By KRISTIE RIEKEN AP Sports Writer
HOUSTON (AP) — Justin Verlander looked every bit the October ace, Jose Altuve polished his postseason resume and the Houston Astros kept rolling, beating the Tampa Bay Rays 6-2 Friday to open their AL Division Series.
The Astros, who won a franchise-record 107 games for the best record in the majors, began their quest for a second World Series title in three years against a Rays team that downed Oakland 5-1 in the wild-card game this week.
Verlander kept up his dominant run this year when he posted an MLB-most 21 wins, allowing just a soft single in seven shutout innings. He struck out eight and improved to 8-0 in 12 career ALDS appearances.
Tampa Bay got its only hit off Verlander when Brandon Lowe singled to start the fifth. Verlander ended his day by striking out the side in the seventh, pounding his fist into his glove as he walked off the mound after fanning Lowe.
Rays starter Tyler Glasnow had given up just three singles when he walked Josh Reddick on four pitches to begin the fifth. He struck out George Springer, but Altuve then tagged him for a two-run homer, lining a fastball into the left field seats.
The sellout crowd of 43,360, which included Astros Hall of Famers Nolan Ryan and Craig Biggio, erupted into deafening cheers and fans twirled bright orange towels as Altuve trotted around the bases, a huge grin plastered on his face.
Altuve has homered in Game 1 of the ALDS for three straight years, and the small-but-powerful second baseman now has nine home runs in 33 career postseason games.
Game 2 is Saturday when Gerrit Cole, who has won 16 straight decisions and led the majors in strikeouts, starts against Tampa Bay’s Blake Snell.
Altuve’s homer touched off a four-run inning. Brendan McKay took over for Glasnow and allowed a single to Michael Brantley before Alex Bregman knocked one off the wall in left for a double.
Chaz Roe relieved with two outs and Yuli Gurriel hit a high popup to shallow right field that Lowe chased from second base as right fielder Austin Meadows also dashed in. Lowe looked to have it, so Meadows pulled up — but the ball glanced off Lowe’s glove for an error that allowed two runs to score to push the lead to 4-0.
The Astros added two more runs in the seventh after Bregman walked and stole second base. AL Rookie of the Year candidate Yordan Alvarez and Gurriel followed with RBI doubles to make it 6-0.
Tampa Bay hit four home runs in its wild-card win Wednesday at Oakland, but did nothing until Verlander left. Pinch-hitter Eric Sogard had an RBI single of Ryan Pressly with two outs in the eighth and scored on a double by Meadows to cut the lead to 6-2.
Glasnow, who came to the Rays in last year’s trade for Chris Archer that also netted Meadows, looked strong early and Houston’s powerful offense had trouble stringing anything together off him until Altuve’s shot. The Astros loaded the bases with two outs in the third, but the big right-hander struck out Alvarez to end the threat.
The 26-year-old Glasnow, who was making his playoff debut had missed almost four months with a strained right forearm before his return on Sept. 8, seemed to run out of gas in the fifth. He allowed four hits and two runs with five strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings.
Yandy Díaz, who starred with two homers and three hits in the wild-card game, was 0 for 4 with a strikeout.
Cole is a Cy Young award contender after setting a team record by winning his last 16 decisions and topping the AL with a career-best 2.50 ERA. His career-high 326 strikeouts were the most in the majors and set a franchise record that had stood since 1979 when J.R. Richard fanned 313.
Snell, who won the Cy Young in 2018, is happy to be healthy for the postseason after sitting out from July 22-Sept. 17 after arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips in his left elbow. Snell didn’t get out of the third inning in any of his three September starts, but believes he’ll be able to go quite a bit longer on Saturday.
“I feel very good,” he said. “I feel like I’ll be able to go five strong innings, if I’m in the zone and attacking like I should be.”