While all eyes are on the battle between the Mariners and Rangers, the Houston Astros (85-68) will be trying to protect their slimmest of leads atop the AL West as they kick off a three-game set against the Kansas City Royals (51-102) at home on Friday night. First pitch from Minute Maid Park is set for 8:10 p.m. ET. It’ll be a battle of powerful lefties on the mound, as Cole Ragans (6-4, 3.33 ERA) will look to continue his remarkable second-half breakout for K.C. while Houston counters with Framber Valdez (12-10, 3.20).
The Astros enter as -230 favorites on the moneyline at DraftKings Sportsbook, with the Royals at +190. The run total is set at 8.
Royals-Astros picks: Friday, September 22
Out: SP Brady Singer (back), SP Brad Keller (shoulder), C Salvador Perez (concussion), C Freddy Fermin (finger)
Day to day: RP Ryne Stanek (ankle), OF Michael Brantley (shoulder)
Cole Ragans vs. Framber Valdez
If you haven’t been paying much attention to the Royals in the second half, we don’t blame you, but you’ve missed out on Ragans’ evolution from unknown to budding superstar. Acquired from Texas in the Aroldis Chapman trade, the lefty has been dynamite over the past couple of months, with a 2.28 and 76 Ks in 59.1 innings since joining Kansas City’s rotation on July 15. He’s fanned at least seven batters in seven of those 10 starts, including last week against these same Astros, when he allowed five runs on six hits and two walks in six-plus innings of work while striking out seven. Even that line looks substantially worse than it could have: Ragans had a quality start in the bag, but was sent back to start the seventh despite having already thrown 94 pitches and quickly allowed two baserunners that would later come around to score. With a high-90s fastball and wicked slider and changeup, the lefty has an electric arsenal that’s gotten the better of just about everyone he’s faced recently.
Valdez’s most recent outing also came against the Royals, and it was a great one, with just one unearned run allowed on six hits and a walk over seven innings. The lefty has gone at least seven innings in seven of his last nine starts, with two six-run blowups marring an otherwise excellent second half from Houston’s workhorse. He’s posted a 1.71 ERA over 21 innings so far in September, thanks largely to throwing his sinker less and incorporating more of his cutter and curveball.
With a pitching matchup like this, I’m taking the under comfortably — the only thing that soured Ragans’ line the last time he faced the Astros was his own team’s questionable bullpen management, and that was the first time he’d allowed more than three earned runs as a Royal. The lefty sure looks the part of a future ace, and even if Houston does get to him a bit, Valdez’s recent form has me confident that K.C. won’t contribute much to this total.
Pick: Under 8
This isn’t to say that the Astros shouldn’t be favored here, or that they aren’t the more likely team to win tonight. But with so much juice on the line here and a pitcher as good as Ragans on the mound, I’m backing the underdogs — there’s simply not enough reward in a Houston win to compensate for the risk that Ragans pitches his team to a victory, something he almost did just last week.
Pick: Royals +190