'Big Game Nate' performs greatest escape act yet

Eovaldi emerges unscathed from bases-loaded, no-out threat to slay demons vs. Astros

October 18th, 2023

HOUSTON --  wasn’t looking for a big personal moment. Fatefully, the moment found him.

A veteran of 14 postseason games, Eovaldi finally conquered the Astros in Monday’s Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, tossing six innings of three-run ball with nine strikeouts in the Rangers’ 5-4 win at Minute Maid Park.

That strikeout mark is a new postseason high, but nothing came easily against a club that has pestered Eovaldi time and time again. This time, though, the right-hander got to reverse his fortunes, an effort that was highlighted by a crucial escape from a bases-loaded, no-out bottom of the fifth.

“That’s what he’s been doing for us this year,” said teammate Marcus Semien. “He’s mentally tough, and he’s a leader that pitches that way.”

It took all of that mental toughness to get Eovaldi out of that jam. As the building got louder, he locked in.

“A lot of the guys in the dugout were saying how loud it was in the stadium,” Eovaldi said. “And to me, you get that tunnel vision, that extra focus, and you block everything out.”

After Texas jumped to a four-run lead in the first, Eovaldi held Houston mostly in check, yielding a solo homer to Yordan Alvarez in the second and another to Alex Bregman in the fourth.

But when Eovaldi came back out for the next inning with his team sporting a 5-2 lead, it looked like his old problems against Houston would flare up again.

Back-to-back singles and a Josh Jung fielding error at third loaded the bases and exposed how fragile a three-run lead can be against the Astros. It was clear that Houston’s offense was ready to swing, too, especially after Dusty Baker brought in Yainer Díaz as a pinch-hitter for Martín Maldonado.

Eovaldi identified that aggressiveness early, using it to his advantage and effectively mixing his pitches against the next three batters. It highlighted why he had the AL’s best opponents’ batting average with runners in scoring position (.168) this season among pitchers with at least 140 innings.

“You're talking about one of the elite pitchers in the game,” said manager Bruce Bochy. “They have that ability to turn up a notch when they have to.”

Eovaldi struck out Díaz swinging on a curveball outside the zone. Next up was Jose Altuve, who also went down on strikes after whiffing on a 90 mph splitter. Eovaldi then got Bregman to swing on a cutter, which Jung fielded and tossed to first for the final out of the frame.

It was enough to get the even-keeled 33-year-old Eovaldi to pump his fists in the air and yell out all the pent-up adrenaline.

“That was the turning point in the game, bases loaded and nobody out in the fifth, but he found a way to get through it,” said Bochy. “Terrific job by him. He had good stuff today.”

It has been a long time coming.

In 10 regular-season outings against the Astros, Eovaldi has yielded an .857 OPS -- his second-worst mark against an AL opponent. That included a historically bad start with the Red Sox last year, when Eovaldi became the third pitcher in AL/NL history to yield five homers in one inning.

The bulk of Eovaldi’s postseason memories of Houston are no better. Most recently, he allowed four earned runs in relief as a member of the Red Sox in Game 4 of the 2021 ALCS, after a borderline call on a pitch that would have given him a scoreless ninth frame. Two contests later, he got the start, yielding just one run over 4 1/3 innings but still taking the loss in an elimination game.

Some of those ghosts were still there Monday in the form of those two homers and Michael Brantley’s RBI double in the sixth. But for the most part, this was as good a start as the Rangers could have asked for from Big Game Nate.

“At this moment right now in the postseason, for me to be able to have that opportunity to get out of the fifth inning was enough for me,” said Eovaldi. “I’m grateful for that opportunity.”

That’s the attitude you’ll get from the two-time All-Star and 2018 World Series champion. Eovaldi has a 2.29 ERA in three starts this postseason. His career ERA in the playoffs is sitting at 2.87. And yet, he refuses to hog the attention.

“I could go out there and give up five runs, and as long as we win the ballgame, that's all I care about,” Eovaldi said. “I feel like it's more of a team moment as opposed to my own personal moment. For us to be here in this situation, we've come this far, and we've got to keep doing what we've been doing, going out there and winning ballgames.”