PHOENIX — The celebration featured no cigars, cellophane or chaos. Some players put on orange T-shirts telling the world the Houston Astros will “Take October,” but most stowed them away for another day. Four empty bottles of champagne sat on a table inside the visiting clubhouse at Chase Field. Four rows of flutes filled with the bubbly sat untouched beside them.
Celebrations are reserved for remarkable feats, but clinching a playoff spot has been Houston’s standard operating procedure. This is a city and club that prefers to tout pennants over playoff appearances, even if one is the first step toward the other.
“I told them that we made the playoffs, that’s one of our goals coming into spring training,” veteran catcher Martín Maldonado said. “We’ve had our ups and downs throughout the year — a lot of injuries, bad games. It was a grind. We have to keep calm. It’s a big game tomorrow. The division is still available and that was our main goal from the beginning.”
A 1-0 win against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Saturday secured Houston’s seventh consecutive postseason appearance. Closed-door champagne toasts like this one celebrated most of them. Ragers are reserved for something bigger and the Astros could claim that on the final day of their confounding regular season.
One more win against the Diamondbacks on Sunday and a loss by the Texas Rangers against the now-eliminated Seattle Mariners would hand Houston an improbable American League West title and a first-round bye it could desperately use.
“It hasn’t been one of those seasons where anything seemed to come easy,” ace Justin Verlander said. “To be able to fight through that adversity and make the playoffs, everybody is very excited, but there’s also a potential to win one more and win the division. The celebration was a bit muted.”
Restraint does not diminish the difficulty of what the Astros accomplished. So much of their on-field success during this seven-year golden era has seemed effortless. No one who watched the first 161 games of this season would ever call it as such. Injuries robbed them of two superstars for most of the first half and two starting pitchers for most of the season. Regression plagued the pitching staff. A mismanaged, owner-driven offseason only exacerbated all of it.
Step 1. pic.twitter.com/9Q3RYAqwQC
— Houston Astros (@astros) October 1, 2023
“This team has World Series aspirations from the second they walked into spring training. I don’t think you look at it and go ‘Oh, man, we won that challenge and made it to the playoffs.’ No. You look at it like we battled through adversity,” Verlander said.
“There were a lot of things that didn’t go well early on, some of the key components of this organization and team were injured for a while and they were able to battle through that, keep afloat. Sometimes when everything goes your way, those wins come easy. When everything doesn’t come as easy, those can feel a little better.”
Verlander fired five scoreless innings to start Houston’s five-pitcher shutout. Inefficiency doomed his desire for a deeper outing. He failed to land either of his breaking balls for called strikes and generated just six whiffs on the 36 swings Arizona took. Home plate umpire Todd Tichenor’s tiny strike zone presented a problem for both teams, but Verlander still had nowhere near the elite command he showed five days ago in Seattle.
Verlander needed 68 pitches to procure his first nine outs. He walked three of the first eight hitters he faced. Christian Walker worked a 10-pitch at-bat against him in the third, before bouncing out and ending the frame. Still, no D-Backs touched third base while Verlander worked. Both of his breaking balls seemed sharper late in his outing, but the early inefficiency made it impossible for him to finish more than five innings.
“I thought the stuff was great. I thought the command was erratic,” said Verlander, who finished with a 3.31 ERA in 11 regular-season starts after his acquisition at the Aug. 1 trade deadline. “Overall, though, I think I would take the stuff over the control and start to hone that in a little bit. Hopefully between this start and the next one, start to reign that in a little bit and be a little bit more consistent, that’s where I want to be.”
Exactly when, or if, Verlander will receive the chance is a mystery. Starting him on Saturday meant he would not be available again on regular rest until Game 3 of a best-of-three wild card series on Thursday — a game not even guaranteed to be played.
Winning the American League West would allow Houston to bypass the round altogether and, ostensibly, have Verlander available to start Game 1 of a potential American League Division Series at Minute Maid Park. Most clubs would call that a best-case scenario, but the Astros did finish 39-42 at home this season.
“I know a lot of people doubt us, especially the way we’ve played at home,” Maldonado said. “One thing I’m proud of this team (is that) we’ve been in the moment. We know how to win big … We’ve shown what kind of team we are, that we like those moments.”
Winning four of the first five games during this road trip accentuated it. The Astros started this seven-game journey with just 60.1 percent odds to make the postseason, according to FanGraphs.
One sorry game in Seattle notwithstanding, Houston has saved its most fundamentally sound baseball for its biggest games of the season. Two clutch hits from struggling slugger José Abreu have accounted for all three of their runs against Arizona. Reigning Gold Glover Jeremy Peña preserved Friday’s win with a wonderful diving play in the eighth inning to save two runs.
On Saturday, reliever Bryan Abreu surrendered a leadoff single to Jake McCarthy in the ninth inning. Maldonado threw him out trying to steal second base. The beleaguered catcher hadn’t caught a base stealer since July 30. Afterward, he credited Abreu for his season-long dedication to improving times to home plate while Houston’s pitching staff tries to better control the running game.
Abreu procured two more outs to finish off a plucky Arizona club already looking forward to its own celebration. The Cincinnati Reds’ loss to the St. Louis Cardinals went final during the seventh inning, delivering the D-Backs their first postseason appearance since 2017.
They celebrated as a club in that situation should, spraying champagne throughout their clubhouse before bringing the party to the pool in right field.
Live coverage of the chaos played on a few televisions inside a far more tame visiting clubhouse. Players milled about, some eating dinner and others discussing when best to arrive for Sunday’s quick turnaround game at 12:10 p.m. PT.
Most had changed out of the orange shirts forced upon them by Major League Baseball. Others never put one on to begin with.
“Tomorrow is still a big day,” first baseman José Abreu said through an interpreter. “We’re going to wear the shirts tomorrow.
“It’s important that we’re in the playoffs, but tomorrow we still have a big game. This is a team that is still fighting and is not going to rest. We still have a big game tomorrow.”
(Top photo of Astros pitcher Bryan Abreu and catcher Martin Maldonado high-fiving after defeating the Diamondbacks on Saturday: Chris Coduto / Getty Images)