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Astros inch closer to AL West title with 99th win

Gurriel, Bregman, Alvarez homers aid Verlander's 19th victory
@brianmctaggart
September 18, 2019

HOUSTON -- Setting some kind of record is a near-daily occurrence this time of year for the Astros, who are on the cusp of achieving remarkable season-long goals. Some individual achievements are still to be had as well over the final 10 games of the regular season, but all eyes

HOUSTON -- Setting some kind of record is a near-daily occurrence this time of year for the Astros, who are on the cusp of achieving remarkable season-long goals. Some individual achievements are still to be had as well over the final 10 games of the regular season, but all eyes are focused on an American League West title and the best record in baseball.

The Astros crept closer to their third consecutive 100-win season -- something only five teams have achieved previously in MLB history -- and reduced their magic number to clinch their third straight division title to three in a 4-1 win over the Rangers on Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park in which their stars played the biggest roles. The second-place A's stayed eight games back with a 2-1 win over the Royals.

Box score

“We’ve played with a sense of urgency even when others have told us we don’t have to,” manager AJ Hinch said. “We’re trying to win as many games as we can. What comes with that is going to be great. Obviously, we want to win the division first. It’s something we’ve talked about all year. Then we’ll get to whatever’s next for us.”

On Tuesday, there was Justin Verlander, one of the frontrunners for the AL Cy Young Award, throwing six scoreless innings for his 19th win. There was third baseman Alex Bregman, who’s making a late push in the AL Most Valuable Player Award race, hitting his 37th homer. And there was slugger Yordan Alvarez, who walloped his 26th homer as he storms towards the AL Rookie of the Year Award.

The Astros (99-53) improved to 46 games over .500 for the first time in their history by winning their fourth game in a row. They have gone 29-5 at home against the AL West this season, including 8-0 against the Rangers.

“The many things I’m proud of with this team is how we’ve come to the ballpark every day and work, and work to win,” Hinch said. “That characteristic has been here for a while. I commend the players with staying focused on today’s game and that’s it. ... I love this team.”

Here’s a closer look at the individual milestones reached in the series opener:

• Verlander (19-6) struck out eight to put him within 11 of becoming the 18th pitcher to reach 3,000 strikeouts for his career and within 17 of 300 this season. He needs just seven strikeouts to match his career high of 290 set in 2018. Verlander has two starts remaining to reach 20 wins for only the second time in his Hall of Fame-worthy career.

“I’m aware of them but trying not to focus on it,” Verlander said. “Just trying to go out there and pitch, as funny a that sounds, and keep doing what I’m doing. I’ve obviously been putting up some pretty good numbers and trying to stick with the game plan, and trust my instincts. I was able to get eight strikeouts, which kind of puts me in the ballpark to get me to 3,000 this year. That would be pretty freaking cool.”

Hinch marveled at Verlander’s unparalleled focus as he prepared to make his 32nd start.

“It’s a sight to see,” he said. “You don’t talk to him at all during the game. He’s locked in on every pitch on what he’s trying to do. We’re seeing an incredible career continue to get better and better, and it’s hard to say that because he’s been so elite his career.”

• Bregman’s MVP case has picked up some steam in the last few weeks. Not only has he been perhaps the best hitter in baseball the last two months, but a season-ending injury to Angels star Mike Trout has opened the door for Bregman to strengthen his case with a strong finish.

“Mr. Trout is incredible, but what Bregman’s done this year is also nothing short of incredible,” said Verlander, the 2011 AL MVP Award winner. “It’s going to come down to the last couple of weeks. He’s got all eyes on him right now. He’s got a couple of weeks to show what he’s capable of. He’s been doing it all year, but he shines brightest when the spotlight’s on him.”

Bregman is slashing .388/.492/.755 in 41 games since Aug. 1 with 11 homers and 42 RBIs in that span. Having already reached 115 runs, 105 RBIs and 110 walks, Bregman is flirting with a .300 average (.296) and he has the second-highest OPS in the AL (1.004) behind Trout.

“All the numbers, whatever, we don’t show up in Spring Training trying to put up numbers,” Bregman said. “We show up there to win a World Series. That’s what’s important to us.”

Rangers starter Lance Lynn retired 13 of the first 14 batters he faced before Yuli Gurriel hit a solo homer for his 100th RBI. Gurriel and Bregman are the first set of Astros teammates to reach 100 RBIs in a season since Lance Berkman (106) and Carlos Lee (100) in 2008.

“He’s had a really good season and he’s been tough on our guys and we got a couple of fastballs by beating him to the spot,” Hinch said of Lynn.

• Alvarez extended his single-season franchise rookie record by hitting his 26th homer -- which traveled a projected 454 feet, according to Statcast, to left-center -- in the sixth, going back-to-back with Bregman. The Astros set a club record with their 13th set of back-of-back home runs.

“He’s incredible,” Bregman said. “He’s the best teammate, the best guy. He’s so much fun to have in here. I can’t say enough good things about him. He’s getting better, too, every day. He came up and set the world on fire, but he wants to get better every day, which is even more impressive. He puts in a lot of work and really cares about this team and winning.”

• Astros closer Roberto Osuna notched his 34th save of the season, which is tied for second in the AL. At 24 years old, he’s the youngest pitcher to reach 150 saves in baseball history, surpassing the previous mark by Craig Kimbrel (25 years, 354 days old).

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.