Astros win first AL pennant; Justin Verlander named ALCS MVP

ByScott Lauber ESPN logo
Monday, October 23, 2017

HOUSTON -- Scoot over, Killer B's. Make room for the Sluggin' Stros.

It took all seven games and every ounce of the invaluable home-field advantage they earned during a six-month, 162-game, regular-season grind. But the Houston Astros finally vanquished the upstart New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series with a 4-0 victoryon Saturday at Minute Maid Park and advanced to the World Series for the first time since 2005, when Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman and the Brads (Lidge and Ausmus) hoisted the pennant and faced the Chicago White Sox.

That marked the only other time that the Astros have gotten to the World Series. They have never won it, but they might never have had a team quite like this in their 56-year history.

These Astros got here on the strength of their offense. They scored 896 runs, more than any team since the 2009 Yankees and the second most in franchise history. They won 101 games, one off the pace of the 1998 Astros team that suffered a first-round loss to the San Diego Padres. They exerted their dominance by spending 178 of the season's 183 days in first place, leading the AL Central almost wire-to-wire and every day since April 12.

But while the Astros were the ultimate front-runners for most of the year, it took an inspired comeback to extend their season. After losing three games in a row for the first in more than a month, it took recently acquired ace and ALCS MVP Justin Verlander pitching seven scoreless innings to help extend a series in which he also threw a complete game.

"He chose to come here for games like this and beyond," manager A.J. Hinch said.

Houston might not be at this point if Verlander hadn't given his approval for a trade from the Detroit Tigers -- the team for which he had played all 13 of his major league seasons -- just before the Aug. 31 deadline to be eligible for the Astros' postseason roster.

"I think I made the right choice," Verlander said. "This is what the game is all about. This is what you grow up dreaming about as a player, as a young kid playing Little League."

Verlander has won all nine of his games since he joined the Astros, including three postseason starts and his first career relief appearance in the clinching Game 4 of the AL Division Series against Boston.

In Game 2 of the ALCS against the Yankees, Verlander pitched a five-hitter with 13 strikeouts. He walked off the mound in the middle of the ninth after his 124th pitch in a tie game, and the Astros won 2-1 when Jose Altuve dashed home from first base on Carlos Correa's double in the bottom half.

With Houston facing elimination for the first time this postseason, Verlander struck out eight Friday in a 7-1 victory.

Before this ALCS, Verlander was recalling the whirlwind night of Aug. 31 and the phone call he got from Astros ace Dallas Keuchel when he was still trying to make his decision.

Needing to make other calls and talk to his family, Verlander said he "was pretty quick off" the phone. Keuchel said he understood but had one last thing to say.

"He goes, 'You won't regret this decision if you decide to join the Houston Astros.' And that kind of resonated with me, and that stuck with me," Verlander said. "And he was one of the first calls I made after I made the deal and waived my no-trade clause and agreed to come here. I called him and let him know that I was coming to join the Astros and that his call meant a lot to me."

Not nearly as much as Verlander has meant to the World Series-bound Astros.

Verlander has in a short time already endeared himself to a town that reveres Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens, hard-throwing Texans and former Astros pitchers. The 34-year-old Verlander has two seasons left on his contract.

"It's pretty amazing to me how quickly these fans have bonded to me. And vice versa. I feel it, I appreciate it, especially on the field," Verlander said. "A fresh face, people a lot of times in new cities, if they're not baseball fans, they might not recognize me. But it seems like a lot of people here, they're involved, and they want this team to win, and they always come up and give me their blessing and want me to know they care, and that means a lot."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.