Justin Verlander’s strong start helps the Astros win their sixth straight against the Mariners, the latest a 7-1 drubbing.
HOUSTON — The juxtaposition was stark.
As one team celebrated a division title in front of a cheering fan base, the other team quietly prepared for a long flight home where it could dwell on the distinct possibility that its postseason dream had been crushed by the team it simply couldn’t beat this season.
With a 7-1 drubbing of the Mariners on Sunday afternoon, the Houston Astros clinched the American League West title.
The players spilled from the dugout and sprinted in from the bullpen after Carlos Correa caught Kyle Seager’s bases-loaded pop out to end the game. A large, jumping group hug formed on the infield grass. It was Houston’s first division title since 2001.
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A few of the Mariners stood and watched, while others headed for the clubhouse with their heads down, refusing to watch something they likely won’t partake in this season.
“I’ve seen a few in my day, and I’ve been involved in a few,” said Mariners manager Scott Servais, who was a catcher on that 2001 Astros team. “When you are on the other side of it, it’s OK for guys take a look, especially young guys, and see what it’s all about.”
Speaking of 2001, that happens to be the last time the Mariners made the postseason — the longest drought in baseball. And it doesn’t appear to be getting snapped this season.
The Mariners lost their sixth straight game to the Astros and dropped to 74-76. The Mariners finished the season 5-14 against the Astros. No team in the AL West had a worse record against the division’s best team. The Angels finished 6-13 vs. Houston, while the A’s went 7-12. The Rangers still have three games left to play against Houston, but have seven wins against the Astros already this season.
“They’re a good ballclub and they’ve had our number all year,” Servais said. “They’ve beaten us. In a number of games that were very tight, they got the big hits and made the big plays late in the game and we didn’t.”
With 12 games left to play, the likelihood of Seattle overtaking the Twins seems improbable. Minnesota’s 12-5 win over the Blue Jays, Seattle is 4 1/2 games back for the second wild card. It would require a stretch of baseball from the Mariners that hasn’t been typical this season. A comparison of Seattle’s remaining schedule to Minnesota’s (far easier) makes it seem that much more unlikely.
“We are running out of time,” Servais said. “These games are important. I’m assuming we will bounce back. We have to keep grinding and keep playing hard. A lot of things can still happen. We need help. But we have to help ourselves. That will start at home on Tuesday.”
The Astros’ division-title celebration has been a foregone conclusion since about June 1 and possibly earlier. Houston sprinted away from the rest of the division, going 38-16 over the first two months of the season and did little to let the rest catch up.
Think about this: The Astros had one losing month, going 11-17 in August with much of their starting rotation injured. That mild swoon has been followed by a September where they are 11-5. While the Indians have obviously garnered much of the national headlines with their 22-game winning streak, the Astros are still quite formidable.
One of the reasons was on the mound on Sunday in his debut at Minute Maid Park. Justin Verlander, acquired to rectify some of the issues of August, was outstanding, pitching seven innings and allowing one run on three hits with a walk and 10 strikeouts.
“He was really good again today,” Servais said. “We’ve seen him a few too many times this year.”
His only run allowed came in the third inning when Ben Gamel drilled a solo homer to right-center to give the Mariners a brief 1-0 lead.
“He didn’t miss many spots today,” Gamel said. “He was pretty much doing what he wanted to out there today. I got a slider up in the zone. It was probably one of the few mistakes he made today.”
Meanwhile, Mariners starter Andrew Moore worked in and out of trouble for the first four innings against Houston’s formidable lineup. It all fell apart in the fifth inning. Moore gave up a leadoff single to Yuli Gurriel and left a fastball at the belt to Derek Fisher, who pounced on the gift pitch, pummeling it off the batter’s eye in deep center.
“A couple of mistakes came back to bite me,” he said. “When you are facing a good lineup, they take advantage of bad pitches. That’s what Fisher did.”
After giving up a single and getting two fly-ball outs, Servais went to lefty James Pazos to force switch-hitter Marwin Gonzalez to turn around and hit right-handed. Pazos had struck out five of the last six batters he faced in three previous outings. Gonzalez hammered a sinker on the inside half of the plate to deep center for a two-run homer and a 4-1 lead.
“Command wasn’t there, and it was definitely one bad pitch,” Pazos said. “I probably needed to throw a slider right there. I gave him the heater, and he hit it. I was trying to go in.”
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