PHOENIX — While most of his teammates were wearing crisp new orange postseason jerseys that read “Take October,” veteran Astros first baseman Jose Abreu stood in his locker wearing a blue jersey. Abreu hopes the Astros can open another new box of equipment on Sunday if they can win the American League West division pennant.
“We will wear the jersey tomorrow,” he said.
The Astros took a big step toward repeating as World Series champions Saturday night by defeating the D-backs, 1-0, to clinch at least a Wild Card berth. The Astros can win the AL West for the sixth time in seven years if they beat Arizona in the regular-season finale on Sunday and the Rangers lose to the eliminated Mariners on Saturday.
Astros’ path to the postseason Sunday:
Considering they still had a big goal to go, the celebration inside the visitors’ clubhouse at Chase Field was “muted,” as pitcher Justin Verlander described it. Veteran catcher Martin Maldonado led the champagne toast, and the Astros quickly turned their attention to the 162nd game on Sunday.
“I know we had ups and downs throughout the year, a lot of injuries, a lot of bad games,” Maldonado said. It was a grind. We have to keep calm, especially since we have a big game tomorrow. The division is still available, and this was our primary goal in the beginning.
“It’s a huge game tomorrow. I know a lot of people doubted us, especially the way we played at home, and those games we lost to the Yankees and Kansas City.” [sweeps in September]. One thing I’m proud of about this team is that we were in the moment. We know how to win games, and you’ve seen that the last few nights.
After stumbling through most of September and giving up the 2 1/2 division lead, the Astros have won four of five games on the road, including a pair of nail-biting one-offs on the D-backs (Arizona also clinched a playoff spot on Saturday with a loss to Cincinnati).
Verlander threw five scoreless innings Saturday, Abreu drove in the only run of the game with an RBI double in the fourth inning and reliever Hector Neres escaped a bases-loaded jam in the seventh. Brian Abreu scored the final three points. The Houston bullpen has a 0.53 ERA in its past nine games.
“Unbelievable,” Verlander said. “Going five innings is not what I consider a job well done. I wanted to get deeper into the game, but handing it over to these guys and having them perform the way they do…was huge. It makes it easier for us rookies.”
Pitching and defense led the way for the Astros, who scored three runs in two games in Arizona. On Friday, Jeremy Peña was the shortstop who made a great stop and threw to save two runs late in the game, and Maldonado threw the tying run at second base twice on Saturday — once on a groundout in the eighth and another on a catch. Stealing on the ninth. This was the first time he had been caught stealing in two months.
“I knew the guy [Jake McCarthy] It was fast, and [Bryan Abreu] “He gave me a chance,” Maldonado said. “He caught the ball really well, and I threw the ball well. Finally.”
After capturing their second World Series title in six seasons, the Astros were aiming to become the first team to repeat since the 1998-2000 Yankees. Injuries took their toll immediately, with pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. lost for the season in the spring and Jose Altuve missing his first 48 games after fracturing his thumb.
A month into the season, the Astros lost starting pitchers Jose Urquidi and Luis Garcia to serious injuries, putting the spotlight on starters J.B. France and Hunter Brown. While Framber Valdez got off to a solid start in the first half of the season, the attack struggled without Altuve, a poor start to Jose Abreu and an oblique injury to Yordan Alvarez that cost him six weeks.
The offense led by Kyle Tucker took off as soon as he became healthy, and the Astros bolstered their rotation in July by bringing back Verlander in a trade with the Mets.
“I wasn’t here early in the year when a lot of guys were hurt, but talking with all the guys, it wasn’t one of those seasons where everything seemed to be going easy, so to be able to fight through that adversity and come through it is a lot of fun,” Verlander said. “To the qualifiers means a lot.”
The Astros chased the Rangers all season before finally moving into first place on August 29, but a 2-7 lead in games against the A’s and Royals in September had Houston fighting for its playoff life. And now the club has a chance to beat Rangers on the final day of the season.
“A lot of things have to go our way and you have to play good baseball,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “I’m proud of these guys up to this point. We have one more game to win, and if we win and [the Rangers] To win, we gave our best.”
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