HOUSTON – Jose Altuve got straight to the point when asked what Carlos Correa means to the Houston Astros after his mighty swing launched them into the playoffs Thursday night.
“We are where we are because of him," the star second baseman said.
Correa hit his career-high 25th homer with a three-run shot and the Astros clinched the AL West with a 3-2 win over the Tampa Bay Rays.
It’s the fourth division title in five seasons and 10th overall for the Astros.
“That sounds pretty special," Correa said.
Houston is in the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season, extending a franchise record.
“They’re used to winning and we hate losing. And now the fun begins," manager Dusty Baker said.
The Astros will open the AL Division Series on Oct. 7 against the Chicago White Sox — home field for that best-of-five matchup is still to be determined. Houston went 5-2 against the White Sox this year.
Houston was a wild-card team last year in Baker's first season with the club. So where did this division-clinching victory rate on his list?
“Every time you win, it ranks higher than the last time. And you never get tired of winning," he said.
Correa’s huge hit in the fourth inning allowed the Astros to put a recent stretch where they dropped five of six games behind them and let the celebration begin at Minute Maid Park.
“We needed that," Correa said. “It’s been it’s been a rough stretch for the past week for us to score and we have not been swinging it well. But hopefully we can carry this game into the next couple of days, get hot and and ride it into the postseason."
Astros mascot Orbit dashed onto the field waving a huge orange flag that touted their division title as the players cheered and embraced after the final out.
“I’m proud of my team," Altuve said. “They went out there every single day this season to make this happen."
Tampa Bay, which has already clinched the top seed in the AL playoffs, put runners on first and second with no outs in the ninth but didn't score.
Rays rookie Wander Franco went 0 for 4 to snap a 43-game on-base streak, which tied Frank Robinson in 1956 for the longest such string in MLB history among players 20 or younger.
“Remarkable ... congratulations to Wander," manager Kevin Cash said. “I guess he’s going to have plenty of streaks in his career, but this one was spectacular."
Cash was asked about the possibility of meeting the Astros in the AL Championship Series.
“We’ll probably both be happy if we see each other (again)," he said.
Yuli Gurriel singled to start Houston’s fourth and Kyle Tucker walked. Correa followed with his towering shot that smashed off the wall in left field to put the Astros up 3-0 against Ryan Yarbrough (9-7).
The charismatic shortstop put a hand to his ear to encourage the crowd as the rounded third base on the home run trot.
Lance McCullers (13-5) didn’t allow a hit until Ji-Man Choi singled to start the sixth. There were two outs in the inning when Brandon Lowe homered on a ball to right field that sailed just inside the foul pole to cut the lead to 3-2.
Kendall Graveman plunked Mike Zunino to start the eighth and he was replaced by pinch-runner Kevin Kiermaier. Lowe struck out and catcher Martín Maldonado threw a dart to second base to allow Correa to tag Kiermaier as he slid into second to end the inning.
Ryan Pressly allowed a leadoff walk in the ninth and Franco reached on an error by Altuve at second base. Nelson Cruz grounded into a double play, and pinch-hitter Yandy Díaz grounded out to end it and give Pressly his 26th save.
Tampa Bay opener Collin McHugh allowed one hit in a scoreless first before Yarbrough took over. He permitted four hits and three runs in 4 2/3 innings.
McCullers retired the first nine batters he faced before walking Lowe to start the fourth. He was erased when Franco grounded into a forceout for the second out. The Astros got the third out when Franco was caught stealing second base. He was initially ruled safe, but the Astros challenged the call, and it was overturned.
Rays: RHP Matt Wisler (finger) was activated from the injured list Thursday. ... LHP Ryan Sherriff was optioned to Triple-A Durham to open a roster spot.
Astros: RHP Zack Greinke (sore neck) allowed one hit and struck out three in two innings in a rehabilitation start for Triple-A Sugar Land on Thursday night. ... Graveman was reinstated from the paternity list Thursday. ... RHP Peter Solomon was optioned to Sugar Land to make room on the roster for Graveman.
Rays: Shane McClanahan (10-6, 3.44 ERA) opposes the Yankees' Nestor Cortes Jr. (2-2, 2.85) in the opener of a three-game series at New York on Friday night.
Astros: Houston hasn’t set its rotation for a weekend series against Oakland. LHP Sean Manaea (10-10, 3.94) will start for the Athletics in the opener Friday night.
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