BASEBALL: Still the best in the West: Houston celebrates back-to-back titles
TORONTO — Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander had never before been in a conference room to celebrate winning a division title.
Verlander and the Astros clinched their second straight AL West championship just after 2 a.m. Wednesday when Seattle beat visiting Oakland 10-8 in 11 innings on pinch-hitter Chris Herrman’s home run.
The Twitter account of the defending World Series champions posted videos of players, coaches and their partners jumping up and down in celebration inside a meeting room at The Ritz-Carlton Toronto.
“It was pretty unique,” Verlander said. “There’s been some unique scenarios, but not like that one.”
Houston opens the AL Division Series at home on Oct. 5 against Central Division champion Cleveland. Infielder Alex Bregman said he was “super pumped” to repeat as division winners.
“We haven’t had the smoothest of rides, a little adversity along the way, but we’ve pushed through it and we’re playing good baseball at the right time,” he said.
Left-hander Dallas Keuchel was among those who stayed up to watch the game at Safeco Field.
“Any excuse to party is a good excuse,” Keuchel said. “We did a little bit last night. I’m hurting today.”
Win or lose later Wednesday, Houston planned to have a party in the visiting clubhouse of Rogers Centre after the series finale.
“It’s a little different this year, but we still have to celebrate because we deserve this,” infielder Jose Altuve said. “It’s been a really good year for us, ups and downs like normal, but we ended up making it. I think we deserve a good celebration.”
Not all the Astros gathered to watch Herrman’s drive. Altuve had headed back to his own room in the eighth, figuring the A’s would hold an 8-5 lead.
“I’m excited but more than that I’m really proud of every single guy here,” Altuve said.”Back-to-back 100 wins, back-to-back division champs, I think that’s a really good accomplishment.”
Manager A.J. Hinch, who has been dealing with a minor illness, also took a pass on the viewing party.
“I had the game on my phone in my room,” Hinch said. “I woke up, had a nice little smile and went back to bed. Really exciting stuff.”
Verlander praised Oakland for challenging the Astros with a second-half surge.
“At spring training, we expected to be here, but baseball is a funny game,” Verlander said. “The A’s pushed us all year, and we had to continue to play great baseball. You never take for granted winning a division. As long as I’ve been in this game, I’ve known how hard it is.”
Hinch spoke to the Astros before Wednesday’s game to congratulate and thank the players, and to remind them of the task ahead.
“I’m so proud of this team,” Hinch said. “To go back-to-back 100 wins, back-to-back division championships, it’s not easy to do what we’re doing, so I do want out guys to relish in it.”
The Astros (100-57) needed three wins in their final five games to break the 1998 team record.
“It’s something we would like to accomplish,” Verlander said. “Selfishly, I think we’ve got the best Houston Astros team ever assembled. Having the record to show that would be nice.”
Houston is now turning its attention to the Indians.
“They’re a really good team,” Altuve said. “They’ve got really good hitters like we do. They’ve got good pitching. We’ve got good pitching, too. It’s going to be interesting. I pick my team, obviously, but I think it’s going to be good competition.”
Houston’s success the past two seasons is particularly meaningful to Altuve and Keuchel, who each suffered through multiple 100-loss campaigns in their first years with the team. The Astros lost a combined 324 games from 2011-2013.
“You’ve got to take a second to think about how good it feels,” Keuchel said. “Being a part of two 100-loss seasons back-to-back when I first got called up and then now being part of part two consecutive 100-win seasons is pretty special.”
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