Rangers relievers using opposing fans' fuel to light their fire

Texas 'pen covers 2 2/3 scoreless innings in ALCS Game 1 win over Astros

October 16th, 2023

HOUSTON -- Rangers relievers are channeling all the heat they took in the regular season and throwing it back at their opponents.

Sunday night’s 2-0 win in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series was the latest chapter in a remarkable comeback story for Texas’ bullpen.

Facing a powerful Astros lineup in front of a rowdy Minute Maid Park crowd, the visitors posted 2 2/3 scoreless innings in relief, supporting a brilliant start by Jordan Montgomery and ensuring the pair of runs they snagged off of Justin Verlander were enough to steal a road contest.

“It sounds crazy, but we’ve just been using the opposing fans as fuel,” said right-hander Josh Sborz. “We’re not getting too lost in the game, we’re trying to keep it simple, to get that extra adrenaline that they’re giving us and just attack the hitters.”

It started with Sborz and it ended with José Leclerc on Sunday.

With a narrow lead and no margin for error, Texas’ relievers got the job done through soft contact and awkward swings. They also got some help from their defense -- namely an incredible catch by Evan Carter in left field that started a game-changing double play with Aroldis Chapman on the mound in the eighth.

That help is essential. Ask any of these relievers, and they’ll say that you can’t accomplish much on your own.

“I think the team is in a really good spot,” said Chapman. “We’re focused and we’re very united, and I believe that’s an important part of where we are.”

Unity and resolve have certainly paid off for the undefeated Rangers this October. They’ve also contributed to the bullpen’s dramatic turnaround.

After posting a 4.77 ERA in the regular season (the seventh-worst mark in the Majors), Texas relievers have combined for a 1.86 ERA over 19 1/3 innings from the AL Wild Card Series through Sunday. Per the Elias Sports Bureau, the club has trailed at the end of only one full inning in its first six games, tying Texas with Cleveland (2016) for the best single-postseason mark.

What’s changed? Not much.

“At the end of the day, it's just that a lot of us got healthy,” said Sborz. “We had time off to kind of get back to the things we're good at and get strong again. So, I mean, it wasn't a miracle. … There wasn’t that much to change.”

Sborz can speak with authority about the impact of health. The 29-year-old started the regular season on the IL and didn’t make a Major League appearance until April 15. Another pair of IL stints in July and September undermined his quest for consistency on the mound.

“My heater was pretty bad, my slider was pretty bad. Everything was kind of just bad,” Sborz said. “It was frustrating for those two or three weeks where I was pretty much awful and kind of let the team down almost every day.”

Finally healthy again, Sborz has been able to get his mechanics right, and that’s translated into 3 1/3 scoreless innings in the postseason.

It helped to be around a calm and collected group of guys through that process.

“We’re pretty relaxed,” said Sborz of his fellow relievers. “The way our starters pitch, we have the ability to be relaxed for at least five innings. … It helps us keep our composure.”

As criticism mounted and an impatient fanbase stirred during the regular season, staying relaxed became a bit more challenging. But ultimately, that too helped this group to success.

“Yeah, we've taken a little bit of heat, but we have that ‘bend but don't break’ mentality,” said veteran Will Smith. “[That’s] the life of a reliever. You're going to give up runs here and there -- a little more magnified at the end of the game.”

The Rangers’ bullpen will likely get even better as this series progresses. Manager Bruce Bochy said before Sunday’s game that righty Jon Gray, who has been sidelined since Sept. 28 with a forearm strain, will pitch in relief after making the ALCS roster. That should give the club a valuable option if a longer outing is needed.

Some schools of thought state that Gray -- who pitched to a 4.12 ERA in 29 starts in the regular season -- will find even more success out of the ‘pen.

“His stuff, honestly, plays even better, because his fastball and slider are so powerful,” said Game 2 starter Nathan Eovaldi. “… It's going to make the bullpen better.”