The Astros have enjoyed their fair share of jubilant clinching celebrations during the past few years, which have been the best and perhaps most fulfilling in franchise history.
They have sprayed champagne inside clubhouses at Yankee Stadium, Dodger Stadium and Fenway Park, they won the American League pennant on a dramatic walk-off homer last year at Minute Maid Park, and they even had one of their players propose on the field after winning the World Series in 2017.
If there was a celebration Friday night after the Astros clinched their club-record fourth consecutive trip to the postseason, it was probably the tamest one yet. A couple of hours after Houston coughed up leads in the ninth and 10th innings and blew a chance to clinch by losing to the Rangers, 5-4, at Globe Life Field, the Dodgers -- the Astros' biggest nemesis -- put them over the finish line by beating the Angels, 9-5.
That eliminated the Angels from the playoffs and clinched second place in the AL West for the Astros, who are sitting at 29-29 with two games remaining in this year's truncated 60-game schedule.
All that matters now to the defending AL champions is that they're back in the playoffs, where they will be the sixth seed in the expanded AL bracket and will have to travel to face the No. 3 seed -- currently the Minnesota Twins -- in next week's best-of-three Wild Card Series round.
The Astros, coming off a 107-win regular season and coming within eight outs of winning their second World Series last fall, overcame a lot to advance beyond the regular season. They had a tumultuous offseason in which manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were dismissed for their role in the sign-stealing scandal that rocked the sport.
When the season started in late July because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Astros lost ace Justin Verlander for the season after one game with an arm injury and had numerous key players go down this summer. They had 19 rookies make appearances in 2020 and sputtered offensively throughout much of September as the A's ended Houston's run of three consecutive AL West titles.
The Astros pushed home automatic runner Jose Altuve in the 10th, but the Rangers scored twice in the bottom of the 10th off Enoli Paredes to walk-off their Lone Star State rivals. After the game, Astros manager Dusty Baker and players shrugged off the idea of hanging around to see if the Dodgers could beat the Angels.
“I’m going to go home, call my family, go to bed and get ready to play tomorrow,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said.
For Baker, he becomes the first manager in MLB history to lead a fifth franchise to the postseason, but he couldn't allow himself to think that far ahead just yet.
“We have to come back and play hard and win tomorrow,” he said.
But after erupting for 15 hits and 12 runs against the Rangers on Thursday, the Astros’ offense reverted. Houston got an RBI triple from George Springer in the fifth, and Bregman’s second homer in as many games tied the game at 2 in the sixth.
Now that they’ve clinched, the Astros can take their foot off the gas in the final two games of the season. They’ll be able to rest some of their key position players and set up their rotation for the Wild Card Series.
The last team to clinch a playoff spot in the AL, the Astros will have a chip on their shoulder this October. They’ve become public enemy No. 1 around baseball after MLB determined in January they used electronics to illegally steal signs on their march to the 2017 World Series, in which they beat the Dodgers in seven games. Players around the league voiced their displeasure. Fans booed in the spring. The Astros kept chugging, looking for a path to redemption.
Perhaps another deep playoff run will provide the opportunity to thumb their nose at the naysayers. If the Astros can get back to the Fall Classic, it might be the most improbable run in history. After all, they’ll finish the regular season somewhere around .500. They won’t play another game at their home stadium. The 2019 AL Cy Young winner and 2019 AL Rookie of the Year are out with injuries.
In 2020, it's the Astros vs. everybody.