It took 16 long years and three seasons of100-plus losses, but the Houston Astros have finally won the American League West Division championship. The last time the Astros were division winners, they were members of the National League Central Division. At exactly 4:01 p.m. Sunday, after beating the Seattle Mariners 7-1 for the sixth straight time, the Houston Astros had eliminated their magic numbers and were the undisputed champs of the AL West. The corks on the champagne bottles that were being iced down in the clubhouse began popping along with the pull-tabs on the cans of Budweiser and the celebration was beginning. Several of the players and coaches were acting stupidly in the dressing room reveling in their glory. But that was only Step One of the master plan the Astros established during spring training. The next objective was to procure the home field advantage for the upcoming playoffs which begin in two weeks. Because of Cleveland’s record-setting 22-game winning streak that ended last weekend, Houston still was .009 percentage points behind the Indians .620 to .611. Going into yesterday’s (Tuesday’s) action, Houston stood at 91-58 compared to Cleveland’s 93-57. The Astros’ third step was to reach 100 wins, so if they can accomplish that milestone, they probably would also attain Step Two. And, of course, their next step is to advance further than the second round of the American League playoffs. One step the Astros failed to attain was to pick up an impact player before the July 31 deadline. But they rectified that mistake by trading for veteran Justin Verlander—the ace of the Detroit Tigers pitching staff–just before the stroke of midnight August 31, making him eligible for the 25-man playoff roster. Verlander (13-8) already has made an impact on the Astros’ pitching staff by winning all three games he has started and posting a miniscule 0.86 earned run average in the process, allowing two earned runs in 21 innings and striking out 26. He was the winning pitcher in Sunday’s division-clinching victory. Verlander was stuck on a team (Detroit) that was some 30 games behind in the standings and was thrilled to come to Houston. “One of the main attractions for me coming here was how good these guys are,” Verlander told the Houston Chronicle Sunday. “Over the next few years through the end of my contract, we have a chance to do this multiple times and win a championship. That’s the main goal and this is a first step.” Houston did attain a franchise record by winning their division on the 149th game of the 162-game season and stand 15 games ahead of the second place LA Angels. The Astros have reached the post-season three times as the wild card since last winning the division in 2001 and returning to the playoffs  for the second time in three seasons after ending a post-season drought in 2015. Left-hander Dallas Keuchel, who may have to relinquish his title as the team’s mound ace to Verlander commented, “We wanted to do this (win the title) in front of our home fans who have supported us the last couple of years as we got better and better. It means the world.” Manager A.J. Hinch put everything in perspective was he said, “You never know if you’ll be on a better team ever. You’ve got to enjoy this because it’s hard to do. We won the division this year. The Astros haven’t won the division since 2001. That shows how hard it is to win in this league. “We went wire-to-wire with expectations and it feels good to finish the job that we started,” Hinch concluded exuberantly. “I just want to thank you for everything this season is about and also to stay focused for what’s ahead. We have a chance to have a really special run here.” KWICKIES… Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas of Orange received one of the highest accolades by NBC’s Chris Collingsworth during Sunday night’s NFL game between Green Bay and Atlanta when he said. “I haven’t seen anyone in several years play the middle of the field on defense like Thomas. He’s the best and fastest free safety in the league.” It’s fortunate the Seattle Seahawks do have one of the stingiest defenses in the NFL, because based on their first two games, they also have one of the weakest offenses in the league. The game-winning 9-yard touchdown from quarterback Russell Wilson to Paul Richardson marked the Seahawks’ first TD this season, snapping a streak of 112 minutes without a touchdown as the Seahawks squeezed out a 12-9 victory over the offensive-weak San Francisco 49ers Sunday afternoon. The Texas Longhorns apparently began celebrating their upset victory over No. 4-ranked Southern Cal Saturday night a wee bit early after a touchdown on a 14-play, 91-yard drive put the Longhorns ahead for the first time 17-14 with time running out. But the hosting Trojans came back and kicked a 31-yard field goal as time expired, sending the game into overtime. Both teams scored touchdowns in the first extra period. But the Longhorns suffered a turnover in the second overtime, giving USC an easy field goal and a 27-24 win. The narrow victory dropped the Trojans one spot in this week’s AP poll to No. 5. And speaking of this week’s Associated Press Top 25 College Football Poll, Alabama retained the top spot while Clemson moved up one spot to No.2. The Oklahoma Sooners, despite upsetting Ohio State 31-16 and then bludgeoning Tulane 58-14 Saturday, somehow dropped from No. 2 to No. 3. Penn State jumped one place to No. 4 while USC dropped one to No. 5. Rounding out the Top 10 are 6. Oklahoma State, 7. Washington, 8. Michigan, 9.Wisconsin and 10.Ohio State. The only team from the Lone Star State is TCU at No. 16. The Dallas Cowboys came down to earth with a thud as the Denver Broncos beat them in every phase of the game, 42-17. Last year’s rushing leader Ezekiel Elliott ended up with a mere eight yards on nine carries. JUST BETWEEN US…One of the most exciting finishes of Saturday’s college games was when Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks heaved a 63-yard “Hail Mary” touchdown bomb to former Houston Westfield star receiver Tyrie Cleveland as time ran out to give the Gators a 26-20 victory over Tennessee. Franks has some impressive ties to Orange. His dad, Donald Franks, grew up here and played summer baseball for Paul’s Pharmacy along with Andre Robertson, Fletcher Cockrill and the late Greg Marks and was coached by the late Bo Robertson. “Oh, my gosh, it’s indescribable,” young Franks said of his heroics. “You grow up waiting for moments like that to happen in your life, and when it does happen, you don’t have any words to describe it.”

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