HOUSTON — A chance to clinch the American League West title and the home debut of Justin Verlander had the Astros in the mood to party on Sunday afternoon.
Verlander, pitching at home for the first time since he was acquired in a trade with the Tigers, struck out 10 batters in seven dominant innings, and the Astros blasted four home runs for a 7-1 win over the Mariners that clinched their first AL West crown, setting off a raucous celebration at Minute Maid Park.
It’s not easy going wire to wire the way we did,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “We were expected to win. We come up and had some exceptional months and faced a little bit of adversity, and we end up coming back strong with one of the best runs here in September so far. It’s only the first feeling we’re going to have like this. We got a chance for more feelings like this.”
The Astros won their seventh division title in team history and first since they won four in a five-year stretch in the National League Central from 1997-01. Houston returns to the playoffs for the first time since winning the AL Wild Card Game in 2015 and later dropping a five-game AL Division Series to eventual World Series champion Kansas City.
The Astros also continue to provide a lift for a city with the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey still fresh on Houstonian’s minds. “I don’t want them to forget,” Hinch said about his team in the aftermath of the tragedy. “This is our city.”
No matter what, whether it’s two weeks to go in the season or the last day in the season, these games, you can feel it,” Verlander said. “You know there’s a little more at stake. Yeah, it was a lot of fun to be out there. I don’t know if you could ask for more for your home debut for a chance to clinch the division. I don’t know how often that happens, but it’s pretty special.”
Verlander (13-8) has won all three starts with the Astros, who swept the Mariners for their fourth consecutive win and have gone 12-5 since Aug. 31 — the day they acquired Verlander. The Astros remained 1 1/2 games behind the Indians for the best record in the AL.
The No. 1 priority is to win the division,” Hinch said. “We set out that goal right away from the beginning of Spring Training. We wanted to take care of our own business and win the division. We did that. We need 11 wins in October to make it even more special. The fact we could clinch it at home in front of our home fans, a really special feeling for a really special group of guys.”
Team president Reid Ryan also noted what this club has meant to its fans in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey: “When the city of Houston needed it, these guys stepped up.”
Mariners starter Andrew Moore (1-4) allowed three runs and seven hits in 4 2/3 innings. After Ben Gamel homered off Verlander to put Seattle ahead, 1-0, in the third, Derek Fisher took Moore deep in the fifth to put the Astros ahead, 2-1, and Marwin Gonzalez tagged reliever James Pazos for a two-run homer later in the inning.
In the seventh, George Springer found the first row of the Crawford Boxes for his team-leading 32nd homer, and Carlos Correa hit a two-run blast to straightaway center to push the lead to 7-1. That was his first homer since July 9 and his first since missing eight weeks with a thumb injury.
The Mariners finished their Texas road trip with a 3-4 record that dropped them to 74-76, 4 1/2 games back of the Twins for the second AL Wild Card spot after Minnesota beat the Blue Jays, 13-7. The Mariners wound up 5-14 against the Astros on the season.
We swung the bats really good in Texas and coming in here, we hoped to have a better series obviously than we did,” said Mariners manager Scott Servais. “It didn’t happen. They’ve got a really good ballclub. They played well and we didn’t. They beat us. We’ve got to play better and that’s where we’re at.”
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Fish story: Fisher’s homer — his fifth — was the biggest hit of the rookie’s career and came moments after Verlander struck out the side in the fifth. It was clear at that point that Verlander was completely locked in and under control, and Fisher’s go-ahead homer — a projected 432-foot shot, according to Statcast™ — and Gonzalez’s blast gave Verlander enough cushion to finish off the Mariners.
That’s why you play baseball, and I’m so happy I was able to help the team in a game like this,” Fisher said. “To put us ahead with possibly one of the best pitchers of our generation on the mound, it gives us the utmost confidence and obviously gives him some room to play with. We were able to tack on some more towards the end and put the hammer down.”
Doubled up: The Mariners finally got the leadoff hitter on against Verlander when Robinson Cano started the seventh inning with a single. With Nelson Cruz and Astros nemesis Kyle Seager due up, Verlander thwarted the rally by getting Cruz to hit into a 6-4-3 double play, beginning with a nice backhanded stop from Correa at short. Seager flied out to deep center to end the inning.
Obviously, Verlander was really good again today,” Servais said. “Unfortunately, we’ve seen him too many times this year. Outside of one time when we had a comeback against him at home, he’s had our number.”
“He didn’t miss many spots today. He was pitching up in the zone, pitching down. He was pretty much doing what he wanted to out there. He got a slider up in the zone to me and that was probably one of the only mistakes he made all day.” — Gamel, on his home run off Verlander
“I’ve been a part of some pretty good ballclubs that won the American League and didn’t win it all. I’ll say it’s the best club I’ve ever been on if we win the World Series.” — Verlander
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
Seattle’s starting pitching struggled in the three-game sweep as James Paxton, Erasmo Ramirez and Moore combined to pitch just 10 innings and allowed 19 hits and 12 runs for a 10.80 ERA.
The Astros activated infielder Colin Moran from the 10-day disabled list on Sunday. He’ll join the team Tuesday. Moran fouled a ball off his face and suffered fractures on July 22 in Baltimore and recently completed a Minor League rehab stint with Class A Quad Cities, which won the Midwest League title.
Mariners: Right-hander Mike Leake makes his fourth start since being acquired from the Cardinals when Seattle opens a three-game Safeco Field series against the Rangers on Tuesday at 7:10 p.m. PT in the final homestand of the season. Texas counters with lefty Martin Perez, who had a seven-game win streak snapped when he faced Leake last Wednesday in an 8-1 Mariners win in Arlington.
Astros: The Astros will enjoy their final off-day of the regular season Monday before sending right-hander Collin McHugh to the mound to open a three-game series against the White Sox at 7:10 p.m. CT on Tuesday at Minute Maid Park.
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