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Astros close gap with Rangers to set up exciting finish to AL West, wild card

The AL West and AL wild card races are set up for an exciting finish after the Astros topped the Rangers on Sunday to win their series. 

We have reached the regular season’s final stretch. By next Sunday the 2015 season will be over and the postseason slate will be set, yet there is still much to be decided in this final week.

The field of National League teams is basically decided with the Mets, Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs guaranteed postseason appearances. The Dodgers are working on winning their division, and every other NL team has been eliminated from wild card contention. However, the streaking Pirates still have a chance to steal the top spot in the NL Central from the juggernaut Cardinals if they continue their eight-game winning streak through a three-game series with St. Louis beginning Monday. In the west, San Francisco is clinging to a slim hope of unseating the Dodgers from six games back with an elimination number of two after its 5–4 win over Oakland on Sunday.

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With the intrigue in the National League dwindling, the American League is still full of potential for surprises. The Yankees, Indians, Twins, Angels, Astros and Rangers are all in the mix for AL wild card berths, and the order of finish in the AL West could come down to the wire.

On Sunday, New York and Houston held those wild card spots, but with Cleveland as the team the furthest out at four games behind, much could change with a week of games still to play.

Perhaps the biggest win of the weekend belonged to the Astros, who beat the Rangers 4–2 on Sunday to take two games of a do-or-die three-game series.

If the Astros had lost, they would have been 4 1/2 games back of Texas with six games to go, which would have effectively handed the division crown to the Rangers. Instead, with their victory they now sit 2 1/2 games behind their in-state foe and remain in the chase for their first postseason appearance in 10 years.

Dallas Keuchel pitched a gem for Houston, allowing just one run and one hit with 10 strikeouts across seven innings. He retired 15 consecutive batters between the second and seventh innings as he improved to 15–0 at Minute Maid Park, setting a major-league record for consecutive home wins.

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Keuchel’s effort was supported by a Houston offense that put up four runs on eight hits. Jake Marisnick hit a two-run double off Martin Perez in the second inning to put the Astros on the board. Chris Carter hit a solo home run in the seventh, and Carlos Gomez scored on a passed ball in the eighth to put the finishing touch on the win.

The victory was a necessary one for the Astros, who had won just four of their last 10 games entering Sunday. Two of their AL West rivals, the Angels and Rangers, had each won seven of 10.

By going 9–15 in September, Houston watched the first-place status it had held for 139 days of this five-month season slip away. The Rangers have held the top spot in the division since Sept. 15, forcing the Astros to battle to keep their surprising run at playoff contention alive. They lost the battle to the Angels earlier this week by dropping two of three games, but stayed in the race by beating the Rangers on Sunday.

Don’t count Los Angeles out of this race, however. After completing a series sweep with a 3–2 win over the Mariners on Sunday for their fifth consecutive win, the Angels stayed within three games of first place in the AL West and a half-game out of the second wild-card spot.

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It might be too late for the Halos to earn back the first-place spot they held for 21 days this season and not since July 28. Going into Sunday, Baseball Prospectus gave them a 3.6% chance of winning the division, but a 25.1% chance of earning a wild-card spot. If Los Angeles can continue its recent surge over its final seven games, its chances will only improve.

Over the final week, the Astros face the easiest schedule of the three teams contending in their division. Houston plays the Mariners and Diamondbacks, which are sub-.500 teams whose postseason hopes have already been dashed. The Rangers next play the Tigers before finishing the schedule with a four-game series against the Angels that could make or break either team. Los Angeles could be given a boost by playing the AL-worst A’s before visiting Texas.

Despite reigning over the AL West for most of the season and inspiring baseball writers to abandon their preseason favoritism of the Mariners to win the division, the Astros are learning that it only matters who is in first place on the last day of the season. With seven days to go before that decisive final game, the AL West race will be baseball’s most riveting.