PHOENIX -- After the Astros jumped out to a comfortable lead against the D-backs on Sunday afternoon, all eyes in the first-base dugout turned towards the out-of-town scoreboard at Chase Field. The Astros were doing their part, and now they needed the Mariners to beat the Rangers on the final day of the regular season to sew up the division title.
“I think we watched the scoreboard more than we watched our game,” Astros catcher Martín Maldonado said.
When the final score from Seattle flashed in the eighth inning showing that the Rangers had lost, the Astros exchanged high fives and handshakes and then finished off the D-backs to claim their sixth American League West title in seven seasons with an 8-1 win in the regular-season finale.
The Astros’ 90th win of the season, combined with the Mariners’ 1-0 win over the Rangers, gave Houston the tiebreaker and the division crown. The Astros, who finished with the same record as Texas (90-72) but owned the tiebreaker thanks to winning the season series, earned the No. 2 seed in the AL playoffs and a bye to the AL Division Series, which will begin Saturday with Game 1 at Minute Maid Park.
Houston will play the winner of the Wild Card Series between the Twins and Blue Jays.
“It feels good,” center fielder Chas McCormick said. “It feels good to get in the playoffs, especially to win the division. With how hard it was there at the end of the season, with our ups and downs, I think this says a lot about these guys. We never stopped fighting all the way to the finish line.”
The Astros spent the entire summer trying to chase down the Rangers, who were leading the AL West -- a division Houston has ruled in recent years -- by 6 1/2 games in late June. The hierarchy of the division appeared to be shifting towards Arlington.
Just a week ago, the Astros were swept at home by the Royals and were 2 1/2 games out of first place before heading out on a six-road road trip to end the season. They won two of three from the Mariners in Seattle before sweeping the D-backs, allowing two runs in three games. Houston went 51-30 on the road.
“We had an extremely tough division this year,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said. “Texas had a great year, Seattle had a great year. To be able to prevail today on the last day of the season, it was a really good win for us. Now it’s time to go home and rest the bodies and get ready for October.”
Even entering the final two days of the regular season, the Astros still faced the possibility of missing the playoffs. They clinched a postseason berth Saturday with their win and the Mariners’ loss and chose not to celebrate too much. Houston was eyeing the division title.
“We set a goal on the plane, and we talked about at least taking two out of three in Seattle,” Maldonado said. “We said we need two out of three and then here, as soon as [the Rangers] lost the first two games [to the Mariners], we knew we had a shot. That’s why everybody in the lineup played today.”
The D-backs, who clinched a playoff spot Saturday night and partied accordingly, fielded a lineup Sunday without many of their regular players. The Astros, meanwhile, came out swinging with Jose Altuve hitting a single on the first pitch and Bregman following with a two-run homer on the next pitch to kickstart a four-run first inning.
Bregman tripled and scored in the second inning on a sacrifice fly by Kyle Tucker. Tucker tripled and scored on a fielder’s choice in the fifth inning on a play that was at one point ruled an inside-the-park homer. Thus, he fell one homer shy of a 30-homer, 30-steal season. He finished with an AL-best 112 RBIs.
“We’re never out of it with this ballclub,” Tucker said. “I think we have a phenomenal lineup and pitching staff. It wasn’t really how we wanted to do it, but we came back and won it. That’s all that matters.”
The significance of winning the division and getting the No. 2 seed in the AL playoffs is huge for the Astros, who have five days to rest their pitching staff and set up the rotation.
The Astros may be the last team anyone wants to face in the playoffs. They’ve played in 92 postseason games since the start of 2015, which is more than any team in the Major Leagues. They’re experienced, they’re hungry and they’re confident.
“We’re the champions, so we’ll see,” Maldonado said.