When the Houston Astros won 12 of 16 games to move 30 games over .500 on Sept. 22, they appeared primed to cruise to the finish line in the American League West race.
However, the coronation didn’t come easy for the Astros. They lost five of six games before winning the rubber match of a three-game series with the Tampa Bay Rays 3-2 on Thursday to clinch their fourth division title in five seasons.
The Astros will close the regular season with a three-game weekend series against the Oakland Athletics starting Friday.
The Astros, who have qualified for the playoffs in five consecutive seasons for the first time in club history, were elated to clinch at home.
“We wanted to do it as early as possible obviously to rest our guys up and get ready, but to do it in front of the fans here (is satisfying),” Astros general manager James Click said. “To have our fans back here, thinking back to a year ago when we qualified for the playoffs and that whole experience without the fans, the energy in the ballpark was awesome. It was great having everybody back.”
A pair of lefties will match up in the series opener, with Framber Valdez (11-5, 2.98 ERA) getting the nod for the Astros against Sean Manaea (10-10, 3.94).
Manaea has already established single-season highs in starts (31), innings (173 2/3) and strikeouts (188) but will fall short of matching his career high of 12 victories set in 2017 and matched the following season.
Manaea went 2-1 with a 3.77 ERA over five starts in September and is 3-7 with a 3.44 ERA over 18 career starts against the Astros. He is 0-2 in five starts against Houston this season with a 3.86 ERA and 25 strikeouts over 30 1/3 innings.
Valdez is 0-1 with a 3.42 ERA in five career games (three starts) against the Athletics. He started two games against Oakland this season but failed to get a decision while giving up seven runs (six earned) in 11 2/3 innings.
The Athletics had their thin postseason hopes snuffed on Wednesday when the red-hot Seattle Mariners capped a three-game series sweep that eliminated Oakland from playoff contention.
Oakland swept the Astros at home last weekend to remain in the postseason hunt. However, the Athletics lost 15 of 19 games against Seattle this season, and their inability to string together another win streak similar to the 13-game run they enjoyed in April proved to be their undoing.
The Athletics spent 61 days in first place in the AL West.
“I think we were a little too streaky over the course of the season,” Athletics manager Bob Melvin said. “We’d win a few in a row and then go on some losing streaks. I think consistency was our biggest issue this year. We started off six in a row losing, we had a 13-game winning streak. We were just too up and down.
“We expect to go to the postseason. We did at the beginning of the season, and we have the last three years. We were in a position at one point and time, and we didn’t close it out down the stretch.”
–Field Level Media
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