HOUSTON — If the A’s eventually want to return to the American League West mountaintop, they got a good look at the team they’ll have to conquer.
The Astros boast one of the majors’ most talented and athletic rosters, with enough of a youthful core to suggest they’ll be battling for division supremacy for years to come. They took two of three from Oakland at Minute Maid Park, capped by Sunday’s 7-2 decision in which left-hander Dallas Keuchel held the A’s to just three hits over 7 2/3 innings.
The loss ended a season-opening stretch in which the A’s played 22 of their first 25 against AL West foes. They saw every team in the division at least once, going 9-13 in that stretch and 11-14 overall for the month of April.
It’s tough to glean too much from one month of play, but the Astros (16-9) so far are living up to the hype that stems from several notable offseason additions they made. They hold a three-game lead over the second-place Los Angeles Angels, with Oakland and Texas both five games back and Seattle 5 1/2 back.
Before the A’s bother worrying about who they have to knock off at the top, there are baby steps to conquer.
They need to generate some consistent offense, which has been lacking in their 1-5 start to this nine-game road trip. With that in mind, they’ll gladly welcome back center fielder Rajai Davis, who is expected to return from a strained left hamstring and rejoin the lineup Tuesday in Minnesota.
Also Tuesday, Sonny Gray will make his 2017 debut after missing the first four weeks with a strained lat muscle in his right side. One of the primary April storylines for the A’s involved the players they lost to injury. Now, they at least draw some optimism from the ones they’ll welcome back.
“We need to get these guys back,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “We’ve been leaning on (backup center fielder) Jaff Decker a little harder than we need to. You get Raj back doing his thing at the top of the lineup and get your No. 1 pitcher back, hopefully this is a trend on an upward swing as far as getting players back, as opposed to losing them like we have been.”
Jesse Hahn, who took Sunday’s loss, could eventually be out of a rotation spot with Gray’s return. But that decision gets delayed with fellow starter Sean Manaea having just joined the 10-day disabled list with a strained shoulder.
Hahn was solid Sunday, going six innings and allowing four runs (two earned). But he got a taste of the diverse ways that Houston can beat a pitcher. The Astros have speed, as they showed in the first inning when George Springer beat out an infield single and scored all the way from first on Carlos Correa’s double.
They also have run producers up and down the batting order. Evan Gattis, who clubbed 32 homers last season, hit seventh Sunday and drove an RBI double to left that just missed being a two-run homer.
“One through nine, it’s a solid lineup over there,” Hahn said. “You can’t take any pitches off, any at-bats off. You’ve almost got to treat every guy the same or they can hurt you.”
Catcher Josh Phegley says the A’s have a good read on the rest of the division and the challenge that sits before him and his teammates.
“We’ve seen the teams we’re gonna face most of the year. We get a feel for their bullpen, some of the subs they make during the game,” he said. “I like the way our team stacks up against everyone else.”
But the A’s have their work cut out. Last year, they were 13-12 at the end of April, just 1 1/2 games out of first place before eventually finishing in the cellar. As they begin this May, they are three games under .500 and already five games out.
Help is on the way with the return of Gray and Davis. Now the A’s need to parlay that into some victories.