ST. PETERSBURG — For those who have attended the Astros’ many celebrations over the past seven years, the champagne was as sweet as the first time. And for those experiencing their first breakthrough celebration at a clubhouse on Monday night, it might have been even better.
“I’ve never been on a division-winning team before, and it’s amazing and I’m really excited,” said designated forward Trey Mancini, who was acquired by the Astros from the Orioles on Aug. 1. .
“Same champagne, different uniform,” said catcher Christian Vázquez, who arrived the same day from Boston, where he won a World Series in 2018.
The Golden Age of Astros baseball – which this year includes new faces like Mancini, Vázquez and Jeremy Peña alongside seasoned winners like Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve and Justin Verlander – continues. Houston clinched its fifth American League West title in six seasons by beating the Rays, 4-0, at Tropicana Field.
“We’ve got probably half a dozen or more rookies, and I just want those guys to take advantage of that because they’ve worked hard to get to this point,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said, who won his ninth career division title. “We didn’t know what we had in spring training. We expected to win it, but we didn’t know we were going to win it that much. But they just crushed and crushed and crushed. This is the key. They were consistent every month, and these guys love each other. That’s what I like.”
When Houston beat the Mets on June 21, it opened a 10-game lead in the division. There were still nearly 100 games to go and the Astros weren’t about to let up. Instead, they increased their lead behind a dominant pitching staff and an offense led by blossoming star Yordan Alvarez.
“There are a lot of guys here, it will be their first time in the playoffs,” Bregman said. “It’s a huge accomplishment and never gets old.”
For those who thought the Astros window of discord was closing, players reminded that it remains wide open. Houston is heading to the playoffs for the seventh time in the last eight seasons, and it continues to win despite losing key players like Gerrit Cole, George Springer and Carlos Correa to free agency in recent years.
“I think this ball club expects to be good on a daily basis,” Bregman said. “We’re very proud to go out there every day and play hard, and these guys are preparing. They show up and compete, and they hold themselves to a high standard. This is very important in championship teams.
One of the starters was Héctor Neris, the reliever who signed a free agent contract with the Astros last December in hopes of getting his first taste of the playoffs. So when he knocked out Yandy Díaz for the final on Monday, he led Houston’s celebration on the field and in the dugout.
“Hey bro, I’m so happy today, I can’t say too much,” Neris said. “Thank you Houston for supporting me here, and I will be here for a long time. I love you.”
That brought a smile to Verlander, one of five survivors from Houston’s 2017 World Series championship team.
“It’s fun to be part of these every time,” Verlander said. “It never really gets old. I think there are a lot of guys here who have done this many times, and they know the trick. Héctor was probably the one leading the charge today — his first time. I think everyone was celebrating and having fun together.
With the win, the Astros earned a bye to the AL Division Series, where they will have home-court advantage. Houston can now focus on setting the AL’s best record. The Astros’ magic number to clinch the first seed is seven over the Yankees.
“It’s the beginning,” Baker said. “You have to get to this point first, then you move on to the next point and the next point. You have to be grateful for where we are right now and then come back to tomorrow.
Altuve, the longest-serving Astros player, started the game with his 11th first homer of the season. Houston added in the sixth with three runs, including a two-run brace by Bregman. Luis Garcia (five innings), Hunter Brown (three innings) and Neris posted the Astros’ 16th shutout.
“It’s like the first [celebration]said Altuve, who suffered three straight 100-game losing seasons before reaping the rewards of Houston’s rebuilding efforts. “We are all very happy. It’s important for us to win the division and go to the playoffs. It is very special for us.
At 97-51, the Astros need just three wins to reach 100 in a season for the fourth time since 2017 (the fourth time in the past five full seasons). They would also tie the club record for wins at 107 if they could win 10 of their last 14 games.
“We like to win,” said closer Ryan Pressly. “We show up at the park every day hoping to win. It’s kind of ingrained in us. When you have that in the culture of that organization, it translates into the big leagues. We like to win and we know how to win, and we keep working every day we step on the pitch.
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