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AP - Sports

It wasn't long ago that the New York Yankees were focused on first place in the AL East.

If they aren't careful, even a wild card may soon slip out of sight.

The struggling Yankees try to avoid being swept at home by the Houston Astros on Thursday.

After beating Toronto on July 25 for their seventh win in eight games, the Yankees were second in the East and three games behind Baltimore. While the Orioles have been one of baseball's hottest teams since then, New York (63-61) has gone 9-13 to fall a season-high 9 1/2 off the pace.

The wild card seems the Yankees' best chance at returning to the playoffs after a one-year absence, but they are five games back in that race, trailing Seattle, Toronto and Cleveland.

Three straight at home against the Astros (54-73) should have given New York an excellent opportunity to make up ground, but they've gone 2 for 17 with runners in scoring position in losing the first two games. Stephen Drew homered in Wednesday's 5-2 loss, the Yankees' seventh in nine games.

Since scoring 10 runs in a win over Cleveland on Aug. 9, the Yankees have averaged 2.2 runs and batted .136 with runners in scoring position during that 2-7 slide.

''We've got to score more than two runs. It's hard to win when you only score two runs,'' manager Joe Girardi said. ''Our pitching has been pretty good, but that's a pretty tall task.''

It doesn't get any easier for New York, which will face Astros ace Dallas Keuchel (10-8, 3.11 ERA) in the finale.

The left-hander has lost three of his last four decisions despite posting a 2.50 ERA with a complete game in his past five starts. He did not receive a decision in a 5-3 win at Boston on Friday after allowing three runs and six hits over seven innings while matching a season high with eight strikeouts.

This will be Keuchel's first appearance against the Yankees, though he's 2-3 with a 2.36 ERA in seven career interleague starts.

Chase Headley is 2 for 3 with a home run in their matchups.

Houston has won three in a row for the first time since its most recent sweep - July 7-9 at Texas. The Astros have averaged 6.4 runs and batted .303 over their last five games.

Brandon McCarthy (4-2, 2.30) continues to pitch well for the Yankees, but has received zero run support in his last two starts. He's 1-2 in three starts this month despite a 1.96 ERA, with New York scoring two total runs.

McCarthy gave up four runs - two earned - and seven hits over 6 1-3 innings in a 5-0 loss at Tampa Bay on Friday. That was the sixth time in seven starts with New York he held the opposition to two earned runs or fewer.

The right-hander faced the Astros for the first time in five years on June 11 with Arizona and allowed five runs - including two homers to Chris Carter - over six-plus innings in a 5-1 loss.

New York's Carlos Beltran is expected to miss a second straight game due to discomfort in his troublesome right elbow, which has bothered him for much of the season.

''At the end of the year I have to address it and get the surgery to get it over with, but right now I'm just trying to finish the season," he said.

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