HOUSTON -- Lance McCullers Jr. and Carlos Correa grew up together in the Astros’ organization. They were taken 40 picks apart at the top of the 2012 MLB Draft and represented the future of a Houston team that was knee-deep in one of the most aggressive rebuilding movements in recent baseball history.
McCullers and Correa made their Major League debuts within one month of each other in the summer of 2015 -- helping the Astros make a surprising playoff run just two years removed from losing 111 games. They were All-Stars two years later and won a World Series, becoming cornerstone players of Houston’s budding new dynasty.
So perhaps it was only fitting that McCullers and Correa played the role of hero Thursday night for the Astros, who finally were able to clinch their fourth American League West championship in five seasons with a 3-2 win over the Rays at Minute Maid Park.
“He’s come up big for us time and time again,” McCullers said of Correa. “He just is never out of big hits or big moments on this team. We’re going to rely on him, we’re going to rely on a lot of these guys, but especially him to get us through October.”
• Games remaining: 3 vs. A’s
• Standings update: Astros have won the AL West.
• Magic number for home-field advantage in ALDS: 1 (over the White Sox)
Correa, who’s a free agent at the end of the season, never ceases to amaze manager Dusty Baker.
“He’s big-game Carlos to me,” he said. “The guy comes through time and time again. He believes he’s going to come through. … I’m hoping there’s a way we can retain and sign Carlos, because he’s a big part of this team, not only on the field but he’s one of the real leaders on this team.”
The Astros will play the AL Central champion Chicago White Sox in the AL Division Series, which begins Thursday. Houston’s magic number to clinch home-field advantage in the ALDS is one.
McCullers, the Astros’ likely Game 1 starter, finished the regular season 13-5 with a 3.16 ERA in 28 starts, including 15 quality starts. He held opponents to three earned runs or fewer in 23 of those 28 starts and struck out a career-high 185 batters.
“I love that guy with all my heart,” Correa said. “That’s my brother for life. It’s always special to play behind him, especially today that he was to give us that huge win that we needed.”
McCullers held the Rays to two runs in six innings, taking a no-hitter into the sixth, and Correa’s career-high 25th home run -- a three-run shot in the fourth inning -- gave the Astros a 3-0 lead. That was a huge sigh of relief for an offense that was shut out Wednesday.
“It was a big swing for us,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “Especially with the way Lance was throwing the baseball. It gave us every chance to win the game. Our bullpen came in and did a great job. It was a good all-around team win. It was solid, and we’ll keep going.”
The Rays made it interesting, of course, when Brandon Lowe hit a two-run homer off McCullers in the sixth. Houston’s bullpen slammed the door, with Ryne Stanek, Kendall Graveman and Ryan Pressly each throwing a scoreless inning.
“It’s always an exciting moment to pitch your team into the postseason,” said McCullers, who was on the mound when the Astros clinched the 2017 AL pennant. “Winning a division is not easy. I think we have done a great job this year and are looking forward to the postseason.”
The Astros appeared close to clinching the division a week ago, but they lost five out of six games and watched the surging Mariners close to within 3 1/2 games entering Friday. Even finishing off Thursday’s game proved to be a challenge against the Rays, who are the No. 1 seed in the AL.
The Rays had two on and no outs in the ninth against Pressly, who got a 3-4-1 double play to push the tying run to third. Yandy Díaz grounded out for the final out, and the Astros were ready to party at Minute Maid Park. Houston is in the postseason for the fifth year in a row and is poised for another deep run behind its experienced core.
“We’ve got a great ballclub,” Correa said. “But the organization that we’ve built here is unbelievable. We want to make it five straight ALCS for us. Hopefully, we can do that and win a World Series. That’s what we really want.”