|Verlander celebrates with Houston fans (photo: ESPN)|
For the first time since the 2001 season, the Houston Astros are division champions.
For the first time in franchise history, they are the champions of the American League West Division.
The Astros drubbed the visiting Seattle Mariners by a 7-1 score on Sunday afternoon at Minute Maid Park to clinch the crown.
The victory was made possible by a tremendous outing from newly acquired ace Justin Verlander, and four home runs from the team’s powerful lineup.
Verlander, picked up in an August 31 trade with the Detroit Tigers, allowed just a single earned run on three hits over seven innings. He struck out 10 and walked just one batter in raising his overall record to 13-8 on the season.
The 33-year old veteran right-hander has won all three of his starts since moving to the Astros. He has yielded just two earned runs on 10 hits over 21 innings in those starts, with a dominating 26/3 K:BB ratio.
This was Verlander’s first start in an Astros uniform in front of the home crowd in Houston. Per Brian McTaggart for MLB.com, clinching the division with this kind of performance made the experience all the more special:
“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 per McTaggart. “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.“
Home runs from rookie Derek Fisher (5), Marwin Gonzalez (22), George Springer (22), and Carlos Correa (21) overcame an early 1-0 Seattle lead.
The Houston franchise was founded back in 1962 as the Houston Colt .45’s, change the nickname to Astros for the 1965 season.
After playing in the National League through 1968 prior to divisional play, the club was assigned to the NL West Division in 1969, where they would remain through the 1993 season. They won NL West crowns in 1980 and 1986.
Houston then moved to the National League Central Division when MLB split to a three-division setup for the 1993 season. The Astros would remain there through 2012, capturing three straight NL Central crowns from 1997-99, and a fourth in 2001.
In 2013, Houston was moved over to the American League West Division, largely to form a natural geographic rivalry with the in-state Texas Rangers.
In their first season in the AL West, the Astros went just 51-111 and finished in last place. This is the club’s third consecutive winning season. They reached the postseason back in 2015 as an AL Wildcard, dropping the ALDS to the Kansas City Royals in a hard-fought five-game series that year.
Houston led the division for all but five early-April days this season. Per McTaggart, Astros’ manager A.J. Hinch appreciated the difficulty in trying to stay on top over a long six-month campaign.
“It’s not easy going wire to wire the way we did,” Hinch said per McTaggart. “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 joined the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central and the Washington Nationals of the NL East in clinching a 2017 division crown. The Los Angeles Dodgers of the NL West have clinched at least a Wildcard berth, and are on the verge of also clinching their division.
Hinch and his team still have something to play for over the final two weeks of the regular season. They are battling Cleveland for the top overall record in the American League, and home field advantage in a playoff series. They trail the Tribe by just one game in the loss column in that race.