The Seattle Mariners, who started the season with a six-man starting pitching rotation, are now struggling to find a healthy body to use as a fifth starter.
So when the Houston Astros come to town Monday to open a key three-game series, the Mariners will be sending rookie right-hander Darren McCaughan (0-0, 1.80 ERA) to the mound for his first major-league start.
The Mariners are coming off three consecutive victories against Oakland to pull within 1 1/2 games of the Athletics in the chase for the American League's second wild-card playoff berth.
"That's what you play for all year is that these games mean something as we get to the end of July and into August and September," Mariners manager Scott Servais said.
McCaughan made his debut Wednesday in Colorado, throwing five hitless innings of one-run relief in a 6-3 loss to the Rockies.
That was enough to earn him a start.
"It was kind of like a breath of fresh air once I finally got out there," McCaughan said. "I think pitching in spring training games I was more nervous, just because I expected to play and I knew I was gonna get in there at some point."
To give McCaughan a "soft landing" for his debut, the Mariners used Keynan Middleton as an opener. That backfired, as Middleton allowed five runs in the first inning.
McCaughan didn't seem to have any first-game jitters.
"I actually came out to (Coors Field) on the off-day and walked out on the mound and just kind of took in the surroundings of everything," McCaughan said. "It wasn't the first time I had seen the stadium. It wasn't the first time I had been out there. I had taken it in, found my focal point out there in center field, so I felt comfortable on the mound."
The AL West-leading Astros are fresh off a three-game sweep of visiting Texas to move 5 1/2 games ahead of second-place Oakland.
They are embarking on an eight-game trip to Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles, where they'll face the defending World Series champion Dodgers.
"We have to rise to the occasion," Astros manager Dusty Baker said. "This is something you look at the schedule and say, 'OK, this is going to be a tough stretch here with some very good teams.' Seattle is playing outstanding. They're as tough in their stadium as we are in ours. ... It's a big week, huge week."
Abraham Toro hit a two-run homer as the Astros won 3-1 Sunday.
"Just coming out of that last road trip we had earlier, coming in here and having a good homestand and setting the tone, that's huge," Toro said. "It gives you more confidence on the road to do it all again."
The Astros are scheduled to send right-hander Luis Garcia (7-5, 2.86) to the mound for the series opener at T-Mobile Park.
Garcia has faced Seattle once previously, a 1-0 defeat April 29 in Houston despite allowing only one run on three hits in five innings. The lone run came on a solo homer by the Mariners' Taylor Trammell, who has since been sent back to Triple-A Tacoma.
--Field Level Media