HOUSTON -- If the Houston Astros make the postseason in back-to-back years, no one will be able to accuse them of coming in through the back door. The Astros open September with 13 consecutive games against teams currently in first place, so they're going to have to play some of their best baseball of the season to reach the playoffs.
The Astros are hanging on in the American League West and have six games remaining against the first-place Rangers, beginning Friday in Arlington, and they're in the thick of the AL Wild Card race entering the final month. Houston clinched the second AL Wild Card on the final day of the regular season in 2015, and it appears the club is set for another photo finish.
"We understand there's  games to go, and we clinched in the seventh inning of Game 162 [last year], so we understand this is far, far from over," outfielder George Springer said. "But also at the same time, we've got to have a sense of urgency and not let it slip away."
The Astros technically don't control their own destiny in the AL Wild Card race, but a strong September should be enough to get them in. They won 86 games last year, and they'll need about that many wins this season to give themselves a shot. With a 71-62 record, that would mean going at least 15-14 over the final 29 games, or at least outplaying Baltimore and Detroit, both of which are 72-61, one game ahead of Houston for the second AL Wild Card spot.
"Trust me, I'd love to rattle off a ton of wins and clinch a week in advance and set up your rotation and set up everything, but it doesn't seem like it's going to play out that way for too many teams in the game," manager A.J. Hinch said. "The scoreboard is right in front of us [in left field at Minute Maid Park], but the more you scoreboard watch, the more you're taking your attention away from beating the team that's on the field in front of you."
Of course, with six games remaining against the Rangers, four against the Indians, three with the Cubs and six left with the Mariners, the schedule isn't doing the Astros any favors. Houston is 2-11 against Texas this year, but it is 11-1 against the Angels, who the Astros play seven times in the final 10 games of the year.
"It's a tough schedule, but if we're going to make an impact this year in the postseason, we're going to have to learn to beat good teams," general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "So no better time to start than now."
Those questions can be answered with a solid month of baseball.
"It'll be fun, and it's be a good test," Springer said. "We're not going to quit. There's no quit in this team whatsoever. We haven't quit all year, and we've been able to get ourselves into a position where we're two [games] back. We're there. Obviously, we haven't had the success that everyone hopes for, but at the end of the year, you can say we're still in it. That's great. There's 30 teams out there, and we're still in it."
The road ahead
The Astros hit September in the hunt for the second Wild Card, but the schedule is brutal, beginning with a seven-game road trip to Texas and Cleveland. Following that, the Cubs and Rangers come to Houston. The Astros didn't clinch a playoff berth until Game No. 162 last year, so they understand this thing can go down to the wire.
• Home games: 13
• Road games: 16
• Games vs. teams over .500: 19
• Two key series: Sept. 2-4 at Rangers; Sept. 9-11 vs. Cubs
• Help on the way? There's an outside chance righty Lance McCullers could return in September, but his sprained elbow has kept him off the mound since Aug. 2
• Cause for concern: The Astros' inconsistent starting pitching could be a concern considering how difficult the schedule is and the fact they're chasing more than one team.
Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.