Best is still yet to come in ALCS

October 18th, 2023

The enduring magic of October is that we never tell it what’s going to happen. It tells us. So five first-place teams out of six were gone from the tournament before we even got to the League Championship Series, including three 100-win teams. The Rays -- who won 99 for a Wild Card -- were also knocked out early. So the Rangers, after losing the American League West title on the last day of the regular season, have become the biggest story going right now, which means even bigger than the homer-happy Philadelphia Phillies. Nobody got to tell the Rangers they weren’t supposed to be playing like this. They just keep showing everybody.

The Rangers have won seven postseason games in a row after hanging on Monday to beat the Astros, 5-4. They have hit, they have made great plays all over the field and they have pitched so much better than they were expected to pitch.

But the Rangers, managed by a great baseball man named Bruce Bochy, still need to get two games off the best team of this time in baseball, which means the Astros. What that really means is that the best part of the story with this Rangers-Astros series is about to be written as they continue to fight for the Texas state championship.

The Rangers are going to knock off the champs, maybe even without letting the ALCS make it back to Houston. Or the Astros will try to come all the way back and do something that’s only happened three times (out of 29 seven-game series played with the current 2-3-2 format) in October history after a team fell into a 0-2 hole at home. I’m lucky enough to have had a ringside seat when it happened this way in three World Series: ’85 Royals, ’86 Mets and ’96 Yankees.

So the math is bad for the Astros. But they’re still the champs. And by the way, how bad was the math for the Red Sox when they fell behind the Yankees 0-3 in an ALCS in October of 2004? As good as the Rangers have looked -- and right now they really do look like the best team still playing -- you know the Astros are telling themselves how close they came at Minute Maid Park to getting at least one game, and maybe even two. And let’s not forget that the Astros were the best road team in baseball this year, going 51-30 away from Houston (and winning both games at Minnesota’s Target Field in the ALDS).

“We’re still playing with the underdog mentality,” the Rangers’  said after Game 2.

For now, though, they’ve won the kind of moments you need to win in the biggest games. , who knows plenty of moments like he had on Monday -- especially after the way he pitched for the Red Sox in October of '18 -- pitched out of that bases-loaded, nobody-out jam in the fifth inning of Game 2. The Rangers saw go to the deepest part of left field at Minute Maid Park to make a leaping catch on the ball had hit off  -- a catch that saved the game for his team and might have changed the series right there.

Yankees fans know what a nightmare, late-inning place Minute Maid Park was for Chapman when he was with the Yankees. On Monday, he gave up a moonshot homer to  in the eighth, when the Astros got to within a run of the Rangers’ lead. But Bregman’s ball stayed in the park on Sunday night, the Rangers stayed ahead, they did it again on Monday and now here they are -- trying to get back to the World Series for the first time since 2011.

“We’re just trying to keep it going,” Eovaldi said.

Now Bochy gives the ball to , who was supposed to be gone for the season in mid-September because of a teres major strain to his pitching shoulder, what Scherzer himself described as a “rat” in there. Scherzer, traded by the Mets to the Rangers at the Deadline the way was traded by the Mets to the Astros, now gets to pitch the kind of big October game he expected to pitch for the Mets when the season started.

But this is also the kind of game he didn’t win for the Mets last October in their Wild Card Series against the Padres. Four years ago, it was Scherzer -- still with the Nationals then -- who started Game 7 of the World Series against the Astros. Max was as tenacious as ever that night after coming back from neck and back spasms that had kept him out of Games 5 and 6. He kept his team in the game until the Nationals finally came back and won it. But the reality of his resume is that he has not won a postseason game since, with either the Dodgers or the Mets.

“He’s ready,” Bochy said. “That’s why he’s starting Game 3.”

The Rangers and Astros and the rest of us will see just how ready he is when he goes out for the top of the first on Wednesday. Scherzer made eight starts for the Rangers after the trade. But, really, he was hired to make the start he is about to make in Game 3.

Then we see if the Rangers continue this amazing ride, and this amazing roll. Or the Astros will get on the board. The Rangers are two wins away from the World Series. But they’re a hard two to get against the champs. After everything we’ve seen in this series, guess what? We’re just getting to the good parts now.