Astros begin title pursuit with clash vs. Mariners

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For the Houston Astros, the only things more familiar than their standing as one of the premier teams in the American League are the names that dot the star-studded roster responsible for past success and future promise.

The Astros will host the Seattle Mariners at Minute Maid Park on Friday in the opener of both a four-game weekend series and a 60-game sprint to what Houston anticipates will be a fourth consecutive AL West championship. The Astros have won 100-plus games for three consecutive seasons, including a club-record 107 in 2019, and while the length of this campaign will prevent Houston from reaching that benchmark again, expectations remain sky-high.

“I think we’re going to be very good,” said Astros third baseman Alex Bregman, the AL MVP runner-up last season. “And we’re looking forward to going out there and competing.”

How Houston performs will be watched closely after the sign-stealing scandal that created a stir in the offseason tarnished the club’s reputation and left other clubs questioning its success over the past three seasons.

With Bregman surrounded by fellow All-Stars Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer, the Houston lineup will again prove formidable. And even with the loss of co-ace Gerrit Cole to the New York Yankees via free agency, the Astros are projected by Fangraphs to finish second only to the Los Angeles Dodgers in wins.

For the Astros, the challenge of the abbreviated schedule might prove their biggest obstacle.

“For us as hitters, there’s no room to have a bad start or a bad month,” Correa said. “It’s not like you have 162 games where you have a bad month and you still got five more months to recover. This is only two months, so you have to be consistent for those 60 games and start strong.”

Astros right-hander Justin Verlander (21-6, 2.58 ERA in 2019) makes an Opening Day start for the 12th time. Verlander claimed his second AL Cy Young Award last season after leading the majors in victories, innings (223) and WHIP (0.80) while recording a career-best 300 strikeouts. Verlander is 15-9 with a 3.25 ERA in his career against the Mariners and finished 3-0 with a 2.97 ERA over five starts last season, posting 40 strikeouts over 30 1/3 innings.

Seattle left-hander Marco Gonzales (16-13, 3.99 ERA in 2019) will make his second career Opening Day start. Gonzales posted career highs in victories, innings (203) and strikeouts (147) last season while his 34 starts tied for the major league lead.

However, he did not fare well against the Astros across four appearances, finishing 0-2 with a 5.66 ERA and 12 walks against 10 strikeouts over 20 2/3 innings. Gonzales is 0-4 with a 7.36 ERA over seven career appearances (six starts) against the Astros.

In four outings (three starts) at Minute Maid Park, Gonzales is 0-2 with a 6.06 ERA and a bloated 2.08 WHIP, his worst mark at any ballpark.

The series figures to be challenging for Seattle, which went 1-18 against the Astros last season, including 0-10 in Houston.

The Mariners open the truncated season with plans centered on building a strong foundation for the future. Their nucleus is laden with youth, as promising rookies Kyle Lewis and Evan White take their first steps as lineup mainstays while rookies Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn began the campaign as part of a six-man rotation crafted to help mitigate heavy workloads.

That rotation construction could prove beneficial to free agent right-handers Kendall Graveman and Taijuan Walker, both of whom have undergone major arm surgery. Walker returns to Seattle following an injury-marred three-year stint in Arizona where he made just 32 starts with the Diamondbacks after being part of a trade that netted Seattle Mitch Haniger and the now-departed Jean Segura.

Walker will follow Gonzales in the rotation against the Astros. Graveman is the scheduled starter for the series finale Monday immediately after left-hander Yusei Kikuchi gets the call Sunday.

“I think all the guys so far — Marco, Taijuan and YK — they should be good to go if things go well,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “Hope to get them through five innings their first time out.”

–Field Level Media

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