Game 3 can turn ALCS in drastically different directions. Let's dive in

October 18th, 2023

Game 3 of any series is always a pivot game, regardless of what has happened in the first two. If it’s a 1-1 split, obviously, the winner takes over the clear advantage. But if it’s 2-0, like it is right now in the Rangers-Astros ALCS, Game 3 lets you know whether you still have a series or not. If the Rangers can win Game 3, they’re one away from advancing, and we’re all going to assume (historically correctly, though don’t tell the 2004 Red Sox) that this series is over. But if the Astros can rebound, we may well be in for the long, protracted series many observers felt we were set up to see at the beginning.

One thing is definitely clear: It is about to be very loud in Arlington.

Here's a look at three key storylines for ALCS Game 3 on Wednesday.

Astros at Rangers
Rangers lead 2-0
Cristian Javier vs. Max Scherzer
8:03 p.m. ET, FS1

Storyline No. 1: How much can Scherzer give them?

The primary reason the Rangers brought in Scherzer from the Mets at the Trade Deadline was for him to be their shutdown No. 1 postseason starter, what they had intended Jacob deGrom to be when they signed him in the offseason (away from the Mets). But now that the postseason is here, and Scherzer is returning from a muscle strain to pitch his first game in more than a month, the irony is that they don’t need him to be the ace. The Rangers’ offense has done more than its fair share of the heavy lifting, as have starters Jordan Montgomery and Nathan Eovaldi, who have put up Scherzer-like performances and seem very much primed to do so again when called upon.

The Rangers simply need competence from Scherzer, to keep the Astros’ bats in check enough for the offense to do its job. They don’t require him to throw eight shutout innings. They don’t require him to keep their season alive. If they got, say, five innings, two runs out of him, they’d be happy. (And based on current starting pitcher usage in October, even four innings might be enough.)

Even before he got hurt, Scherzer had been extremely up-and-down this year. He made 27 starts, and that included seven where he allowed five or more runs, and seven where he allowed zero runs. His most recent start for the Rangers featured 5 1/3 shutout innings, but the one before that -- against the Astros, by the way, in Arlington -- was a disaster to the tune of seven runs in three innings. The one thing the Rangers don’t want is a disaster start. They will certainly take vintage Scherzer, if he can muster it. But vintage, say, Colby Lewis would be just fine as well.

Storyline No. 2: Can the Astros fight their way off the mat again?

This is not, in fact, the first time the Astros have been down 2-0 during their seven-year ALCS streak. The Rays took a 2-0 lead on them in the 2020 ALCS -- which was in Petco Park, remember that? -- and even won Game 3 to take a 3-0 lead. Do you remember what happened after that? The Astros stormed back to win the next three games to force a Game 7 and darned-near pulled off the first 3-0 comeback since the Red Sox in the 2004 ALCS over the Yankees. They fell just short in Game 7, but it’s a reminder that the Astros didn’t reach seven straight ALCS, and four World Series, by cutting and running when things get tough.

The Astros, until they’re eliminated, have the unquestioned benefit of having been here before. Javier is only 26 years old, and this will be his 16th postseason appearance. Jose Altuve has the fifth-most postseason at-bats ever; Alex Bregman has the 10th-most. They do not scare easily. They also had the best road record in MLB this year (51-30) and are 2-0 on the road this postseason. They are not going to fold; the Rangers are going to have to finish them.

Storyline No. 3: Seriously, are the Rangers ever going to lose?

It took just two hours and one minute, their shortest game of the season, for the Rangers to lose on the regular season’s final day, Oct. 1, against the Mariners. George Kirby was terrific for Seattle, Mitch Garver flew out to left field for the last out and the Mariners won 1-0, costing the Rangers their division title. And … the Rangers haven’t lost since. A sweep over the Rays, a sweep over the Orioles and now two wins (on the road) against their hated rivals, the defending champs. I don’t mean to make this analysis overtly simple or anything, but the Rangers have won seven playoff games in a row and are rolling through everything in their path. If someone doesn’t stop them soon, they’re going to win this whole thing.