New York (AFP) - The Houston Astros, battling the Los Angeles Dodgers for the best record in Major League Baseball as the second half of the season begins, have become a contender for their first title in their 56th campaign.
The Astros lead the American League West division by 16 1/2 games at 60-29 with baseball's best road record at 33-11 as play resumes Friday.
Only the Dodgers, with the National League's top mark at 61-29, are superior and the two appear to be the teams to beat to reach next October's playoffs and World Series.
"It has been an incredible season so far," said Astros shortstop Carlos Correa of Puerto Rico. "But a lot can happen in the next three months. We want to be consistent. We want to be the best."
It's a lofty goal for a club whose only World Series appearance came in 2005, when the Astros were swept by the Chicago White Sox in the best-of-seven championship final.
Houston won its only other playoff series in 2004, downing Atlanta before falling to St. Louis in the National League Finals. The team was moved to the American League in 2013 and made its first playoff trip in 2015, beating the New York Yankees in a wildcard one-game showdown before falling to eventual World Series champion Kansas City.
The Astros lost 106 games in 2011, 107 in 2012 and went 51-111 in 2013 before starting a revamp that has them sparking hopes of bringing the title to Texas.
Powered by Correa, outfielder George Springer and five-time All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve, the Astros lead the major leagues in runs, home runs, doubles and batting average.
"To have those guys toward the top of your lineup is nice. Their ability to get on base and hit home runs is huge," said Cleveland Indians coach Brad Mills, who guided the trio on the American League team in a 2-1 victory over the National squad in the All-Star Game on Tuesday in Miami.
Altuve, 27, has already won two batting titles and is hitting a league-best .347 this season with 25 doubles, two triples, 13 homers and 18 stolen bases. His five consecutive games with three hits was a feat that had not been done by a major leaguer since George Brett in 1976.
Springer, 27, is hitting .310 with 21 doubles and 27 homers while Correa, 22, is hitting .325 with 18 doubles and 20 homers.
"Those three play probably the biggest part of who we are," Astros pitcher Dallas Keuchel said.
"They are competitive with each other. Correa wants to be the best. But Altuve is the best right now and closing in is Springer. It's a healthy competition and it's a joy to watch."
There's also veteran support in outfielders Norichika Aoki and Josh Reddick plus 40-year-old designated hitter Carlos Beltran. Catcher Brian McCann is on pace for a 10th consecutive 20-homer campaign and Cuban defector first baseman Yuli Gurriel is shining in his first major league season at age 33.
- Kershaw sparks Dodgers -
Cleveland, which last year came within one game of ending a World Series title drought that has lasted since 1948, leads the AL Central with Minnesota and Kansas City close behind. The Boston Red Sox set the AL East pace with the Yankees and Tampa Bay in wildcard playoff spots.
In the National League, the Dodgers lead the West by 7 1/2 games with Arizona and Colorado in wildcard playoff spots. Washington is 9 1/2 ahead of Atlanta in the East and Milwaukee is 5 1/2 up on St.Louis and the reigning champion Chicago Cubs in the Central.
The Dodgers are sparked by left-handed pitcher Clayton Kershaw, who at 14-2 is the winningest pitcher in the major league this season. It's the most wins at the All-Star Game break for a Dodgers pitcher since Sandy Koufax won 15 in 1966. In his last 13 starts, he's 10-0 with a 1.98 ERA and foes hitting only .187 against him.
The Dodgers have won 26 of their past 30 starts and are 18-1 in their past 19 home games.