Red-hot Houston Astros down Tampa Bay Rays, seal fifth AL West crown in past six years

The Houston Astros clinched their fifth American League West title in six years, getting a leadoff home run from Jose Altuve in a 4-0 triumph over the Tampa Bay Rays Monday night.

Headed to the postseason for the sixth consecutive season, Houston won for the eighth time in nine games and improved the AL’s best record to 97-51. A major league-best 16-4 (.800) in their last 20 games, the Astros are now assured of a first-round bye in the playoffs.

“It never gets old. It’s always fun,” Alex Bregman said of the Astros’ winning yet another division title. “This is why we play the game. We play the game to win. And this is what it’s all about.

“I think this ballclub expects to be good on a daily basis. We take a lot of pride going out there every single day and playing hard. These guys prepare and show up and compete. They hold themselves to a high standard. And I think that’s that’s very important in championship teams.”

Houston has led by the division by nine games or more since June 15.

“Even though we expected to be here, it’s never something I take for granted,” pitcher Justin Verlander said. “I’ve been a part of a lot of teams that made the playoffs, but I’ve played with guys who played 10 years and never experienced this. All those things kind of run through your head in these situations.”

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Added manager Dusty Baker: “This is the start of it. You’ve got to get to this point first, and then you get to the next point and the next point and the next point. You’ve just got to appreciate where we are right now, and get back to work tomorrow.”

Luis Garcia (13-8) won his fifth consecutive decision, giving up two hits and four walks in five innings while striking out four.

Hunter Brown pitched three innings and Hector Neris finished the five-hitter, the Astros’ 16th shutout this season.

“It was a fun ride and we’ve got to enjoy it,” said catcher Christian Vazquez, who was acquired on Aug. 1. “This is the first step and if we continue to do our thing, we’re going to be fine.”

Tampa Bay (82-65) is in position for the second of three AL wild-card berths, one game behind Toronto (83-64) and a half-game ahead of Seattle (81-65). After the three-game series that ends Wednesday, the Rays host the Blue Jays in a four-game series.

Harold Ramirez had three of the Rays’ five hits. Drew Rasmussen (10-6) gave up four runs and six hits in six innings. He has permitted four runs in consecutive starts after giving up three runs or fewer in 11 straight.

Altuve hit his 25th homer on the fifth pitch of the game, his 11th leadoff homer this season and the 32nd of his career. Altuve singled leading off the sixth, Jeremy Pena walked and Yordan Alvarez hit an RBI single. Bregman followed with a broken-bat, two-run double.

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