It's only August, but this has the feeling of a playoff series: The defending World Series champion Houston Astros come to town just two games ahead of the red-hot Athletics in the American League West.
An A's sweep would put them in sole possession of first place for the first time all season. On the other hand, an Astros sweep would give them some breathing room at the top.
Here are three keys for the A's to take this weekend's pivotal series at the Coliseum.
1. Continued success from the starting rotation
Remember when the A's starting pitching was supposed to be a major weakness? Well, Oakland's starters have gone 8-1 with a 1.84 ERA in the last 14 games.
Now there's no way the A's will be able to keep up that type of pace, but each starter's goal this weekend should be six or more innings, allowing two runs or fewer. At that point, it's up to the offense to provide run support, and the bullpen to shut it down in the late innings. That's been the A's recipe for success the last two months, and there's no reason to believe that will change.
With Astros outfielder George Springer expected to come off the DL on Friday, and reigning AL MVP José Altuve also close to returning, Oakland's starters will have to be at their best.
2. Situational hitting
The A's certainly don't lack power, but at times, they struggle to have productive at-bats. Take Wednesday's 2-0 extra inning loss to the Mariners as an example. In the fourth inning, the A's put runners on the corners with nobody out, but they failed to score.
The A's tend to rely on the long ball to score runs, and that usually serves them well. But against an elite team like the Astros, where the margin for error will be razor thin, the A's must find a way to cash in on their opportunities. Driving in runners from third with less than two outs will be crucial. Those are the types of at-bats that can take an already stellar lineup to the next level.
3. Stay in the moment
It's fine for fans, and even the media, to get overly worked up about this series. It's what we do. But for the players, especially the younger ones, it will be important to manage emotions.
Of course, there will be some added energy from the atmosphere and national spotlight, but too much adrenaline can be a detriment. The A's have played loose all season long. They genuinely have fun playing together, which has been one of the major reasons for their success. Manager Bob Melvin has done a tremendous job keeping his team focused and level-headed, especially through this incredible 50-game stretch. There's no reason to believe that mentality won't continue this weekend.
Friday: Edwin Jackson (4-2, 2.48) vs. Charlie Morton (12-3, 2.88), 7:05 p.m.
--- Khris Davis career vs. Morton: 3-12, 2 HR
--- Marwin González career vs. Jackson: 3-7, HR, 2B
Saturday: Trevor Cahill (4-2, 3.39) vs. Dallas Keuchel (9-9, 3.43), 1:05 p.m.
--- Matt Chapman career vs. Keuchel: 4-9, 2 HR, 2 2B
--- Yuli Gurriel career vs. Cahill: 3-6, HR, 2B
Sunday: Sean Manaea (11-8, 3.44) vs. Justin Verlander (11-8, 2.52), 1:05 p.m.
--- Khris Davis career vs. Verlander: 3-8, 2 HR, 2B
--- Alex Bregman career vs. Manaea: 4-17, 3 HR