There is plenty of good news for the Indians, despite Wednesday's 7-2 loss to the Royals.
Still only a half-game behind the Rangers in the chase for the second American League Wild Card spot, the Tribe returns home on Thursday to begin a six-game stand at Progressive Field, where they are 15 games over .500. Even better, the red-hot Ubaldo Jimenez will take the mound for the opener of a four-game set against the Astros, the first Major League team to reach 100 losses.
Jimenez will square off against Houston's Dallas Keuchel as Cleveland hosts the Astros for the first time since 2000.
The right-hander is 12-9 with a 3.49 ERA, but he has caught fire over his past 10 starts, holding the opposition to three earned runs or fewer in each. He owns a 1.83 ERA and has notched 71 strikeouts over 64 innings.
"I think the main thing is that I'm feeling 100 percent healthy," Jimenez said after his last start. "I got my mechanics back together and I've been able to establish my fastball down in the strike zone and I throw all my breaking balls off the fastball."
Jimenez gave up four runs in five innings against the Astros on April 21, but he seems to be a different pitcher as he tries to lift the Indians to a playoff berth. He tossed his latest gem against the White Sox last Saturday, giving up one run and striking out eight over 8 1/3 innings.
"It's fun because everything counts right now," he said. "You have to bring your A-game to the table every single day. It doesn't matter who you're facing. You have to go against them with everything you have.
"You never know what game is going to make the difference."
He'll go against an Astros club embarking on its final road trip of the season. Houston can impact the playoff chase one way or another, playing its final 13 games against contending teams.
"I'd rather be in this position than playing teams that are not contending for the playoffs," Astros manager Bo Porter said. "It's good for our team, knowing that's where we want to be in short order. To see the intensity those teams bring to the ballpark every day. Regardless of what position you're in, you want to play well. Playing teams fighting for playoffs gives us more incentive to want to play well."
After finishing a series against the Reds, Houston finishes with series against the Indians, Rangers and Yankees. While the young Astros have a chance to put a damper on other teams' postseason hopes, first baseman Brett Wallace believes it's more important for the club to gain experience.
"I'm not sure we'd take more pride in [knocking someone out of the playoffs]," Wallace said. "We take pride in getting better this whole season. It's about us continuing to improve and applying some of the things we've learned over the season. Playing in these games, you really get a feeling for what it's like, and we have to learn how to win those games. It's about us playing in big games so when we get there, we know how to handle it."
Astros: Keuchel looking to rebound
Keuchel (6-9, 5.17 ERA) has been roughed up over his past two starts, surrendering 11 runs on 20 hits over nine innings. The left-hander struck out nine but gave up six runs against the Angels last Friday.
"He did a good job of mixing and matching, but he didn't have his pinpoint command that he normally has," Porter said afterward. "Those guys kind of got in some hitter's counts and hit some balls hard, but he definitely did a good job of mixing his pitches."
Keuchel relieved starter Philip Humber after one-third of an inning during a 19-6 loss to the Indians on April 20. He gave up seven runs over 2 2/3 innings.
Indians: Francona mixing, matching
Just as they will on Thursday, the Indians faced a left-hander on Wednesday, in Kansas City's Bruce Chen. Manager Terry Francona started Ryan Raburn and Michael Brantley in that one, in part due to their past experience against Chen.
Francona said he will continue to tinker with his lineup down the stretch, based on matchups.
"We've got a lot of lefties coming up over the next week," Francona said. "We'll mix and match. This isn't the time of year to have an ego. Fortunately, our guys don't. We'll use our entire bench, if we have to."
• The Indians won two of three from the Astros in Houston in April, and the teams have split six games all-time in Cleveland.
• In the teams' most recent matchup in Cleveland, on July 18, 2000, Manny Ramirez hit two home runs to power manager Charlie Manuel's Indians past the Astros, who got five combined hits from Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell.