The focus of the baseball world over the previous two months of the season has been on two teams: the Dodgers, first as the second coming of the 1927 Yankees and then as the reincarnation of the 2003 Tigers; and the Indians, who spent three weeks laying waste to the league around them amid their 22-game win streak.
Lost in the shuffle was the team that first laid claim to the mantle of Best In Baseball: the Astros. Their brilliant opening stretch of the season (38–16 over April and May) gave way to a great-but-not-Dodgers’-level-great June and July, then a post-All-Star break stumble was overshadowed by the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Harvey upon their home city.
As the Dodgers stole their early-season thunder and as the Indians rode a historic win streak to overtake them for the AL’s best record, the Astros looked closer to mortal, thanks in large part to injuries to key contributors (Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers, notably) that would have sunk other teams. But that April and May surge combined with the struggles of the rest of the AL West had given Houston all the insurance it needed in the division; the team’s lead for first place hasn’t dipped below double digits since May 28.
On Sunday, the Astros made the inevitable official, battering the Mariners, 7–1, in front of a jubilant crowd at Minute Maid Park to earn the franchise’s first division title since 2001. It’s a title that was largely expected before the season, despite a down 2016 season and the presence of a Rangers team that seemed to take personal delight in ruining Houston’s good time. In 2015, Texas ran down the Astros for first place over the season’s last two weeks, including a four-game sweep around this same time that finished Houston’s hopes. The Rangers went 15–4 against their intrastate rivals last year en route to a second straight division title.
This time, though, there was no sign of the Rangers, who stumbled and fell out of the gate as the Astros dusted the competition. Houston left no doubt as to which team would win the West with that start. On Sunday, the players got their hats and t-shirts and then doused those in domestic beers and budget champagne.
A bigger prize awaits them now: the franchise’s first pennant since 2005, and if the Astros can get that far, their first ever World Series.
The man who helped clinch the division will be instrumental to those hopes. Making his third start for his new franchise, Justin Verlander made mincemeat of the Mariners. Ben Gamel solo home run in the third inning was the righthander’s only real mistake; over seven innings, he allowed only three hits and a walk against 10 strikeouts. With Houston, Verlander looks reborn: Over those three starts, he has given up only two runs in 21 innings and struck out 26.
When the Astros acquired Verlander in a last-minute stunner on Aug. 31, it wasn’t to sew up the division; it was for the battles ahead, in the Division Series and beyond. It was to provide insurance beyond Dallas Keuchel, who started the season looking like his Cy Young self, then lost two months to injury and has been eminently hittable since returning (a 4.66 ERA and eight homers allowed in 58 innings). It was to make up for the loss of McCullers, who has made only four starts since the All-Star break and has been diagnosed with the nebulous injury that is “arm fatigue.” It was, in short, to give the Astros that No. 1 edge each team needs in a playoff series—the ace who sets the tone or closes it out.
On Sunday, Verlander showed that he’s ready to do that. And with Houston’s league-best offense behind him, that makes the Astros as dangerous as any other team. Verlander has turned the clock back. Jose Altuve is amid what will likely be an MVP-winning season. Correa and slugger George Springer are back healthy. There are still some scary spots: The bullpen is far from shutdown, Keuchel seems still hampered, and McCullers’ injury robs the rotation of depth. A few hitters who started hot, namely Marwin Gonzalez and Brian McCann, have been invisible in the second half. But the same can be said for any contender, and this team still has a lineup that no pitcher wants to face and an ace in Verlander who’s desperate to add a long-sought-after World Series ring.
It was easy to sleep on the Astros as the Dodgers and then the Indians romped their way through the league, and Cleveland’s bonkers stretch run has left Houston looking up in the standings (albeit trailing for the AL’s best record by only two games). But Sunday’s win was a perfect encapsulation of what makes the Astros so good. It’s a long season, but come October, expect the Astros to remind you that only a few short months ago, they were everyone’s World Series pick—and with good reason.