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First-place Houston Astros visit Comerica Park Thursday

Astros best in AL with 27 wins

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(AP Photo/Bob Levey)

DETROIT – Only two teams in the American League have a better overall record than the Detroit Tigers. One, the Kansas City, is well known around here for spending 162 games going back and forth with the Tigers last season before marching to an AL pennant. Now the Royals are leading the division and hoping to end Detroit's four-year streak of finishing on top.

Then, there's the Houston Astros. That's right, the Astros are not only one of two teams above the Tigers, they're also the best team in the AL and tied for the MLB lead with 27 wins.

If the Astros haven't crossed your mind since they last played the Tigers in June, you probably think of them as a bottom feeder that won just 70 games last season and lost over 100 games the three previous years.

But these are not the same Astros. The team traveling to Comerica Park this weekend is a division leader and owns a unique combination of power, speed and young pitching.

The Astros came out of the gates hacking in 2015 and jumped out to a huge lead in home runs. Houston's 61 homers are by far the most in MLB and nearly double Detroit's total of 34.

But these aren't your prototypical big, slow sluggers. No, the Astros are also the No. 1 team in the AL in terms of stolen bases. Houston has swiped 39 bags this season, two more than the second-place Tigers through 41 games.

If they can mash and they can run, how can the Tigers beat the Astros? Well, their best bet is to throw the ball by them. Houston leads the AL in strikeouts by a wide margin, whiffing 371 times (40 more than the Rays).

Unfortunately for the Tigers, who set club records the past few years by striking out a ton of batters, the swing and miss is no longer their forte.

The Tigers rank 28th in MLB in terms of pitching strikeouts and average just 6.34 K/9. Two of the starters scheduled to pitch in this series, Alfredo Simon and Kyle Lobstein, strike out less than six batters per nine innings. That's a bad recipe against the slugging Astros.

Luckily for Brad Ausmus, he will send out one of the best strikeout pitchers in the game Thursday: David Price.

First Pitch: 1:08 p.m. on FSD

Price struck out the most batters in MLB last season with 271, averaging nearly 10 K's per nine innings. His strikeout rate is way down so far this season, but that could change against the overaggressive Astros.

Price made back-to-back starts against Houston last June as a member of the Rays. He went eight innings in both starts, allowing a total of five runs on 11 hits. Price struck out 22 batters in those starts but went just 1-1.

Players on the Astros' current roster have not fared well against Price. They've reached base just 26 times (20 hits, 6 walks) and struck out 33 times. Houston's two best players, George Springer and Jose Altuve, are a combined 4-19 career against Price with a home run and nine K's.

Houston's order on Thursday will be:

Jose Altuve, 2B
Luis Valbuena, 3B
George Springer, RF
Evan Gattis, DH
Chris Carter, 1B
Colby Rasmus, LF
Jonathan Villar, SS
Hank Conger, C
Jake Marisnick, CF

Altuve routinely dominates the Tigers, hitting .367 with four doubles, three RBI and six stolen bases in seven meetings last season. He did struggle in Comerica Park, going just 2-16 with two doubles and no stolen bases.

On Thursday, the Astros will send out Scott Feldman, an average starting pitcher who fits the mold of the guys that have dominated the Tigers this month. With an average fastball velocity just over 90 mph, a high home run rate and weak strikeout numbers, Feldman should be a pitcher, on paper, that the Tigers jump on for five or six runs.

But you could say the same about Jeremy Guthrie, Chris Young, Kyle Gibson, Ricky Nolasco, Mike Fiers and Jimmy Nelson, all who shut down the Tigers over the last two weeks.

Feldman put together a trio of quality starts at the end of April, but allowed 20 runs (12 earned) in his first three starts of May. He carries an ERA over 5.00 into the game and strikes out only 6.19 hitters per nine innings. He doesn't walk many batters and at his best induces a ton of ground balls.

That bodes well for Feldman, as the Tigers have grounded into an MLB-high 42 double plays.

On Thursday, the Tigers line up like this:

Anthony Gose, CF
Ian Kinsler, 2B
Miguel Cabrera, 1B
J.D. Martinez, DH
Yoenis Cespedes, LF
Nick Castellanos, 3B
Rajai Davis, RF
James McCann, C
Andrew Romine, SS

Miguel Cabrera is glad to see Feldman in Detroit. He owns a .563 lifetime average against the right-hander with two doubles, two homers and five RBI.

The series will continue into the weekend with a night game Friday and day games on Saturday and Sunday. The Tigers will not see Astros' ace Dallas Keuchel, who beat the A's Wednesday.