MINNEAPOLIS -- They say everything is bigger in Texas, and an American League Championship Series showdown between the Astros and the Rangers may be enough to send the Lone Star State into a baseball-fueled frenzy.
Astros vs. Rangers. Dusty Baker vs. Bruce Bochy. Space City vs. the Metroplex -- with a berth in the World Series on the line.
One day after the Rangers locked up their first ALCS berth since 2011, the Astros are back in the ALCS for a remarkable seventh consecutive season after beating the Twins, 3-2, in a tense Game 4 of the AL Division Series on Wednesday night at Target Field.
“Just looking around the room right now, I’m just so proud of everybody in here,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said while his teammates sprayed champagne nearby. “It’s not easy. There are great teams in the postseason. The Twins have a great team and so do the Rangers. So does every team in the postseason. We look forward to competing every year, and we were very fortunate to come out on top in this series.”
Houston will play host to the Rangers in Game 1 of the ALCS on Sunday at Minute Maid Park. The Astros, who went 9-4 against the Rangers in the regular season, will send Justin Verlander to the mound.
“Any time you play a division rival in the playoffs, you know each other so well, it makes for a fun series,” Verlander said.
Astros Game 4 starter José Urquidy, who spent much of the season injured before being moved to the bullpen, delivered another clutch playoff start. He was as poised as it gets, giving up a pair of homers in 5 2/3 innings. He struck out six batters while generating a season-high 19 swings and misses.
“I feel very comfortable being here with this team, pitching there, creating a good plan of attack with my catcher,” Urquidy said. “I know I've got good offense and defense behind me, and that makes me feel a lot of confidence. I think that's why, in those kinds of moments, I know I've got to compete and throw the ball well through the zone and put hitters away.”
The Astros got all the offense they needed on a pair of swings from veterans Michael Brantley and José Abreu. Brantley tied the game with a solo homer in the second inning, and Abreu launched a Statcast-projected 424-foot opposite-field homer to right in the fourth to put Houston ahead, 3-1. It was Abreu's third homer in the last two games as he continues to rebound from a subpar regular season.
“I knew we were going to be at this point in the series, and I was waiting for that chance,” Abreu said.
Houston’s bullpen took it from there, with Hector Neris rebounding from a bad outing in Game 1 to record four key outs in Game 4, including three strikeouts. Bryan Abreu worked the eighth and closer Ryan Pressly picked up his 13th career postseason save by striking out the side, leaving Carlos Correa on deck.
“We’ve all seen what he can do in the postseason, and it’s borderline heroic what he can do, so that’s the last person I want to see climbing into the box, especially with a guy on,” Pressly said. “If he’s getting to the plate, somebody’s on. That’s not a guy I want to face in that situation right there. [I tried] to make the best quality pitches I could to [Max] Kepler, and [I'm] thankful I put it right where I needed to put it.”
And with that, the Astros can now turn their attention to the Rangers.
You might remember the Astros snatched the AL West title away from the Rangers on the final day of the season when they beat the D-backs in Arizona and Texas lost to the Mariners in Seattle. The Rangers haven’t lost since, sweeping the AL Wild Card Series over the Rays and ALDS over the Orioles.
“It’s going to be a test,” Astros outfielder Chas McCormick said. “A little AL West rivalry, and it’s going to be fun. We play these guys a lot, and that’s a good team over there, so we need to show up.”
The Astros won seven of the final eight meetings against the Rangers in the regular season. That included a lopsided three-game sweep by Houston at Globe Life Field in early September during which they outscored Texas, 36-10, and bashed 16 home runs.
None of that figures to matter that much now. There’s a berth in the Fall Classic on the line. The AL pennant will fly high over Texas in 2023, but will it be in Houston or Arlington? Buckle up.
“Now both of our teams, Texas and us, are pretty rested in our 'pens and in our starting rotation,” Baker said. “So it should be a heck of a series.”