The Houston Astros remain an unstoppable force in the American League.
After their 5-0 win over the Oakland Athletics, combined with the Baltimore Orioles' 6-3 loss on Friday, the Astros have clinched a playoff berth for the sixth consecutive year and seventh time in the past eight seasons.
"You've got to keep in perspective ... how hard it is to get to the playoffs and to stay on top like this for a while," ace Justin Verlander told reporters. "It's not easy. So I'm glad we were able to take a moment."
Yordan Alvarez led the charge Friday, mashing three home runs as part of a four-hit game.
"Hitting one home run feels great, imagine hitting three," Alvarez said. "Just a very special night."
The Astros have undergone significant roster changes in recent years. Key players have moved to different clubs, including Carlos Correa (Minnesota Twins), George Springer (Toronto Blue Jays) and Gerrit Cole (New York Yankees).
While those losses are significant, Houston's front office has also done a good job of signing several players to long-term contracts. Alex Bregman still has two years and $57 million remaining on the five-year deal he signed in March 2019.
Jose Altuve signed a five-year contract in 2018. Alvarez's six-year, $115 million extension signed in June looks like a massive bargain right now after he made his first All-Star team this season.
With the exception of Yankees star Aaron Judge, Alvarez has been arguably the best offensive player in Major League Baseball this year. The Cuban star ranks second in the AL in on-base percentage (.408), slugging percentage (.624) and homers (36).
Kyle Tucker followed up his breakout 2021 season with an All-Star appearance this year. The 25-year-old has posted a 20-20 campaign with 27 homers and 22 stolen bases.
The strength of Houston's roster this season is the pitching staff. The group leads MLB with 23.4 FanGraphs wins above replacement, ranks second in ERA (2.91) and fourth in strikeouts per nine innings (9.35).
Verlander, who only pitched one game in the previous two seasons due to Tommy John surgery, has returned in peak form at the age of 39. The right-hander is arguably the American League Cy Young favorite with a 1.78 ERA and 0.83 WHIP in 157 innings.
By surpassing the 130-inning mark, Verlander could decide to become a free agent this offseason. He signed a two-year, $50 million contract extension in December, but the second-year player option was contingent on him pitching at least 130 innings in 2022.
The Astros have great depth in their rotation behind Verlander. Framber Valdez is a ground-ball machine who is only allowing 7.0 hits per nine innings. Cristian Javier leads the team's starters with 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings.
If the pitching staff isn't dangerous enough on its own, the Astros also have the third-best defense in MLB by FanGraphs defensive value (29.9) and second in outs above average (24).
General manager James Click and the front office have done a remarkable job of evaluating talent. The players they bring in, either on their own via the draft or through trades, always seem to play at a high level.
All of the pieces have come together in spectacular fashion this season. They have already accomplished the first big goal of making the playoffs and will have an opportunity to compete for the World Series in October.