Rangers' much-maligned 'pen delivers when needed most

October 24th, 2023

HOUSTON -- Outside the north entrance of Globe Life Field stands a statue of former Rangers closer Neftali Feliz jumping into the arms of catcher Bengie Molina after getting the final out of the 2010 American League Championship Series.

It was, at the time of Globe Life Field’s construction, one of the most memorable moments in Rangers history.

Closer  wrote another special chapter by sealing Game 7 of the 2023 ALCS in an 11-4 win on Monday night vs. the Astros. After the final out, Leclerc fell to his knees in front of first base and took a brief second to soak it in before joining his teammates in their celebration in the middle of Minute Maid Park.

"Actually, no," Leclerc said in Spanish when asked if he imagined this run at the start of the season. "Of course, we work toward it, but I never thought -- it never even crossed my mind that this would happen. But thanks to God, it did. And we're very proud of the team we have here."

Leclerc deserved to have the ball at the finish. He has ended eight of Texas’ nine postseason wins. As part of a trio of relievers that includes and , he has completely turned around the Rangers’ bullpen this postseason.

“Despite any earlier criticism or pitfalls, we never lost confidence in them,” pitching coach Mike Maddux said. “And they are bringing it. Bringing it big time.”

Before the ALCS, Astros starter Justin Verlander described the playoffs as like taking a final exam after months of class and homework in the regular season.

If that’s the case, the Texas bullpen this October is the kid who doesn’t study but gets an A anyway -- or perhaps more accurately, the student who aces the final exam to pass after struggling all year. The Rangers blew 33 saves for a league-worst 47.6 percent (30-for-63) rate in converting save opportunities.

But this postseason, Sborz, Chapman and Leclerc have found themselves at the right time. Sborz didn't allow a run until Alex Bregman scored in the seventh inning Monday, one batter after the right-hander exited the game. Even more impressively, opposing hitters have recorded only two hits and four walks off Sborz in 8 2/3 postseason innings.

Chapman has allowed only one run in 6 1/3 postseason innings (seven appearances). He has been a key piece against left-handed hitters, even if Leclerc has had to enter early and clean up several jams for four-plus-out saves.

“They lean on one another,” Maddux said. “It’s not a one-man show. That’s what’s great about it. We can give all the cliches in the world, but I love these guys.”

And Leclerc is the workhorse of the ‘pen, as catcher Jonah Heim described him after his clutch outing in Game 6. That was the only Texas win that Leclerc didn’t finish, and only because it leaped out to a 9-2 lead with a five-run ninth after he completed the eighth.

The relievers preached a “bend, but don’t break” mentality from the start of their postseason run against the Rays in St. Petersburg. Even in the first and only instance of a snap in Game 5 -- when Leclerc allowed a go-ahead three-run home run to Jose Altuve -- the closer bounced back with a huge performance in Game 6.

In Game 7, manager Bruce Bochy said he wasn’t taking any risks despite his club’s eight-run lead heading into the ninth. He considered sending Martín Pérez, who has pitched nine seasons across two stints in Texas, to honor him, but the skipper stuck with Leclerc, the seven-year veteran who is the longest-tenured Ranger.

“We know how dangerous [the Astros] are, that lineup and how good they are. I brought in the closer,” Bochy said. “It was a tough choice. But with the game not completely over or out of reach, I just decided to go with Josy.”

It was a boon for Bochy to have options at all. In a series opener at Minute Maid Park on July 25, the manager sent out Alex Speas, a rookie making just his third Major League appearance, to face the Astros in a tie game in the ninth inning after Chapman allowed a three-run home run. Speas allowed Houston to walk it off -- the result of what Bochy called a “thin” bullpen at the time.

Just less than four months later, when the Rangers returned to Minute Maid Park, it was the bullpen that managed to close out all four games in the hostile environment and feed off the opposing fans to raise an ALCS trophy in Houston.