As the final week of the season approaches, the Indians continue to flirt with the playoffs. With nine games left to play, gaining six games on first-place Detroit to win the American League Central might be a lofty goal, but Cleveland is well within striking distance of a Wild Card berth, trailing the Rangers and Rays by just a half-game.
In the next 10 days, the Indians' postseason fate will be decided, but manager Terry Francona isn't ready to think that far ahead quite yet. The most important game left on the schedule is the next one, according to Francona, and for the Indians, that next game is a Friday night matchup with the Astros at Progressive Field.
"If you start looking to next week or last week, you kind of miss what's right in front of you," Francona said before Thursday's series opener against Houston. "I think we've proven when we play good, we're good, and when we don't play well, we have a chance to lose. So what we need to do is go out and play a good game tonight. Then, win, lose or draw or whatever, we show up tomorrow and try to play another good game. That's the only way I know how to do it. To do it any other way doesn't make any sense to me. You lose energy on things you can't control."
What Cleveland can control is how it performs in each of the next nine games, and the Indians did just enough in the opener of a four-game set on Thursday, when Matt Carson's walk-off single in the 11th inning gave the team a 2-1 win.
The rest depends on what the other the teams in the AL Wild Card hunt do to close out the season. And while Cleveland is in hot pursuit of Texas and Tampa Bay, it's much more than a three-team race, as Baltimore, New York and Kansas City are all within 3 1/2 games of a Wild Card spot.
Meanwhile, the Astros, who enter Friday having lost back-to-back extra-inning games, are stuck playing the role of spoiler. As the team with the worst record in baseball, that's been a common theme for Houston in the final stretch of the season. Fortunately, it's a mindset at least some of the Astros are willing to embrace while they take in the experience of playing against a team with the postseason in its sights.
"They've had a real good season and are a really good team," said Astros designated hitter Marc Krauss, who grew up an Indians fan in Ohio. "We're trying to play our game and do what we can to ruin some of those dreams."
Indians: McAllister looks to build on most recent outing
After Zach McAllister held the White Sox to one run on six hits in 6 2/3 innings on Sunday, Francona said the 25-year-old right-hander had his best stuff of the season.
On Friday against the Astros, Francona and the Tribe hope they get that McAllister, as opposed to the one who allowed a total of 13 earned runs in his three previous starts, a span that covered 13 1/3 innings (8.78 ERA).
McAllister said the difference between Sunday's start and the three before it was his ability to escape trouble and avoid big innings. He put that on display in the sixth inning against Chicago, delivering a scoreless frame despite facing a one-out situation with runners on second and third.
Making his first career start against the Astros, McAllister will have a chance to get back to .500 on the year, as he enters Friday with an 8-9 record to go with his 3.96 ERA.
Astros: Oberholtzer set to make ninth start
Rookie pitcher Brett Oberholtzer has only been starting for the Astros since July 31 after making his first three appearances out of the bullpen. In eight starts, though, the 24-year-old left-hander has become one of the most consistent members of the Houston rotation, and he'll look to keep that going when he takes on the Indians on Friday.
Oberholtzer has built a 4-3 record and a 2.38 ERA in his first eight career starts. His big breakout came on Sept. 1, when he allowed four hits and a walk in a shutout against the Mariners. He then followed it with a six-inning performance in which he gave up just one run on seven hits to the A's.
The most recent outing for Oberholtzer was not his best, as he allowed four runs in six innings against the Angels. Although Oberholtzer's command wasn't as strong as it had been, Astros manager Bo Porter still found himself impressed with his young starter.
"His breaking ball didn't have the kind of depth we are used to, which is a credit to him, to not have his good stuff and still battle and be able to get through six innings," Porter said.
• Each of the Indians' final nine games are against teams with sub-.500 records. Including Thursday's win, Cleveland is 47-18 against clubs currently below .500.
• Astros second baseman Jose Altuve leads the Majors with 33 hits in September entering Friday.
• The Indians have won three out of the first four games in the season series with the Astros.
Jeremy Warnemuende is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.