The Astros weren’t going to be denied on this day. Not with Justin Verlander on the mound with a chance to win 20 games. Not with George Springer swinging the bat like he wanted to single-handedly carry the day. And not with a sellout crowd ready to throw a party at Minute Maid Park.
Even though the Astros led the American League West by 10 games in June and were never really threatened in the division race, they were still in a mood to celebrate what seemed liked a foregone conclusion Sunday afternoon after beating the Angels, 13-5, to win their third straight AL West title.
Springer clobbered home runs in each of his first three at-bats and Verlander reached 20 victories for the second time in his career to send the Astros to their ninth division title. The Astros (102-54) stayed a half-game ahead of the Yankees for the best record in MLB and need only one win in their final six games to tie the franchise record for most victories in a season.
“I’m happy for the fans, happy for the city and happy for us a team,” Springer said. “A lot has to go right for us to do this and a lot of hard work has to get put into it. It did, and we’re starting to see it.”
When closer Roberto Osuna got Kaleb Cowart to pop out for the final out of game, the Astros headed to the middle of the diamond to celebrate. Soon, they danced jubilantly in a huddle. In a wet clubhouse a few minutes later, manager AJ Hinch told his club they’re the best team in the big leagues and that they’re winning in the face of high expectations. He challenged them to hang another World Series pennant.
“We worked for it all year, and this is not easy,” Hinch said. “These guys put in the work and we get to the finish line and win the West. We feel really good about it. We love this team. We can accomplish big things, and this is the first step, hopefully, of a few of these celebrations if we keep playing.”
Coming off winning the 2017 World Series championship, the Astros lost in five games last year to the eventual champions, the Red Sox, in the AL Championship Series. But Houston returned its core position players and a rotation led by Verlander and Gerrit Cole, so expectations were high.
The Astros overcame significant injuries to Springer, Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve, but they were buoyed by the addition of rookie slugger Yordan Alvarez and pulled off a stunning deal at the July Trade Deadline to add former Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke to their stacked rotation. They became the World Series favorites.
“I keep telling these guys, you have to appreciate the team we have and the era you’re in and the group you have,” Hinch said. “To do it one after another is great for the people that have been here. We also have some guys who won their first AL West with us. We just keep a winning culture, winning mindset. We show up ready to play every day. We’ll soak this up. We had a lot of individual achievements this year, but it was never about that. It was about winning.”
Astros president of baseball operations and general manager Jeff Luhnow, who proclaimed this year’s team is better than last year’s club that was bounced in the ALCS, said clinch day is his favorite day of the year.
“It means we’ve actually accomplished the first major step,” Luhnow said. “We know we have a lot of work to do because the eight teams that are going to be left after the Wild Card Game are going to be good, too. We put together a team here that can beat any of them in any given series.”
Verlander (20-6) struck out five in five innings and is six punchouts shy of becoming the 18th pitcher to reach 3,000 career strikeouts. He will have one final chance to get there this season when he starts Saturday against the Angels in Anaheim in his final regular-season outing. Verlander has only reached the mark in 2011, when he won 24 games for the Tigers.
“Call me old school, but wins mean something to me,” Verlander said. “I think our job as a starting pitcher is to be out there late in games and pitch a lot of innings. That’s how you win ballgames. It’s a fickle stat. You can lose some close ones when you pitch well and you can win when you don’t pitch well, but over the course of 34 starts, if you do your job, more often than not you’re going to come out with a winning record.”
Springer homered in the first and second innings off Angels starter Jose Rodriguez and in the fourth off relief pitcher Jose Suarez to give the Astros a 4-2 lead. That tied him with Bregman for the team lead with 38 homers, but Bregman hit a two-run homer in the fifth — his 39th — to push the lead to 6-2. Alvarez had four hits. Aledmys Diaz added a three-run homer in the sixth.
The Astros went 60-21 at home, joining the 1998 Yankees as the only teams in the last 40 years to win 60 home games in a season. In the final week, they’ll be trying to hold off the Yankees and get home-field advantage through the ALCS.
“We’ve got to take it one step at a time,” Bregman said. “We’ve got a few games left in the regular season, and we want to finish strong. We want our guys to go into the postseason feeling healthy, and I think we’re off to a great start.”