HOUSTON (AP)Ace Justin Verlander had just wrapped up another strong start and was in the dugout in the fifth inning when Yordan Alvarez launched his third monster home run of the night for the Houston Astros.

The cameras panned to Verlander, eyes wide as he admired his teammate’s handiwork.

”It’s pretty cool when a major league player can make other major league players be in awe,” Verlander said. ”It’s not something that happens all too often. And that was kind of one of those moments where everybody is just like: `My goodness.’ It’s just incredible what he’s able to do.”

Alvarez homered in his first three at-bats, Verlander threw five hitless innings in his return from the injured list and the Astros clinched a postseason berth with a 5-0 win over the Oakland Athletics on Friday night.

The Astros (95-50) won their sixth straight game to join the Los Angeles Dodgers as the first two teams to secure playoff spots, reaching their sixth straight postseason.

There was no big celebration for this team with much bigger goals, but the Astros did share a quiet toast in the clubhouse postgame.

”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,” Verlander said. ”It’s not easy. So I’m glad we were able to take a moment.”

Alvarez, tied for second in the AL with a career-high 36 home runs, had solo shots off Adrian Martinez in the first, third and fifth innings. He capped his big night with a single in the seventh to tie his career high with four hits.

”Hitting one home run feels great, imagine hitting three,” Alvarez said in Spanish through a translator. ”Just a very special night.”

It is his second three-homer game and first since Aug. 10, 2019, a season when he won AL Rookie of the Year. There have been only 15 three-homer games in Houston history and Alvarez joined Glenn Davis and Jeff Bagwell as the only Astros to have more than one.

Alvarez’s homers totaled 1,329 feet- 434, 431 and 464. He joined Nelson Cruz on July 25, 2019, as the only players with three 400-plus foot homers in a game since Statcast started tracking in 2015.

”Yordan was unbelievable,” manager Dusty Baker said. ”Those balls he hit, I don’t know what the combined feet were, but boy that’s a lot of mileage.”

Verlander (17-3) didn’t miss a beat in his return after injuring a calf on Aug. 28. He walked one and struck out nine to extend his season-long winning streak to nine games and lower his MLB-leading ERA to 1.78.

His performance moved him past Max Scherzer (3,173) for 13th on the career strikeout list with 3,176 in 17 seasons.

Manager Dusty Baker said Verlander would be on a pitch-count but wouldn’t reveal what his limit was. He was lifted without giving up a hit after throwing 79 pitches.

Verlander plunked Ramon Laureano with one out in the second. He didn’t allow another baserunner until walking Seth Brown with two outs in the fourth. He then sat down the next four batters he faced to end his night.

Phil Maton took over for the sixth and Nick Allen singled on his first pitch to break up the no-hit bid.

There were two outs in the first when Alvarez connected on a shot to straightaway center field to make it 1-0.

Alvarez’s second homer came with two outs in the third to extend the lead to 2-0.

Jeremy Pena hit his 18th homer to left field with one out in the fifth. The Astros went back-to-back when Alvarez sent the next pitch from Martinez into center field to extend the lead to 4-0 and send Houston’s dugout and the crowd into a frenzy.

Martinez (4-5) pitched five innings, walking three and the only hits he allowed were the four homers, which were a career-high.

”You take Alvarez out of the lineup and the line’s a lot different,” Oakland manager Mark Kotsay said. ”Yordan is a guy that I referred to before the season started as a possible MVP candidate. And and he showed why tonight.”

The Athletics, who have baseball’s worst record at 52-93, managed just three singles and tied a season high by striking out 16 times.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Athletics: LHP Sam Moll was placed on the 15-day IL with a strained left shoulder and LHP Jared Koenig was recalled from Triple-A Las Vegas.

Astros: RHP Seth Martinez was optioned to Triple-A Sugar Land to make room for Verlander. … RHP Josh James was recalled from his rehabilitation assignment because of forearm discomfort.

UP NEXT

RHP Jose Urquidy (13-6, 3.75 ERA) opposes LHP Cole Irvin (8-11, 3.73) on Saturday night.

More AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/mlb and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports