Houston and Baltimore start the interleague portion of their schedules when they begin a three-game series at Minute Maid Park.
The Astros have been legitimate contenders for the NL Central title in each of the past few seasons, and are right there again as they trail the first-place Chicago Cubs by one game in the division.
Their opponent, though, is in unfamiliar territory.
Baltimore has won three straight and nine of 11 to move over .500 for the first time since May 9, and has pulled to within just 4 1/2 games of the New York Yankees for first place in the AL East.
The last time the Orioles had a run like this, they surged to the .500 mark last Aug. 23, but then finished 4-32 en route to their fifth straight losing season.
That’s not going to happen this season, according to Baltimore outfielder Melvin Mora, who is second in the AL with a .350 batting average.
“We are a different club than we were last year,” said Mora, who homered and scored the go-ahead run in Baltimore’s 5-4 win over the Texas Rangers on Sunday. “We have good pitching, we’re swinging the bats well and are going out with the feeling that we will win every game.”
Houston also has that feeling lately. After losing two of the first three on their seven-game road trip against division foes St. Louis and Chicago, the Astros bounced back to take three of the last four.
Houston beat Chicago 9-3 on Sunday to win two of three from the first-place Cubs.
“To turn around and be able to take two out of three here gives us confidence,” Houston center fielder Lance Berkman said. “It closes out that stretch with a winning record now, only one game back.”
STANDINGS: Orioles - 4th place, 4 1/2 GB, AL East. Astros - 2nd place, 1 GB, NL Central.
ORIOLES PROBABLE STARTER: Jason Johnson (5-2, 3.30 ERA). Johnson won for the first time in nearly a month in his last outing, allowing two runs and eight hits over six innings in a 6-2 win over the Anaheim Angels on Wednesday. The right-hander started the season 4-0 with a 2.12 ERA in his first five starts, but was 0-2 with a 4.98 ERA in four outings before winning last week.
ASTROS PROBABLE STARTER: Tim Redding (3-4, 3.36 ERA). The right-hander has pitched well this season, but is looking for his first win since May 3. Redding, who has not allowed more than three earned runs in any of his 11 starts, is 0-2 in his last five outings despite posting a 3.38 ERA over that span.
OFFENSIVE LEADERS: Orioles - Mora, .350 avg. and 35 runs; Mora, Jay Gibbons and Tony Batista, 8 HRs; Jeff Conine, 41 RBIs; Jerry Hairston, 14 SBs. Astros - Jeff Kent, .329 avg. and 39 RBIs; Jeff Bagwell, 11 HRs; Kent and Berkman, 36 runs; Adam Everett, 5 SBs.
2002 INTERLEAGUE RECORDS: Orioles - 9-9; Astros - 5-7.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Orioles - OF Luis Matos has hit in a career-high nine straight games. … Baltimore is 46-57 all-time in interleague play. … LF B.J. Surhoff, who played three seasons in the NL with the Atlanta Braves from 2000-02, is batting .289 with six RBIs in 11 career games against Houston. Astros - Houston is tied with the Colorado Rockies and Texas Rangers for the highest team batting average in interleague play at .282. … 1B Bagwell hasn’t homered in 25 straight games after hitting 11 in his first 31 contests. … 2B Kent is batting .400 (40-for-100) with three homers, 13 doubles and 23 RBIs in 28 games at home.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Orioles - 14-13 on the road; Astros - 16-12 at home.
INJURIES: Orioles - 2B Hairston (foot), 15-day DL; OF Larry Bigbie (shoulder), 15-day DL; RHP Rodrigo Lopez (ribs), 15-day DL; LHP Erik Bedard (elbow), 60-day DL; RHP Scott Erickson (shoulder), 60-day DL; RF Albert Belle (hip), 60-day DL; LF Marty Cordova (elbow), 60-day DL. Astros - RF Richard Hidalgo (virus), 15-day DL; LHP Carlos Hernandez (shoulder), 15-day DL; RHP Brian Moehler (elbow), 15-day DL.