Who has the upper hand in the ALCS? Here are 4 keys for each team

October 15th, 2023

Because of Interleague Play, the Astros and Rangers have met regularly since 2001, with the big prize up until now being the Silver Boot trophy -- awarded to the team that takes the season series each year.

Suffice it to say, the stakes for their upcoming showdown are much, much higher.

The Lonestar Series, for much of the first 15 years of Interleague Play, was a hoot for the fans and, truthfully, a bit of a yawner for the players. That all changed in 2013 when the Astros moved to the American League and into the West division, where the two Texas teams became rivals for real.

For two teams to meet in a League Championship Series, there has to be a little luck involved in addition to simply having a good team. The stars aligned for the clubs this year, and on Sunday, the Astros and Rangers will join the list of LCS matchups to be played between teams from the same state.

Who has the edge? Let’s examine each team’s keys to winning the series:


1. Javier, Urquidy keep it up
It’s probably safe to say the Astros know what they’re getting with Justin Verlander and Framber Valdez at the top of the rotation, though neither one has been quite as dominant as they were last year. Still, they have strong playoff pedigrees and should give Houston the pitching edge when they get the ball. Cristian Javier and José Urquidy answered the bell in their ALDS starts at Minnesota and will likely be in line to start Games 3 and 4 of the ALCS. Javier extended his postseason scoreless streak to 16 1/3 innings and hasn’t allowed a run in his past 11 innings overall; Urquidy held the Twins to two solo homers in 5 2/3 innings in his Game 4 start and has allowed two runs in his past 11 2/3 innings. If Javier and Urquidy can keep it up, Houston will be in good shape.

2. Abreu keeps swinging the bat
José Abreu’s late-season resurgence -- he had the most RBIs in the AL after Sept. 1 -- came just in time. He went 5-for-16 in the ALDS against the Twins with three homers and eight RBIs, including a pair of long homers in Game 3. Having him swinging a hot bat takes some of the pressure off Kyle Tucker, who went 2-for-14 in the ALDS, and Alex Bregman, who went 3-for-15. Tucker and Bregman are going to get their hits in the ALCS, and if Abreu continues to mash and Yordan Alvarez remains a dangerous force, Houston should have little trouble scoring runs.

3. Keep the Rangers in the ballpark
The Rangers tied for the AL lead in the regular season with 233 homers (the Astros were fifth with 222), led by Adolis García (39), Corey Seager (33) and Marcus Semien (29). Even rookie Josh Jung slugged 23 homers in 122 games. Verlander and Urquidy are fly-ball pitchers and can be susceptible to home runs. Semien hit four homers in 51 at-bats against Houston pitching this year, García had three in 48 at-bats and Seager had two in 26 at-bats. So far this postseason, 53.3 percent of runs scored have come via the long ball, including 10 by the Astros in only 138 at-bats. Even if it does become a slugfest, the Astros outscored the Rangers, 39-10, in a three-game series in Arlington in September and mashed 16 homers. Still, if Houston can contain the Rangers’ sluggers, that’s a formula for success.

4. Get to the Rangers’ bullpen
Texas’ bullpen posted a 4.77 ERA in the regular season, fifth worst in the AL, and it also allowed 85 homers, which was the second most in the AL. The Rangers’ relievers have done a nice job in the postseason so far, allowing four earned runs in 16 2/3 innings (2.16 ERA), but the Astros rocked Texas’ relief in the regular season. The Rangers’ bullpen had a 7.55 ERA and .916 OPS allowed against Houston in the regular season, allowing 18 homers in 62 innings. Aroldis Chapman (6.75 ERA), Josh Sborz (12.71 ERA), Dane Dunning (11.57 ERA) and Will Smith (5.40 ERA) took their lumps in relief against Houston hitters this year, while Cody Bradford (2.00 ERA) and José Leclerc (0.00 ERA) pitched well.


1. Youthful trio continues to produce
Seager is Seager, and his .429/.680/.857 is nothing to look past, but the length and depth of the Rangers' lineup might be a bigger key to winning this series than anything Seager does against the Astros. The rookie duo of Jung and Evan Carter has stolen the show this postseason. Carter has been the Texas’ best non-Seager hitter with a .429/.619/.857 slash line, while Jung is hitting .400 with a 1.209 OPS. Add in 25-year-old Leody Taveras, who is hitting .263 in the nine-hole, and the Rangers’ youngsters are passing the baton and keeping the lineup moving all postseason long.

2. Limit the bullpen usage
It sounds self-explanatory, but if Texas' starting pitchers go deep into games, the Rangers have a great chance at winning. The bullpen was historically bad during the regular season, and though it’s looked better this postseason, the starters and the offense haven’t given much of a chance for the relievers to pitch in high-leverage situations. Texas has built a rotation of veteran arms, and the trio of Nathan Eovaldi, Jordan Mongomery and Andrew Heaney has produced quality innings so far this postseason. Heaney isn’t fully stretched out after spending the last month of the season in the bullpen, but if Eovaldi and Montgomery can give six or seven quality innings in the first two games, the Rangers will be in a good position heading back to Arlington.

3. Shut down innings 7-9
That said, the starters aren’t going to pitch complete games every time out. Some relievers will need to be used, and when they are called upon, they need to continue stepping up. The Rangers' offense will score runs, but can the bullpen slam the door in a close game? That will be perhaps the biggest question going into a tough matchup with Houston. Manager Bruce Bochy has mostly relied on Chapman and Leclerc late in games this postseason, and the two have combined to allow just one run in 7 2/3 innings. Sborz provided 2 2/3 quality relief frames without allowing a run against Baltimore in the ALDS. After Texas finished the regular season 30-for-63 (47.6 percent) in save opportunities, only one game this postseason has even been close enough for there to be a save at all. That trend won’t likely last forever against Houston, and the bullpen will need to step up to advance.

4. Get the healthy, ready-to-pitch version of Scherzer
Bochy and pitching coach Mike Maddux are optimistic that Max Scherzer will be available after being sidelined since Sept. 13 with a low grade strain of the teres major muscle in his right shoulder. If you ask Scherzer, he’s ready to go. He owns a career 3.58 ERA over 133 1/3 postseason innings and won a World Series with the Nationals in 2019, but he struggled in his past two postseason appearances, with the Dodgers in '21 and the Mets in '22. With Jon Gray also on the IL with mild right lower forearm tightness, the Rangers rode Mongtomery, Eovaldi and a piggyback of Heaney and Dunning to sweeps in the Wild Card Series and ALDS. If Texas can get anything close to the Scherzer who posted a 3.20 ERA across eight starts following the Trade Deadline, it will be a huge boost to the pitching staff.