The Houston Astros are playing their best baseball at the perfect time.
They’ll look to maintain their lead in the NL wild-card race in the opener of a three-game series with the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.
Houston won its third straight and improved to 8-1 in its last nine with a 2-1 victory at Pittsburgh on Thursday. The win helped the Astros maintain a two-game lead over Philadelphia in the wild-card race with nine to play.
“It’s huge,” Astros closer Brad Lidge said of taking three of four in Pittsburgh. “Especially after dropping Game 1. We really needed to come in here and get three out of four. You kind of put your back to the wall when you lose that first game. Fortunately, everybody came through.”
Houston plays its next five games on the road—three at Chicago and two at NL Central champion St. Louis—before closing the regular season with four home games against the Cubs.
The Phillies are at Cincinnati for three games this weekend, host the Mets for three before finishing the season with three games in Washington.
While baseball is foremost on the minds of the Astros’ players, Hurricane Rita isn’t far from their thoughts either, particularly pitcher Brandon Backe, a native of Galveston, Texas.
Backe had one his best starts of the season Thursday, limiting the Pirates to one run and two hits over seven innings. He has been spending most of his waking hours making sure his parents and other family members are safe before the hurricane reaches land.
“It’s definitely on my mind,” Backe said. “Who knows what’s going to happen? A lot of my friends are not wealthy and I don’t know if they’ll be able to get out.”
Backe could be important to the Astros’ postseason rotation because manager Phil Garner isn’t going to start the 43-year-old Roger Clemens or 17-game winner Andy Pettitte, who is coming off elbow surgery, with less than their normal rest.
“I try to pitch every game like it’s a World Series game,” Backe said. “I try not to give up any runs and, if I do, to give up less runs than we score.”
Backe’s performance helped Houston move a season-best 15 games over .500. The Astros are 30 games over .500 (69-39) since losing 30 of their first 45 games.
The Cubs have been reduced to playing spoiler, but can still finish above .500.
Greg Maddux threw only 78 pitches, holding the Brewers to four hits in eight innings in a 3-0 victory at Milwaukee on Thursday.
To finish above .500, Chicago needs to play better at home, where it is 36-40 this season. The Cubs haven’t won back-to-back home games since Aug. 11-12.