HOUSTON -- With a postseason berth all but guaranteed, Astros manager A.J. Hinch has begun the process of mapping out the number of starts his frontline starters will make over the final two weeks of the season in deference to their workload and potential first-round matchups.
Right-hander Gerrit Cole, the scheduled starter for Tuesday against the Seattle Mariners, will instead pitch the opener of the weekend series against the Los Angeles Angels on Friday. He is 12 2/3 innings shy of his third 200-inning season and has made 30 starts for the third time. His 260 strikeouts are a career high by a wide margin, 58 more than he had in 2015 with Pittsburgh.
"He's really been worked pretty hard," Hinch said of Cole. "He's been very consistent in his work. We have the opportunity to push him back a couple days; we know he's only going to get two starts."
Hinch will use care to not overextend right-handers Justin Verlander (202 innings) and Charlie Morton, who is nine innings shy of eclipsing the career-high 171 2/3 innings he logged during his age-27 season with the Pirates in 2011. Left-hander Dallas Keuchel has worked 191 2/3 innings for the Astros (94-56). Keuchel reached 200 innings in back-to-back seasons in 2014-15.
"We are getting to that point where we're trying to line up two more starts (for each pitcher), where they're going to be, and how much rest they're going to have in between," Hinch said.
Rookie right-hander Josh James (0-0, 4.22 ERA) will make his second career start and fourth appearance. He made his big-league debut on Sept. 1 against the Angels, working five innings while allowing three runs on three hits and three walks with nine strikeouts. James followed with two relief appearances during a six-game road trip, combining to work 5 2/3 innings while allowing two runs on three hits and one walk with eight strikeouts against Boston and Detroit.
Right-hander Mike Leake (10-9, 3.99 ERA) will start on Tuesday as the Mariners (83-67) try to clinch the season series. It will mark his 30th start on the season, the seventh consecutive season that Leake has reached that benchmark. Leake, coming off his staff-best 18th quality start, will make his 16th career appearance (14th start) against the Astros. He is 6-6 with a 3.67 ERA in his career against Houston, including 0-2 with a 5.00 ERA over three starts this season.
Mariners ace left-hander James Paxton traveled with the club to Houston, fully recovered from a bout with pneumonia that had sidelined him since his previous start on Sept. 7 against the New York Yankees. With the Mariners clinging to faint postseason hopes, Paxton is incentivized to return to the mound, but he cannot do so until he has reclaimed full strength.
"It's really going to be a play-it-by-ear thing," Paxton said. "I don't know how long it's going to take to get energy back. I'd have to be able to throw, throw a bullpen, and still have energy left to go pitch a game. We're going to try and build up that energy as best we can and try to get me back out there."