Relentless Rangers make the most of two-strike hitting to stymie O's

October 11th, 2023

ARLINGTON -- It was supposed to be much closer than this.

Entering the American League Division Series, the No. 1 seed Orioles (101-61) and No. 5 seed Rangers (90-72) were fairly evenly matched. Before the best-of-five set began, FanGraphs projections gave AL West runner-up Texas a 54.6 percent chance of coming away victorious; they gave AL East champion Baltimore a 45.4 percent chance.

Three games in, it’s already over.

On Tuesday night at Globe Life Field, the Rangers rode a five-run second inning to a 7-1 Game 3 victory in their first taste of postseason baseball since 2016, dealing the Orioles their first sweep since May 13-15, 2022, in the process.

If there was one separating factor that could explain why the O’s winningest regular season since 1979 came to a sudden end and why Texas is moving on to the AL Championship Series instead, it might be this: two-strike hitting.

The Rangers’ offense led the AL this season in batting average (.263), on-base percentage (.337), slugging (.452) and OPS (.789). They scored the most runs (881), tallied the most hits (1,470), notched the most RBIs (845) and smashed the most homers (233, tied with the Twins).

But in the ALDS, they weren’t just dominant. They were relentless.

Texas racked up 11 hits, 20 baserunners and seven RBIs in two-strike counts in the series, good for a .190/.299/.293 slash line in 67 plate appearances. That’s better than the MLB average for the 2023 season, which was .172/.249/.273.

“Their approach was outstanding,” said Rangers manager Bruce Bochy. “They stayed with the plan. [Bench coach] Donnie Ecker and [hitting coach] Tim Hyers did a great job of having these guys prepared. They stuck with it, showed patience and did a nice job of two-strike hitting. We were putting the ball in play, and good things happened.”

Adolis García’s three-run homer to break the game open in that second inning on Tuesday? Two strikes.

Leody Taveras, Mitch Garver and Jonah Heim’s run-scoring knocks in a go-ahead five-run second inning in Game 2 on Sunday? Two strikes.

Even three of Corey Seager’s AL/NL postseason-record five walks on Sunday came with two strikes.

Game 3 starter Dean Kremer and Game 2 starter Grayson Rodriguez lasted just 1 2/3 innings apiece, putting the O’s in early holes they couldn’t climb out of. Kremer had already thrown 53 pitches by the time of his exit; Rodriguez had thrown 59.

“[They had] a tough time putting guys away,” said Orioles manager Brandon Hyde. “[It’s] something we need to work on as a pitching staff going into Spring Training next year, making more competitive pitches with two strikes. We got hurt a lot on that.”

The contrast was especially notable in Tuesday’s clincher, as Rangers starter Nathan Eovaldi turned in his club’s best outing of the series, twirling seven innings of one-run ball with seven strikeouts.

“When I’m out there pitching, I try to get as fast outs as possible to get my offense back in the dugout,” he said. “The faster I can get them in the dugout, I think they’ll have more success in at-bats. I feel like our guys have been doing an extremely good job of seeing pitches.”

Some of the at-bats that ended in outs were useful for the Rangers, too. In the second inning of Game 3, Nathaniel Lowe worked a 15-pitch at-bat against Kremer, going down 0-2 and then fouling off nine pitches (seven consecutively) before lining out to left field.

It was tied for the third-longest postseason plate appearance since pitch counts began to be tracked in 1988, behind only Austin Meadows’ 17-pitch strikeout in Game 4 of the 2021 ALDS and Johnny Damon’s 16-pitch lineout in Game 2 of the 2004 ALCS.

Lowe’s at-bat led off the frame. Six batters later, García’s homer ended Kremer’s start.

“I thought that long at-bat, that can wear a pitcher down a little bit. He did a great job,” Bochy said. “Sure, he made an out, but to work the pitcher that much, I think it made a difference in that inning. I really do.”

So it wasn’t just that the Rangers had too much firepower, as noted by the Globe Life Field home run cannon that boomed after blasts from Seager, García and Lowe in Game 3. It was that they didn’t let up.

The Orioles knew what was in store for them. They just couldn’t do anything to stop it.

“That’s one of the best offenses in the big leagues over there,” said Kyle Gibson, who was thrust into relief in the must-win contest. “They do damage in all counts, and they do a really good job of making you execute pitches for nine innings. Every now and then, you run into a team that’s hot and swinging the bat well and you feel like you could throw the rosin bag up there and they might hit it.”

The Rangers will take that with them into the ALCS. The Orioles will take the lesson into next season.