HOUSTON — When the Houston Astros traded for Justin Verlander less than three weeks ago, they envisioned days like this.
Verlander struck out 10 over seven innings in his first home start for Houston, Derek Fisher and Marwin Gonzalez homered in a big fifth inning and the Astros clinched the American League West with a 7-1 win over the Seattle Mariners on Sunday.
“The story is almost too good to be true,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “We trade for him for this exact reason to come up in big moments. He was locked in from the very beginning. Nobody better to have on the mound and nobody better to celebrate with.”
The Astros acquired the ace from Detroit on Aug. 31, just minutes before the deadline for players to be eligible for post-season play. He had made two starts on the road before his Minute Maid Park debut.
“I don’t think you could ask for a better introduction for me to the city of Houston than this,” Verlander said. “First home start would have been great. First home start and a win would have been great. First home start and to win in a division-clinching game — you can’t make that up. And I’m looking forward to hopefully many more wins.”
George Springer and Carlos Correa also homered for the Astros, who won their first division title since 2001 and seventh overall. The Astros become the first team in major league history to win titles in three divisions after previously winning the NL West and NL Central.
As the Astros celebrated Sunday’s accomplishment, they were quick to point out that they want to finish the regular season strong to try and gain home-field advantage in the post-season b’y finishing with the best record in the AL. Houston led the AL for most of the season, but Cleveland moved ahead with its recent 22-game winning streak.
“For us, this is just the beginning,” Correa said. “We are just getting started.”
Houston has reached the post-season three times as a wild-card team since winning last winning its division in 2001 — with a team that included Seattle manager Scott Servais. The Astros will return to the playoffs for the second time in three seasons after ending a 10-year post-season drought in 2015.
Owner Jim Crane, who bought the team in 2011 and oversaw rebuilding, revelled in the celebration.
“I had a little tear in my eye,” he said. “This has been a long time coming. It was our goal from the get-go to work hard at it, build the team and we have a really good ball club.”
For the few players still on the team who endured the really lean years, winning the first division title in 16 years was even more special.
“It means a lot because I was here when we lost 100 games three years in a row,” Jose Altuve said. “Now I’m part of some winning teams and that means a lot to me.”
Verlander (13-8) retired his first seven batters before Ben Gamel homered into the right-centre bullpen in the third. He allowed just two singles after that to improve to 3-0 with a 0.86 ERA since the trade. Verlander walked one and raised his strikeout total with Houston to 26 in three games.
“We knew we were going to have to keep it close because we probably weren’t going to get a lot off Verlander,” Servais said. “Obviously, he was really good again today.”
Houston had trouble stringing hits together until the fifth inning, when Yuli Gurriel singled and Fisher homered to straightaway centre off Andrew Moore (1-4) for a 2-1 lead.
Springer singled and Moore got two outs before being replaced by James Pazos. Gonzalez sent his fourth pitch off the wall in left field for his 22nd home run to make it 4-1.
Moore allowed three runs and seven hits in 4 2/3 innings. He is 0-4 in seven starts and two relief appearances since June 22.
Springer hit his 32nd homer, a solo shot in the seventh off Emilio Pagan. Correa made it 7-1 later in the inning with a two-run homer.
Astros: RHP Lance McCullers will not return to the rotation on Tuesday and will instead throw another bullpen in a couple of days before the team decides when he will pitch again. ... INF Colin Moran was activated from the disabled list on Sunday. He’s been out since July 23 after suffering facial fractures when he fouled a ball off his face.
They said it
Hinch on his message to the team after the game: “I just said thank you for everything that this season is about and also to stay focused for what’s ahead. We have a chance to have a really special run here.”
Mariners: RHP Mike Leake (3-0, 2.41 ERA) pitches in the opener of a series against Texas on Tuesday.
Astros: RHP Collin McHugh (2-2, 3.61) is scheduled to start against the Chicago White Sox on Tuesday. McHugh left after three innings in his last start because of a problem with his fingernail.