ST. PETERSBURG -- For those who had been through the numerous Astros celebrations over the past seven years, the champagne tasted as sweet as it did the first time. And for those who were experiencing their first clinching celebration in a clubhouse Monday night, it may have tasted even better.
“I’ve never been a part of a division-winning team before, and it’s amazing and I’m really excited,” said designated hitter Trey Mancini, who was acquired by the Astros from the Orioles on Aug. 1.
“Same champagne, different uniform,” said catcher Christian Vázquez, who came over on the same day from Boston, where he won a World Series in 2018.
The golden era of Astros baseball -- which this year includes new faces like Mancini, Vázquez and Jeremy Peña alongside seasoned winners like Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve and Justin Verlander -- just rolls on. Houston clinched its fifth American League West title in six seasons by beating the Rays, 4-0, at Tropicana Field.
“We got probably a half a dozen or more first-timers, and I just want these guys to enjoy it because they worked their butt off to get to this point,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker, who won his ninth career division title. “We didn’t know what we had in Spring Training. We expected to win it, but we didn’t know we were going to win it by this much. But they just grinded, grinded and grinded. That’s the key. They were consistent every month, and these guys love each other. That’s what I like.”
When Houston beat the Mets on June 21, it opened a 10-game lead in the division. There were still nearly 100 games remaining, and the Astros weren’t about to let their foot off the gas. Instead, they grew their lead behind a dominating pitching staff and an offense led by blossoming star Yordan Alvarez.
“There’s a lot of guys in here, this will be their first time in the postseason,” Bregman said. “It’s a huge accomplishment and never gets old.”
For those who thought the Astros’ window of contention was closing, the players served a reminder that it remains very much open. Houston is headed to the playoffs for the seventh time in the past eight seasons, and it keeps winning despite losing key players like Gerrit Cole, George Springer and Carlos Correa in free agency the past few years.
“I think this ballclub expects to be good on a daily basis,” Bregman said. “We take a lot of pride in going out there every single day and playing hard, and these guys prepare. They show up and compete, and they hold themselves to a high standard. That's very important in championship teams.”
One of the first-timers was Héctor Neris, the reliever who signed a free-agent deal with the Astros last December with hopes of getting his first taste of the playoffs. So when he struck out Yandy Díaz for the final out Monday, he led Houston’s celebration on the field and in the dugout.
“Hey bro, I’m so happy today, I can’t say too many things,” Neris said. “Thank you Houston for supporting me here, and I’ll be here for a long time. I love you.”
That brought a smile to the face of Verlander, one of five holdovers from Houston’s 2017 World Series championship team.
“It’s fun to be part of these every single time,” Verlander said. “That never really gets old. I think there's a lot of guys in here that have done this quite a few times, and they know the deal. Héctor was probably the one leading the charge today -- his first time. I think everybody was celebrating and having fun together.”
With the win, the Astros earned a bye into the AL Division Series, for which they’ll have home-field advantage. Houston can now turn its attention to nailing down the best record in the AL. The Astros’ magic number to clinch the top seed is seven over the Yankees.
“This is the start of it,” Baker said. “You’ve got to get to this point first, and then you go to the next point and next point. You’ve got to be grateful for where we are right now and then get back to tomorrow.”
Altuve, the longest-tenured Astros player, began the game with his 11th leadoff homer of the season. Houston added on in the sixth with three runs, including a two-run double by Bregman. Luis Garcia (five innings), Hunter Brown (three innings) and Neris delivered the Astros’ AL-best 16th shutout.
“It feels like the first [celebration],” said Altuve, who suffered through three consecutive 100-loss seasons before reaping the rewards of Houston’s rebuilding efforts. “We’re all really happy. It’s big for us to win the division and go to the playoffs. It’s very special to us.”
At 97-51, the Astros need only three wins to reach 100 in a season for the fourth time since 2017 (the fourth time in the past five full seasons). They would also tie the club record for wins at 107 if they can win 10 of their final 14 games.
“We like winning,” closer Ryan Pressly said. “We show up to the park every day expecting to win. That’s kind of ingrained in us. When you have that throughout the culture of this organization, it translates to the big leagues. We like to win and we know how to win, and we keep grinding every single day we come to the field.”