PHOENIX -- While most of his teammates were wearing crisp new orange postseason T-shirts that read “Take October,” Astros veteran first baseman José Abreu stood at his locker sporting a blue tank top. Abreu is hoping the Astros can open another new box of gear on Sunday if they can win the American League West division title.
“We’re going to wear the shirt tomorrow,” he said.
The Astros took a big step towards repeating as World Series champions on Saturday night by beating the D-backs, 1-0, to clinch at least a Wild Card berth. The Astros can win the AL West for the sixth time in seven years if they beat Arizona in Sunday’s regular-season finale and the Rangers lose to the Mariners, who were eliminated Saturday.
Astros' path to the postseason Sunday:
- If Houston wins, Texas wins and Toronto wins: Astros will be the No. 6 seed, playing Minnesota
- If Houston wins, Texas wins and Toronto loses: Astros will be the No. 5 seed, playing Tampa Bay
- If Houston wins and Texas loses: Astros will be the AL West champs (If the three teams end up tied, it is not treated as a three-way tie, but rather as two separate two-way ties, with the AL West being settled first. In that scenario, the AL West would go to Houston, by virtue of winning the season series against Texas)
- If Houston loses: Astros will be the No. 6 seed, playing Minnesota
Considering they still have a major goal ahead of them, the celebration inside the visiting clubhouse at Chase Field was “muted,” as pitcher Justin Verlander labeled it. Veteran catcher Martín Maldonado led a champagne toast, and the Astros quickly turned their attention to Game 162 on Sunday.
“I know we’ve had ups and downs throughout the year, a lot of injuries, a lot of bad games,” Maldonado said. “It was a grind. We’ve got to keep it calm, especially with a big game tomorrow. The division is still available, and that was our main goal in the beginning.
“It’s a huge game tomorrow. I know a lot of people doubted us, especially the way we played at home, those games we lost to the Yankees and Kansas City [sweeps in September]. One thing I’m proud of this team, we’ve been in the moment. We know how to win games, and you’ve seen it the last few nights.”
After stumbling through most of September and giving up a 2 1/2-game division lead, the Astros have won four of five games on the road, including a pair of one-run nail-biters over the D-backs (Arizona also clinched a playoff spot Saturday with Cincinnati’s loss).
Verlander threw five scoreless innings on Saturday, Abreu drove in the game’s only run with an RBI double in the fourth inning and reliever Hector Neris escaped a bases-loaded jam in the seventh. Bryan Abreu recorded the final three outs. Houston’s bullpen has a 0.53 ERA in its past nine games.
“Incredible,” Verlander said. “Going five innings is not what I consider a job well done. I’d like to have gone deeper in the game, but to hand it over to those guys and have them perform the way that they do…was huge. It makes it easier on us starters.”
Pitching and defense have led the way for the Astros, who have scored three runs in two games in Arizona. On Friday, it was shortstop Jeremy Peña making a great diving stop and throw to save two runs late in the game, and Maldonado threw out the tying run at second base twice Saturday -- once on a bunt in the eighth and another on a caught stealing in the ninth. That was his first caught stealing in two months.
“I knew the guy [Jake McCarthy] was fast, and [Bryan Abreu] gave me a chance,” Maldonado said. “He was holding the ball really good, and I made a good throw. Finally.”
Coming off their second World Series title in six seasons, the Astros aimed to become the first team to repeat since the 1998-2000 Yankees. Injuries took their toll immediately, with pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. being lost for the season in the spring and Jose Altuve missing the first 48 games after fracturing his thumb.
A month into the season, the Astros lost starting pitchers José Urquidy and Luis Garcia to significant injuries, putting the spotlight on rookie starters J.P. France and Hunter Brown. While the starting pitching was solid behind Framber Valdez in the first half of the season, the offense suffered without Altuve, a poor start by José Abreu and an oblique injury to Yordan Alvarez that cost him six weeks.
The offense, led by Kyle Tucker, took off once it got healthy, and the Astros bolstered their rotation in July by bringing back Verlander in a trade with the Mets.
“I wasn’t here early in the year when a lot of the guys were injured, but talking to all the guys, it hasn’t been one of those seasons where anything seemed to go easy, so to be able to fight through that adversity and make the playoffs, it means a lot,” Verlander said.
The Astros chased the Rangers all season before finally moving into first place on Aug. 29, but going 2-7 in games against the A’s and Royals in September had Houston battling for its playoff life. And now the club has a chance to beat out the Rangers on the final day of the season.
“A lot of things have to go our way and you’ve got to play good baseball,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “I’m proud of these guys to this point. We have one more game to win, and if we win and [the Rangers] win, we gave it our best shot.”