They're the defending champs for a reason -- Rangers are finding out

October 20th, 2023

This series between the Astros and Rangers isn’t over at 2-2 -- same as it wasn’t over when it was 2-0 for the Rangers and they’d just beaten the Astros twice at Minute Maid Park. Of course it’s not over, this is October baseball, when the narrative can swing the other way with one swing of the bat. But the Rangers are finding out, in real time, what a lot of people have found out about the Astros over the course of seven straight ALCS appearances (including two World Series titles):

You can knock the Houston Astros down, but good luck knocking them out.

As much of an October roll as the Rangers were on through Games 1 and 2 -- making their record 7-0 in this postseason at that point -- and as well as they are set up for the next two games with Jordan Montgomery and Nathan Eovaldi as their starters, they are the latest to find out what it is like to be in there with the champs.

The Rays are one of the teams that did knock the Astros out during this seven-year stretch. They did it back in the ALCS of 2020, with the Astros operating in the immediate shadow of their sign-stealing scandal. The Rays got ahead of Dusty Baker’s team, 3-0, and then, in what seemed like a blink, the Astros didn’t just get up. They won the next three games to force a Game 7, giving themselves the chance to do what the Red Sox had done to the Yankees in the ALCS of ’04.

The Rays finally survived Game 7, 4-2. By then they knew about the collective heart of a wounded Astros team that had only produced a 29-31 record in the COVID-shortened season. The Rays knew they had been in a fight, one that had gone the distance.

It’s always worth remembering what Baker said after the Astros had squared that series at three-games-all:

“You gotta love this team. Well, some people hate this team. But you gotta respect this team.”

Sure, teams have gotten Houston at this time of year. The Nationals came back from being down 3-2 in the 2019 World Series to win in seven. The Red Sox beat the Astros in six games in the 2018 ALCS. But a lot of these Astros will always remember how that one might have ended up if Andrew Benintendi hadn’t saved Game 4 -- and kept the Astros from squaring that one at two-games-all -- with a diving, two-out, bases-loaded catch off in the bottom of the ninth, one of the great October defensive plays of them all.

Now the Astros have gotten up again as they try to become one of the rare postseason teams to come back from losing the first two games of a seven-game series at home. It is now the Rangers who have the chance to take them out. Texas got the first two games. But against the Astros, that is nothing like trying to get the last two. It’s like they said in “The Wire”: You come at the king, you best not miss.

There the Astros were in Game 4, in full force, led by , who is not just one of the great October players of all time, just one of the great baseball players of all time, period. There was Bregman, a baller of the first rank, jump-starting everything for his team with a two-run, top-of-the-first triple off Andrew Heaney. And when -- who has got every bit as much Mr. October in him as Bryce Harper, and maybe more -- doesn’t blow the doors off Game 4 with a grand slam, does so with a three-run shot one batter later.

There is the old line from football about the end zone and how, when you get there, you’re supposed to act as if you’ve been there before. That is the Astros, in one more October for them.

“[Abreu] likes his big moment,” Altuve said when it was over. And no one they have understands big moments better than he and Alvarez, who have now become the first teammates to have at least four home runs and 10 RBIs in their team’s first eight postseason games.

Again: It isn’t over after four games any more than it was over after two. Montgomery has been the breakout pitching star of this postseason for the Rangers, outdueling the great Justin Verlander in Game 1. Then in Game 2, Eovaldi, whom the Astros remember quite well from that ’18 ALCS when he was still with the Red Sox, re-established his own October bona fides with the way he showed up for Game 2. Whatever happens in Game 5, Bruce Bochy will happily and confidently give the ball to Eovaldi for Game 6.

Best-of-seven is now best-of-three in the Texas state baseball championship. The Rangers still have a shot at taking out the king. We’re about to find out, however, if they already had their best shot. And missed.