Posted on September 18, 2017, by Bryan Zarpentine
It’s a result that’s been assumed for months, but it’s also nice to make it official. With their 7-1 win over the Mariners on Sunday, the Houston Astros officially clinched the 2017 AL West division title. Since opening day, the AL West has been a one-horse race, leaving little doubt the Astros would take the division crown. This is Houston’s 7th division title in franchise history and the first since 2001. It’s also the first division title the Astros have won since moving to the American League in 2013.
“It’s not easy going wire to wire the way we did,” said Astros manager A.J. Hinch. “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.”
Fittingly, the Astros clinched the division on the day Justin Verlander made his home debut in front of his new fans. The Astros acquired Verlander from the Tigers on August 31, just in time to make him eligible for the postseason. He won his first two starts for Houston, allowing just one run over 14 innings. However, Sunday was the first opportunity he had to pitch in Houston since the trade. Verlander did not disappoint, striking out 10 and allowing just one run over seven innings.
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“No matter what, whether it’s two weeks to go in the season or the last day (of) the season, these games, you can feel it,” Verlander said after Sunday’s game. “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.”
At times this season, the Astros appeared to be on cruise control. They jumped out to such a substantial lead atop the division that it was hard for the team not to relax. But the acquisition of Verlander and return of Carlos Correa from an extended stint on the DL helped to rejuvenate the Astros and get them refocused for the end of the regular season and the postseason ahead.
“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.”
The Astros now face a new challenge over the final two weeks of the regular season. The Cleveland Indians have passed them for the best record in the American League. Houston must make up a 1.5-game deficit on the Indians in order to earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Winning home-field advantage throughout the playoffs could prove critical in the American League. The Indians look formidable following a 22-game winning streak. The Red Sox also appear capable of winning the American League pennant. Even the Yankees could pose a challenge if they can wrap up a playoff spot. Of course, there’s no doubt that the Astros are legitimate World Series contenders, meaning the AL West title is just a stepping stone on their way to greater things.
“I’ve been a part of some pretty good ballclubs that won the American League and didn’t win it all,” says Verland. “I’ll say it’s the best club I’ve ever been on if we win the World Series.”