D-backs, Rangers took similar paths to improbable World Series matchup

October 26th, 2023

To say that the matchup for the 119th World Series was unexpected would be an understatement.

With powerhouse teams like the Braves and Dodgers -- not to mention the defending World Series champion Astros, the 101-win Orioles and the defending National League champion Phillies -- in this year’s postseason field, for the D-backs and Rangers to emerge from the fray is a testament to the annual potential for stunning playoff outcomes.

But while it may be unexpected, this matchup is uniquely exciting. And both Arizona and Texas took remarkably similar paths to the World Series, sharing several common mile markers on their respective journeys.

The parallels began in 2021 -- each team lost more than 100 games just two years ago, setting the stage for an unprecedented meeting in this year's Fall Classic.

But that’s only the first of many overlapping themes as the D-backs seek their first World Series title since 2001, and the Rangers seek the first championship in franchise history.

Surprise stories from the start

Over the first half of the 2023 regular season, the Rangers and D-backs each raised eyebrows around the baseball world with their surges to the top of their respective divisions.

Following a 68-94 campaign in 2022, Texas won its 50th game on July 1 and led the AL West by five games over the powerhouse Astros.

Meanwhile, over in the NL West, Arizona also won its 50th game of the season on July 1 and owned a three-game advantage over the Dodgers, who had won the division in nine of the previous 10 years.

While the Rangers’ rise was perhaps less surprising than that of the D-backs -- after all, Texas had signed Jacob deGrom and Nathan Eovaldi to fortify the starting rotation after making twin blockbuster splashes the prior offseason by inking middle-infield sluggers Corey Seager and Marcus Semien -- it was still a notable ascent given Houston’s hegemony over the AL West for so many years.

The D-backs being perched atop the NL West was a shocking development. With young, dynamic players like NL Rookie of the Year favorite Corbin Carroll and veteran stalwarts like slugging first baseman Christian Walker, as well as star right-handers Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly anchoring the rotation, Arizona’s ascension captivated the baseball world.

Once you get there, it’s hard to stay there

The months of July and August proved trying for both teams. After improving to 50-33 on July 1, Texas lost six of the next eight, and later closed out the month by losing seven of nine.

In August, the Rangers caught fire, winning 14 of 16 to open the month. But they continued to be streaky, losing their next eight straight.

The D-backs, meanwhile, endured a prolonged downturn, losing 25 of their next 32 games to go from three games up on the Dodgers to 12 1/2 games back by Aug. 11.

It was on that day, after a loss to the Padres in Phoenix, that manager Torey Lovullo had a candid team meeting, expressing his frustration and disappointment at how the club was playing. From there, Arizona won 11 of 13 to vault itself back into postseason position.

The Rangers continued to struggle into September, but finished the season strong, winning 14 of their final 21 games.

October road warriors

Both teams claimed Wild Card spots, and both had to go on the road for the Wild Card Series. The D-backs had to face the NL Central champion Brewers in Milwaukee in the best-of-three set, while the Rangers went across the country to play the Rays.

Despite the disappointment of losing the AL West to the Astros on the final day of the regular season, the Rangers went to Tropicana Field and swept Tampa Bay. And at American Family Field, the D-backs stunned Milwaukee with a sweep.

The next task for each club also involved going on the road -- Arizona opened the NL Division Series at Dodger Stadium while Texas traveled to Camden Yards in Baltimore to face the AL East champion Orioles.

Toppling the triple-digit victors

The Dodgers were winners of 100 games in the regular season, and the Orioles -- themselves a major surprise team -- were winners of 101. But that didn’t deter the D-backs (84 wins) or the Rangers (90).

Arizona pulled off an even bigger shocker than the sweep of the Brewers, outscoring the Dodgers by 13 runs in a sweep of Los Angeles. And the Rangers took care of business against the O’s, also improving to 5-0 in the postseason with a three-game sweep.

Dynamic defense

Something both the D-backs and Rangers relied on to help carry them to World Series was excellent defense.

Texas got sparkling defensive plays all over the diamond. On the infield, third baseman Josh Jung robbed the Astros’ Chas McCormick of extra bases with a spectacular play in ALCS Game 2. Semien made a stellar diving play of his own to take a hit away from Houston’s Jeremy Peña in Game 5.

In the outfield, rookie Evan Carter made more than one great defensive play, most notably a leaping catch in left-center to rob Yordan Alvarez of extra bases. And perhaps the finest play of them all came in Game 3, when Alvarez was victimized again, this time by center fielder Leody Taveras, who reached over the wall to bring a sure homer back for an out.

The D-backs have had their share of October web gems, too. From an incredible leaping grab by 38-year-old third baseman Evan Longoria to start a double play during a huge moment against the Brewers in the NL Wild Card Series, to rookie catcher Gabriel Moreno showing off his rocket arm on the national stage, Arizona rode some nice defense that helped fuel an improbable playoff run.

Youth is served in the outfield

Rookie outfielders Carroll of the D-backs and Carter of the Rangers have been big sparks both offensively and defensively for their World Series-bound clubs.

In addition to the aforementioned defensive contributions, Carter -- who didn’t join the club until he made his MLB debut in September -- has delivered some big hits for Texas. In 12 playoff games through the ALCS, Carter is hitting .308/.449/.538 with six doubles and a home run.

Carroll, meanwhile, followed up a regular-season performance that will likely net him the NL Rookie of the Year Award with a red-hot start to his postseason career. Through his first four games (two in the NL Wild Card Series and two in the NLDS), he was 7-for-14 with a double and two homers.

Carroll cooled off some, but when it mattered most -- Game 7 of the NLCS against the Phillies -- he dazzled by going 3-for-4 with two steals and two RBIs in the pennant-clinching D-backs victory.

Comeback kids make history

From the time the League Championship Series became a best-of-seven affair in 1985, through last year, only four teams had ever won Games 6 and 7 on the road to clinch a World Series berth (1985 Royals, 1991 Braves, 2003 Marlins and 2004 Red Sox).

Then the D-backs and Rangers each did that this year, marking the first time that both World Series participants won Games 6 and 7 on the road to get there.

Arizona fell into an 0-2 deficit by dropping the first two games of the NLCS at Citizens Bank Park before storming back to win two of three at home in the desert. But the "Answer-Backs" faced the tall task of defeating the defending NL champs in a ballpark that has conferred the greatest home-field advantage in MLB postseason history.

Not a problem for the D-backs, who got timely hits and tremendous pitching to shock the baseball world.

The Rangers had just suffered a devastating defeat in Game 5 of the ALCS at Globe Life Field, when Jose Altuve launched a ninth-inning go-ahead homer to lift the Astros to a win and a 3-2 series lead heading back to Houston.

But behind ALCS MVP Adolis García's prodigious performance, including two homers in the decisive Game 7 victory, Texas clinched its first trip to the Fall Classic in 12 years.