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Photo Credit: © Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Series Preview: Final Challenge Before The Break

It’s almost time for the All-Star break. The only team left in the way of some much-needed time off for the Blue Jays is the best team in the American League.

Thursday at 7:07 ET

Lance McCullers has emerged as a top-of-the-rotation starter for the Astros this season. He had an excellent rookie campaign in 2015, but his 2016 was damn near completely derailed by injury, but 2017 has been a breakout for McCullers, who owns a 2.69 ERA through 15 starts. McCullers throws a wicked curveball and is good at limiting hard contact. He’s allowed only six home runs in 87 innings, and if you couple that with his 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings and solid walk rates, you have the makings of a very good starter.

Like last time out, Francisco Liriano won’t have much room for error. Last weekend, he allowed five runs to the Red Sox over six innings, which obviously isn’t going to slice it when Chris Sale is pitching. Lance McCullers isn’t Chris Sale, obviously, but the Jays are going to need Good Liriano to show up on Thursday.

Friday at 7:07 ET

Charlie Morton hasn’t made a start since May 24, but is expected to be activated from the 10-day disabled list in time to start against the Blue Jays on Friday. Having a hell of a time staying healthy has kind of been the theme for Morton his entire career. After a good 2011 season, he missed most of 2012. After missing most of 2016, he signed with the Astros as a reclamation project and had been largely good before straining his right lat. His off-speed and breaking stuff is good,  but Morton’s fastball and sinker have both been hit hard this season.

Also making a return from injury, Aaron Sanchez is set to make his first start since May 19. He’s been on the shelf for over a month with that recurring blister issue, a nightmare that has derailed most of Sanchez’s 2017 season so far. In his last rehab start with Triple-A Buffalo, Sanchez allowed four runs in four-and-one-third-innings, but he said he felt good, which is all that really matters.

Saturday at 1:07 ET

It’s unclear who will start for the Jays on Saturday. Marcus Stroman was pulled early from his start in New York with blister issues, and if he isn’t good to go, Joe Biagini could step in on regular rest. If not, Biagini will likely be moved back to the ‘pen and the Jays will roll with their expected starting rotation for the first time in months.

Regardless, Mike Fiers will start for the Astros. Fiers has had a successful season, posting a 3.80 ERA through 16 starts, but his peripherals suggest that could blow up. He’s allowing 8.4 hits and 3.4 walks per nine innings, and a lot of those hits are line drives. His 8.3 strikeouts per nine are solid, but not overwhelming.

Sunday at 1:07 ET

J.A. Happ will start in his regular spot on Sunday regardless what happens with Stroman on Saturday. Happ, as we know, has been excellent since coming off of the disabled list with elbow issues. In his last six starts, Happ has gone at least six innings while allowing fewer than three earned runs. Quality start after quality start, Happ has given the Jays a chance to win.

It doesn’t say who the Astros will be starting on Sunday, but unless Dallas Keuchel is randomly activated from the disabled list, I would guess it’s going to be Brad Peacock, who started for Houston on Wednesday.

Thoughts…

The Astros are very good. Their lineup is absolutely loaded, as every regular other than Nori Aoki and Carlos Beltran have an OPS over .700. That said, their starting pitching leaves a lot to be desired, especially with Dallas Keuchel on the shelf.

The Jays are currently six games under .500 and what happens this weekend will likely go a long way in determining how hard the front office goes into sell mode come late July. If the Jays get swept by this first place Astros team and roll into the mid-summer classic with a 39-49 record, it’s safe to assume the team will be in sell mode. If they have a good showing? Maybe Shapiro and Atkins will consider taking a more conservative approach.

Regardless, this should be an interesting series. Hopefully the Jays’ bats are ready to step up and compete with Houston’s.