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TB@HOU: Norris tosses seven innings of one-run ball

Fresh and rested are rare descriptions for Major League players, but they will fit when the Astros and the Mariners kick off the second half of their seasons on Friday night in Houston.

Despite dwelling at the bottom of the American League West, the two squads appear to be headed in vastly different directions.

The Mariners are just nine games below .500 after picking up some steam to close out the first half.

Seattle won three of its last four series, taking series from the Rangers and Reds and sweeping the Angels with dominant pitching.

"They are the real deal. This is going to happen, like I've always said," manager Eric Wedge said of his team's first half. "I think there are indicators that should show you that, but it's a good group. It's a championship group, we just have to keep playing and keep moving forward. We're not there yet, but we're definitely on the way."

Heading into the second half of the season, the biggest question for the Mariners will be whether they can they sustain the stellar offense they've been putting up, averaging 5.9 runs per game through 13 July contests.

Hoping to back up that burgeoning offense on Friday is Joe Saunders, who has won his last three starts while allowing a grand total of two earned runs in 20 2/3 innings over that stretch.

"To keep the momentum going would be great," Saunders said. "Obviously, we've got some ground to make up here in the second half, so hopefully we can get off to a good start come Friday."

Meanwhile, the Astros have been trending in the opposite direction. Houston hasn't won a series in July and has dropped five of its last six games.

Overall, the Astros closed the first half on a 2-12 swoon, struggling to pitch when the offense provided run support and getting outmatched in most pitchers' duels.

But hope is not lost, at least according to manager Bo Porter, who said he learned a lot about the talent in the organization during the first half.

"I've said this for the entire time I've been here -- the most important aspect of any organization is to properly evaluate your players," Porter said. "You don't want to go into the offseason with the number of questions we had last year.

"We have answered a lot of questions [this season], because we've allowed guys the opportunity to go out and show us exactly what they are able to do at the Major League level."

Porter confirmed Houston will open up the second half of the season behind starter Bud Norris, who was a viable All-Star candidate, although he got shelled for seven runs on 11 hits by the Cardinals in his last outing.

Even with that start, Norris has a 3.63 ERA in 19 starts. His 6-8 record is due largely to a lack of run support, and he's been especially brilliant at Minute Maid Park, netting a 2.27 ERA over 71 1/3 innings of work at home.

Astros: Carter nursing sore ankle
Astros outfielder/first baseman Chris Carter was not only one of Houston's premier run producers during the first half, he was one of their most durable players.

However, he missed three of the team's final seven games with various aches and pains. He was out of the lineup in St. Petersburg on Saturday and Sunday as he nursed a sore ankle.

"He kind of tweaked his ankle a little bit [on Friday night] rounding third base," said Astros manager Bo Porter. [Saturday], he got treatment, and [Sunday], with the All-Star break coming up and us having a few more days, it just made sense to let him rest and come back on Friday."

Carter has still played in 87 of the Astros 94 games, with only four of those seven absences due to injury. The right-handed slugger is hitting .229, but he has knocked 18 home runs and 47 RBIs.

Mariners: Saunders' start spells All-Stars
Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma will follow Saunders in Houston, allowing them a few days of rest after what is sure to be a hectic All-Star week for them.

"We've got two great pitchers that are going to the All-Star Game, and it's my turn in the rotation to give those guys a couple extra days off and let them get settled back in," Saunders said.

Hernandez leads Seattle in wins (10), starting ERA (2.53) and strikeouts (140), while Iwakuma has gone 8-4 with a 3.02 ERA and a dominant 0.94 WHIP in 20 starts.

Worth noting
• Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager closed the season's opening half on a 14-game hitting streak.

• The Astros won't exactly be off until Friday, as Porter said the team will work out on Thursday at Minute Maid Park.

• As new AL West rivals, Seattle and Houston have enjoyed a competitive season series so far, with the Astros barely getting the upper hand by winning five of nine against the Mariners, but the clubs will meet 10 more times this season.

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