TORONTO -- A small conference room in a posh downtown Toronto hotel was turned into a watch party early Wednesday, with several Astros players and their wives and girlfriends celebrating an American League West title in the wee hours of the morning after the Mariners' Chris Herrmann hit a walk-off
TORONTO -- A small conference room in a posh downtown Toronto hotel was turned into a watch party early Wednesday, with several Astros players and their wives and girlfriends celebrating an American League West title in the wee hours of the morning after the Mariners' Chris Herrmann hit a walk-off homer in the 11th inning to beat the A's.
Oakland's loss clinched the second consecutive division title for the defending World Series champs, who will have home-field advantage in the AL Division Series against the Indians, which begins Oct. 5. The Astros popped corks and celebrated officially in the clubhouse following Wednesday's 3-1 loss to the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre.
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"We've had a good season," Astros manager AJ Hinch said. "We have our sights set a little bit higher. Regardless of last night and finding out in the middle of the night or celebrating after a loss here, we're going to get out of town and go to Baltimore. We need to take a step back and enjoy this."
Hinch, who's under the weather, was asleep when the Mariners beat the A's on Tuesday night, so the postgame celebration on Wednesday was his first chance to toast the 2018 AL West champs. Jose Altuve went to his room on Tuesday when Oakland had an 8-5 lead. After all, the A's hadn't lost all season when leading after seven innings.
"I was downstairs with the boys when the A's were winning 8 to whatever, and I said, 'OK, let's win tomorrow and celebrate here,'" Altuve said. "Then when I was in my room, the Mariners ended up winning the game and it was cool. But it was 2:30 in the morning, and we have to play today."
Ace pitcher Justin Verlander, standing in a cigar-smoke-filled clubhouse and watching his teammates pour champagne on each other, said the Astros expected to win the division, but he knows how difficult that can be, especially being the defending champ.
"It's special," he said. "If anything, in my career, I've learned this is the first step to the ultimate goal to win a championship, but you can never look past the first step. In 162 games, it's so hard to win your division. It's a great moment for the Houston Astros' organization, myself and all my teammates. This is something to cherish."
Many of the team's regulars were off on Wednesday, including Altuve, Alex Bregman, George Springer and Marwin Gonzalez. Hinch used a steady stream of relief pitchers in the finale against the Blue Jays.
Prior to the game, Houston (100-58) held a team meeting, with Hinch congratulating the players while reminding them that this is just one step towards the ultimate goal. The final stretch of the regular season is inconsequential for the Astros, though a few players mentioned their desire to break the club's single-season wins record of 102, set in 1998.
"I'm so proud of this team," Hinch said. "We have to take a moment and really appreciate this team. To go back-to-back 100 wins, back-to-back division championships, it's not easy to do what we're doing. I do want our guys to relish in it. I want us to finish strong. We're going to have a great party today after this game that we've earned, and our guys need to take a moment and enjoy what we've accomplished."
Unlike last year, when they roared to a double-digit lead in the AL West by the end of May and coasted to a division title, the Astros were pushed to the final week by Oakland and overcame some key injuries to become the first defending World Series champ to win 100 games since the 1990 A's.
"It's hard to imagine the team last year getting any better, but honestly we did," pitcher Dallas Keuchel said. "You kind of got to take a second to think about just how good it feels to be here in this position. … Being a part of two 100-loss seasons back-to-back when I first got called up and now being part of two consecutive 100-win seasons is pretty special."
Altuve was on three consecutive 100-loss teams at the start of his career, something that's not lost on him.
"I'm excited, but more than that, I'm really proud about every single guy here," Altuve said. "You see around and every guy in here did something to help this team be where we're at right now -- back-to-back 100 wins, back-to-back division champs. I think that's a really good accomplishment. I thank God for the opportunity to let me be part of this team."
Hinch will use the coming games to rest some of his key players before playing his full lineup in Sunday's regular-season finale. The Astros will have four days off before facing the Indians, and Hinch is likely to announce his pitching rotation in the coming days.
Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter and listen to his podcast.