The Astros have a lot to be excited about going into the All-Star break, despite sitting last in the American League West.
Pitching prospect Jarred Cosart dazzled in his Major League debut, Friday's series opener at Tropicana Field, throwing eight scoreless innings. On Saturday, the club locked up second baseman Jose Altuve to a four-year contract extension that includes team options for the 2018 and '19 seasons.
The Astros can finish the first half on a high note by clinching a series victory over the Rays on Sunday afternoon.
The Rays have taken 13 of their last 15 contests, and they got back in the win column on Saturday after their eight-game win streak was snapped on Friday. They will try to capture the series behind rookie right-hander Chris Archer, who is 3-3 with a 3.59 ERA in eight starts.
The 24-year-old pitched six solid innings against the Astros on July 4, then came back with perhaps his strongest outing on Tuesday against the Twins. He gave up one unearned run on three hits over six innings, striking out two. In each of his previous career starts, Archer had allowed at least one run and issued at least one walk, so this was a sign of progress for a pitcher with 4.4 free passes per nine innings this season.
"I'm trying to throw pitches where I want to every pitch, and that's never going to happen," Archer said. "How close am I to perfection? Pretty far off, but I'm content with how I did last game. I didn't walk anybody."
The Astros will counter with Erik Bedard (3-5, 4.67 ERA), who will try to harness his control after a pair of rough starts. The lefty walked six and gave up four runs in 5 1/3 innings against the Rays on July 2, and then he issued five free passes and allowed five runs (four earned) in 6 1/3 innings last Sunday at Texas. He served up a three-run first-inning homer to A.J. Pierzynski after walking two of the first three batters he faced.
"I just didn't throw strikes early, and they capitalized on it," Bedard said.
Bedard will be pitching on week's rest as he makes his 12th career start at Tropicana Field, his first since 2008.
Astros: A big commitment
The deal with Altuve was the first significant long-term contract the Astros have handed out since Jeff Luhnow took over as general manager after the 2011 season. The agreement covers Altuve's final pre-arbitration year and his three arbitration years, while giving the Astros the chance to keep him for his first two years of free agency. Altuve will make a guaranteed $12.5 million, with club options of $6 million and $6.5 million in 2018 and '19.
"This won't be the last time we tie up one of our young players," Luhnow said. "In this case, it made a lot of sense, both in terms of timing and length of deal and so forth, but it's something we're going to look at."
An All-Star last year, Altuve finished Saturday's game with a .280 batting average, three home runs, 28 RBIs and 21 stolen bases in 86 games.
• Center fielder Justin Maxwell came off the seven-day concussion disabled list and started Saturday's game, his first time seeing action since June 28. Maxwell went 1-for-3 with a double while batting sixth.
Rays: Price a perfect role model
On Friday, Archer was able to watch teammate David Price throw only 17 balls during his complete game. Manager Joe Maddon believes Archer could learn some worthy lessons from that approach.
"That's what he wants to be, and he knows that's what he has to be in order to be a consistent big league starter," Maddon said. "As long as he keeps pounding the strike zone with the kind of stuff he has, he's going to get good results."
Archer observed how Price only reached back for his highest velocity in big moments, allowing him to throw more strikes and work deep into the game. The rookie knows that harnessing his electric arsenal will serve him well.
"Just learning that I don't have to do anything more than be myself and use my stuff," he said. "I don't have to elevate my game. I just stay within myself and it's plenty.
"It's nibbling, overthrowing, trying to throw the nastiest slider possible when a quality slider is all I need. I don't need to get super nasty."
• This will be the final meeting of the Astros and Rays in the 2013 regular season, with the Rays ahead in the season series, 4-2.
• Former Ray and current Astro Carlos Pena hit leadoff for the first time this season on Saturday.