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HOU@OAK: Kazmir fans five, walks none in eight frames

The Astros and Athletics find themselves in somewhat of a role reversal as they prepare for Thursday's opener of their four-game set at Minute Maid Park.

The A's, perennial contenders off to a good start this season, ran into a few roadblocks this week in Texas, where they were swept by the surging, and now first-place, Rangers.

The Astros, who struggled for wins after opening the season by beating the Yankees twice, had a nice showing in Seattle, taking two of three and nearly sweeping the Mariners before blowing a save in the series finale.

Still, even with the Astros' offense starting to work out of its team-wide hitting slump, the advantage, at least on paper, has to go to the A's. The A's swept the Astros last weekend in Oakland, and in 2013, they dominated Houston, winning 15 of 19 meetings between the two teams. To date, the A's are 23-5 against the Astros all time.

As much as they've played since becoming division foes last year, the A's haven't been to Houston in a while. The Astros' last 10 games against Oakland have been played on the road.

Athletics: Pitching key to solid start
The A's position in the American League West should come as no surprise given how well the starting pitching has held up in the first three weeks of the season. A's starters have allowed three or fewer runs in 19 of their first 21 games and through that stretch have posted a 2.80 ERA, among the lowest in the AL. Overall, the entire pitching staff has turned in a 2.69 ERA, third lowest in the Majors.

Houston native Scott Kazmir, Thursday's starter, is a big part of the equation. The southpaw has held opponents to a .173 batting average, and he appears to have picked up where he left off in 2013. Dating back to Sept. 21 of last year, Kazmir is 4-0 with a 1.34 ERA over six starts.

As for the 'pen, it's allowed 12 runs over the A's last 18 games. That's good for a sub-2.00 ERA, yet they also are tied for the most blown saves in the Majors with six.

Astros: Offense coming around
A struggling club showed positive signs while in Seattle, winning the series over the Mariners and posting back-to-back wins for the first time since taking the season-opening series against the Yankees.

The Astros have been hitting better, and they could stand to send some run support Brett Olberholtzer's way in this homestand opener. The left-hander doesn't have any wins yet this year despite pitching well, as evidenced by his 3.04 ERA. He will be hoping for a little better luck in his second consecutive start against the A's: He was in line for the win last Saturday in Oakland after allowing one run on eight hits and left the game with the Astros leading 3-1. The game ended with A's winning, 4-3, on a walk-off hit.

"They play together and have great team camaraderie," Oberholtzer said. "For me, I know I was under the weather [in the last game], but it's the same motto, to go out there and throw strikes and pound the zone and try to create weak contact and get outs."

Worth noting
• Keep an eye on A's outfielder Josh Reddick, who appears to have gotten back on track after a slow start. He batted just .098 in his first 12 games, yet over his last six, he's hitting at a .429 clip, logging nine hits in 21 at-bats with a homer and three RBIs.

• The A's are embarking on a long road trip that will take them through Texas and end with a series in Boston. They'll play the Astros, Rangers and Red Sox before returning home on May 5 to host the Mariners.

"Three cities and we end up as far away as we can," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "Doesn't really matter. Play where you're told to play. We do have an off-day between Texas and Boston."

• The Astros, conversely, will enjoy one of their longest home stretches of the season. They'll host the A's, Nationals and Mariners, with two off-days scheduled during the homestand.

• Matt Albers, a key member of the Astros' bullpen and one of the more reliable relievers so far, was not available in Wednesday's series finale in Seattle due to shoulder soreness. That means Josh Fields and Chad Qualls, who have each had their share of struggles, will likely have to absorb the bulk of the responsibility in the later innings.

• Astros starters have posted a 2.10 ERA the last time through the rotation (five starts).

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