Astros ride Game 7 shutout to 1st AL pennant

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 that 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 victory at Minute Maid Park on Saturday night 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 the Astros have gotten to the World Series. They have never won it, but then, 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 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.

And let’s not forget how the Astros helped lift their hurricane-ravaged city last month.

“All year long,” second baseman and AL MVP frontrunner Jose Altuve said after Game 6, “it’s been special.”

But while the Astros were the ultimate front-runner for most of the year, it took an inspired comeback to extend their season.

For most of the ALCS, the Yankees stopped Houston’s unstoppable offense. The Astros lost three games in a row for the first time in more than a month in the middle of the series. And they were so down after a Game 5 loss Wednesday night in New York that veteran designated hitter Carlos Beltran and catcher Brian McCann felt the need to stand up at their lockers and give their version of an it-ain’t-over-til-it’s-over pep talk.

Sure enough, the Astros returned home and won Game 6 in a 7-1 rout on the strength of seven scoreless innings from recently acquired ace Justin Verlander and two big hits by Altuve, who had been in an 0-for-12 slumber. Then, in Game 7, the Astros showed how well-rounded they are.

In the biggest start of his career, journeyman right-hander Charlie Morton delivered five scoreless innings. Third baseman Alex Bregman and catcher Brian McCann teamed up for a defensive gem in the top of the fifth, the former making a strong throw to home plate and the latter somehow hanging on to the ball as Greg Bird slid feet-first into his mitt. And the offense cranked it up in the bottom of the fifth, with Altuve lining a solo homer into the right-field seats and McCann, the ex-Yankee, stroking a two-run double.

After breaking out of an 0-for-12 slump in a big way in Game 6, Jose Altuve homered in Saturday’s Game 7 as the Astros captured their first AL pennant and reached the World Series for only the second time in franchise history. AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Altuve is the 5-foot-5 engine that drives the Astros. He’s also a living, breathing reminder of how far the organization has come.

In 2013, the Astros went 51-111, the nadir in a three-year slog in which they lost 106, 107 and 111 games. General manager Jeff Luhnow brought his analytics-driven approach to Houston before the 2012 season, but it didn’t take root right away. He cycled through four managers, including two interim skippers, in three years before finally hiring A.J. Hinch.

Luhnow also took advantage of a new collective bargaining agreement that gave the worst teams the most money to spend in the amateur draft. In 2012, the Astros used the first overall pick on star shortstop Carlos Correa. Two years later, they selected pitcher Brady Aiken but didn’t sign him because of concerns over the health of his elbow. They received a compensatory pick in 2015, drafted Alex Bregman with the No. 2 overall pick and converted him from shortstop to third base.

The Astros clinched a wild-card berth in 2015 and went to Game 5 in their Division Series against the Kansas City Royals. After missing the playoffs last year, they signed high-character free agents Beltran, McCann and outfielder Josh Reddick, each of whom has brought their brand of veteran leadership to the clubhouse.

“Last year we had a young team with a lot of talent, but that leadership from a veteran guy we didn’t have,” Correa said before the playoffs began. “And this year, with McCann, Beltran, Reddick showing up, besides their baseball skills they were great guys in the clubhouse and they taught us so much about the game, things that we didn’t know about. That veteran leadership helped us a lot, and I think all of them have been playing a great role on our team and our success.”

It has all led to this — another World Series appearance for the Astros and another chance to win that elusive championship.

“This organization has come a long way,” Hinch said. “We’re very proud of that. It’s a very proud organization that a lot of people before me have helped pave the way to get this franchise to where we’re at. And we have a tremendous opportunity with a good team. I think our guys embrace that. We play in a great city, a great fan base. There’s a lot of positive mojo going on around here with this team.”

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