By DICK SCANLON
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — The Houston Astros clinched their fifth AL West title in six years, getting a leadoff home run from Jose Altuve in a 4-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday night.
“It’s been a great start to the season,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “This is a first step in the right direction for this ballclub. We’ve just got to stay focused and know what a tough task is ahead of us.”
Headed to the postseason for the sixth straight season, Houston won for the eighth time in nine games and improved the AL’s best record to 97-51.
“This is the start of it,” manager Dusty Baker said. “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.”
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.”
Luis Garcia (13-8) won his fifth straight decision, giving up two hits and four walks in five innings while striking out four. Hunter Brown pitched three innings and Héctor 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 Vázquez, 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.
José Ramírez had three of the Rays’ five hits.
Drew Rasmussen (10-6) gave up four runs and six hits in six innings. He has allowed four runs in consecutive starts and giving up three runs or fewer during 11 in a row.
“I thought I did a better job of executing pitches today, but their refusal to strike out came up big for them,” Rasmussen said.
Altuve hit his 25th homer on the fifth pitch of the game, his 11th leadoff homer this season and 32nd of his career.
Altuve singled leading off the sixth, Jeremy Peña walked and Yordan Alvarez hit an RBI single. Bregman followed with a broken-bat, two-run double.
Rays: RHP Tyler Glasnow (Tommy John surgery) is to make his fourth rehab start Friday for Triple-A Durham. He retired all six batters he faced Sunday night and struck out four.
All-Star LHP Shane McClanahan (12-5, 2.13) will pitch for the Rays on Tuesday night against RHP Cristian Javier (9-9, 2.87), who has won three straight starts.
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