MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Clinch hit: Astros embrace crowning moment

Hinch tells club: 'Enjoy this because it's hard to do'

Clinch hit: Astros embrace crowning moment

HOUSTON -- In those final moments, Justin Verlander did something he'd never done before. Something he promised himself he'd do if he ever got in this position again.

Dress for October: Shop for official AL West champs gear

This time, Verlander was going to remember how it looked and how it felt. He did not want to forget the faces or the emotion. Thirteen seasons in the Major Leagues have taught Verlander that days like this are rare.

This was the entire reason Verlander was wearing this uniform on Sunday afternoon, when he got the baseball and the Astros clinched the American League West by defeating the Mariners, 7-1, at Minute Maid Park.

Astros on clinching AL West

So there at the end, with the fans standing in anticipation and his teammates poised on the top step of the dugout, Verlander tried his best to take it all in.

"It happens so quickly, and you can forget about it so quickly," Verlander would say later. "I think that's one of the things I've learned over the years."

That's also what Astros manager A.J. Hinch told his players afterward. This was a day they might remember for the rest of their lives.

"You never know if you'll be on a better team ever," he said. "You've got to enjoy this because it's hard to do."

When Sunday's game ended with shortstop Carlos Correa grabbing a pop fly from Seattle's Kyle Seager, the Astros mobbed closer Ken Giles in the middle of the diamond and then took a lap around the field to greet fans.

Finally, they slipped inside the clubhouse for champagne showers, laughter and bear hugs.

"I just love being the manager of these guys," Hinch said. "It's so gratifying to set a culture and watch the players develop a chemistry and see it play out over an entire season where we stay the course.

"These guys are special to me as a manager and special to me as a person. To see them celebrate, to see them happy and to accomplish this is something I'll never forget."

Hinch's clubhouse speech

There's more to play for even before the postseason begins. Houston (91-58) is in a tight race with Cleveland (93-57) for best record in the AL, and the Astros will not take their foot off the pedal in these final 13 games.

That's not what Sunday was about. It was about winning the franchise's first division title in 16 years with a group of players whose trademark is their overwhelming offensive depth along with their energy and closeness.

"This is the most talented team I've ever been around," general manager Jeff Luhnow said, "and I just can't wait to see what October brings."

Luhnow on Astros winning AL West

This clinching victory is a capsule version of how they'd like to play the postseason. Verlander, in his home debut for his new team, was dominant, allowing one run in seven innings and striking out 10. In three starts, he has allowed two earned runs in 21 innings.

Rookie outfielder Derek Fisher gave Houston a 2-1 lead with a two-run home run in the fifth inning, then Marwin Gonzalez, George Springer and Correa added homers to break it open.

Verlander's acquisition minutes before the Aug. 31 deadline for setting postseason rosters brought an energy and an optimism to a club that had dragged through an 11-17 month.

Vintage Verlander K's 10 as Astros clinch West

"It was just a lot of fun to be out there," Verlander said. "I don't know if you can ask for more for your home debut to be a chance to clinch. It felt pretty special.

"This is one of the most talented ballclubs I've been on, and I've been on some pretty talented ballclubs. At the end of it, you've got to win a World Series."

Astros blast four home runs

The Astros' dominance can be seen in the standings. They climbed atop the AL West to stay on April 14 and eventually opened up an 18-game lead. They clinched on their 156th consecutive day in first place and after their 149th game -- a franchise record.

They were tested, too, again and again. At one point, they had four of their five projected starting pitchers on the disabled list. They were 20-22 while Correa, the AL's starting shortstop in the All-Star Game presented by Mastercard, recovered from a torn thumb ligament.

They lead the Majors with 815 runs and an .824 OPS. In an era of swing-and-miss baseball, the Astros are an oddity: third in the Majors with 221 home runs and last in strikeouts with 987.

Springer's energy ignited them. Correa's passion drove them. Jose Altuve's brilliance never wavered.

Correa on winning the AL West

But they got contributions from every corner of their clubhouse, from Gonzalez hitting 22 home runs while starting at five positions to third baseman Alex Bregman's emergence in his first full Major League season.

One right-hander, Brad Peacock, helped rescue the rotation through the injuries, and another, Joe Musgrove, became a dominant late-innings reliever.

Fisher homered in his first Major League game in June, and catcher Juan Centeno started two games in May and homered in both of them.

Hurricane Harvey forced them to play a home series against the Rangers at Tampa Bay's Tropicana Field. When they returned home to a battered city, the Astros rolled up their sleeves and helped in the city's recovery effort.

When Hinch was asked how his players would put the city's tragedy out of their minds to play baseball, he said, "I don't want them to forget. This is our city."

Crane on Astros clinching

Sunday's clinching victory was a long time in the making. When Houston businessman Jim Crane bought the club in 2011, he developed a blueprint in which the Astros would be rebuilt around youth and player development.

Crane stuck firmly with his plan and was rewarded in 2015 with a Wild Card berth and trip to the AL Division Series against the Royals. Now comes another step forward.

"This has been an effort from top to bottom of everybody doing their part," Luhnow said, "and we're not done. This is a great celebration for a big accomplishment, but it's the beginning of the next step for us."

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.