrimination in any context and his comments do not reflect the mission, vision and values of our organization. The Astros are proud of our 10-year partnership with Houston Pizza Venture, a local Houston business and owner of the local franchises. We feel confident that the local franchisees and their employees share the Astros commitment to diversity and inclusiveness.”

Schnatter, the founder and CEO of Papa John’s, admitted to using a racial slur during a May conference call. He resigned as chairman of the company’s board on Wednesday. Both the Marlins and Rays ceased their relationships with the pizza company on Thursday.

In December, Schnatter relinquished his title as CEO after controversial comments regarding the NFL’s handling of national anthem protests.

There is one prominent Papa John’s sign along the outfield wall at Minute Maid Park — along the facade of a balcony in left-center field next to the Phillips 66 home run pump.

“At Houston Pizza Venture, we believe in tolerance and equality,” Houston Pizza Venture owner and president Keith Sullins. “I want everyone in the city of Houston to know that Mr. Schnatter’s statements are indefensible and in no way represent the views of anyone in our company.”

As part of their partnership, there is a “Win-Day” deal that offers customers 50 percent off their Wednesday pizza purchase if the Astros won on Tuesday.

Patrons are also invited to use the promo code “Altuve” for a discount on orders any time Jose Altuve homers inside Minute Maid Park.

Chandler Rome

For the Astros (62-34), the season-long focus will always be centered upon a second consecutive world title. But with the Midsummer Classic days away, the post-break run toward the playoffs could see Hinch’s team, the Mariners and A’s all pushing each other for the 2018 division crown. Seattle will play the Astros 13 times after the break.

Hinch: Division underrated

“Four winning teams,” said Hinch, referring to a much-improved AL West. “We’re not looking in the rearview mirror for anybody. But I will tell you that we’re well aware of the quality of our division. It’s been underrated the entire season. People talk about the East all the time. You should talk about the West a little bit more, because there’s teams that can really beat you.”

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Oakland was the better team before 38,900 on Thursday, turning a 4-0 fourth-inning deficit into a two-run victory via 11 hits, sharp fielding and Mark Canha’s game-changing two-run single during a three-run eighth.

The Astros’ bullpen was smooth until Chris Devenski gave up four hits and three runs. The game was tied at 4 until Canha’s shot disappeared from TV camera view — the next sight was Josh Reddick running in from the left-field corner as the ball bounced away — and the A’s won for the 19th time in 24 games.

“The last four games stunk. I'll tell you that straight up,” said Reddick, who spent 2012-16 with Oakland. “(The A's) are playing really good baseball. They've got a good, young core over there that can really play.”

The Astros are missing a few pieces and need a few July off days. Carlos Correa won’t take the field until the All-Star break is over. Ken Giles was unceremoniously shipped to Class AAA Fresno. Tyler White (.194 batting average) and Kyle Tucker, who could be playing at Minute Maid in the next decade but just debuted in the majors, were the final hitters in a ninth inning that never teased walkoff magic.

The lone win the Astros took from Oakland required a surreal Alex Bregman game-winner and needed 11 innings after the Astros’ bullpen blew a 4-0 lead in the ninth.

“The A's don't get a lot of credit for how good they truly are,” said George Springer, whose .248 average is in need of a second-half spark. “I don't understand why they don't get a lot of credit for it. But they're a good team. They can compete with anybody and beat anybody.”

I normally say that about the Astros.

First things first

Three more pre-break home games against Detroit (40-55) should fix that. But Seattle is 99 percent for real, the A’s are only getting hotter, the Angels have Mike Trout, and even the Rangers win sometimes.

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It’s impossible to picture the Astros not making the playoffs. At full strength and roaring away, they’re obviously strong enough to win it all again.

But 2018 isn’t just about the back-to-back championship tour. First on the list: surviving and winning the AL West.

“You’re not always going to have a 15-game lead every year,” Springer said. “This division is extremely tough, and it makes it fun to play. …Whenever you’re in first place, you’re always the hunted.”

Especially when you're the reigning world champs.

brian.smith@chron.com

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Source : https://www.houstonchronicle.com/sports/columnists/smith/article/Astros-are-very-much-in-a-race-in-AL-West-13071521.php

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