The Lone Star Series. The Silver Boot Series. The American League pennant will be decided somewhere along Interstate 45. So, hop in. We’re taking a ride to the ALCS.
It’s been two weeks since the West was won, since the Astros, by virtue of a tiebreaker, Concord the division for the sixth time in seven years. Now it’s seven consecutive ALCS appearances. Copy and paste. Cut and Shoot. The Astros are inevitable. As dependable as a bowl of Rice Crispies. As steady as the morning Dew. They have Buffaloed the rest of the West for years now.
But the Rangers were not cowed. They’ve been on this Ferris wheel all year, trying to distance themselves from the Astros, only to find every ascent followed by a fall. Despite the late-season Retreat sending the Rangers tumbling into a wild-card spot, they are right where they wanted to be after all. They swept the Rays. Eureka! They swept the Orioles. Roll the tape, Bristol!
The Rangers came home to Texas after a two-week, coast-to-coast road trip to finish off the Orioles, and here they’ll remain, in the land of Cottonwood and Angus, until the AL is decided.
The Astros owned the Rangers in the regular season. No doubt about it. But anyone thinking that makes this series a fait accompli is missing La Marque. That was a different time, a different Rangers roster. They sure look like a different animal lately. Like a Mustang. Like Phelps in his prime. Like Palmer with a 3-wood at Augusta. The Astros won their 13-game head-to-head series this season handily. But can the Rangers win this seven-game series? Of Corsicana.
At the moment, Minute Maid Park is as silent as a Spring morning in Shenandoah. But by Sunday night it’ll be a madhouse. Don’t miss it.
And here’s our exit. Enjoy the ballgame!
And juuuuust in case, that was 20 town names along I-45. Gotta find ’em all!
AL Championship Series Game 1: Texas Rangers at Houston Astros
Start time: 8:15 p.m. ET on FOX
Pitching matchup: Jordan Montgomery vs. Justin Verlander
Game 1 pitching matchup
Rangers: LHP Jordan Montgomery
2023 stats: 10-11, 3.20 ERA, 188 2/3 innings, 166 strikeouts, 1.19 WHIP
Montgomery takes the mound for the third time (and third road start) this postseason. He was brilliant in his wild-card start, blanking the Rays over six innings and making a diving catch, but significantly more hittable in the Division Series against Baltimore: five runs (four earned) on nine hits and a walk. He was pulled before recording an out in the fourth. In that start, Montgomery struck out only two and got just five total swings and misses.
But he has bested the Astros before, not long ago, in a past life as a St. Louis Cardinal.
On June 27, Montgomery held Houston to two runs (one earned) in 6 2/3 innings. He pounded them with sinkers, and his changeup and curve combined for 10 whiffs. So, maybe the pitching plan in Game 1 will feature a heavy dose of breaking balls. However, it should be noted that neither Jose Altuve nor Yordan Alvarez played in that game against the Cardinals.
Astros: RHP Justin Verlander
2023 stats: 13-8, 3.22 ERA, 162 1/3 innings, 144 strikeouts, 1.13 WHIP
Wanna guess how many ALCS appearances this makes for Verlander?
1 … 2 … 3 … 4 … 5 … 6 … 7 … 8 … 9!
That’s right. And now, in pursuit of his sixth trip to the World Series, he gets the baseball in Game 1 against the Rangers. He has historically pitched very well against them, with a 21-8 record, 2.60 ERA and 1.049 WHIP in 218 ⅓ innings — and let’s pause there to let it sink in that this guy has a Cy Young Award-caliber season’s worth of career starts against the Rangers. His start at Globe Life Field on Sept. 6, head-to-head against Max Scherzer, was no exception: seven innings, five baserunners, six strikeouts and only two runs (one earned).
Verlander navigated some traffic in Game 1 of the ALDS against Minnesota, turning in six scoreless innings. He got 16 swings and misses, including eight (on only 11 swings) on the slider — a pitch that had lost some of its elusiveness earlier this season. Verlander is averaging less than a strikeout per inning for the first time since 2015, but he remains an elite starter at age 40, and both his track record and recent starts suggest he’ll be a handful for the Rangers.
Game 1 X-factor
That the Rangers have reached this point without much offense to this point from Semien is a credit to the depth of their lineup. Semien is 4-for-23 (.174) so far this postseason, and sooner or later he’s going to break out a big game from that leadoff spot for the Rangers. Game 1 could be that game. Right-handed hitters fare a bit better against Verlander than lefties do, and Semien has had a lot of experience facing him: 14-for-43 (.326) with four extra-base hits.
“In the playoffs, anything can happen. It doesn’t matter if you win 150 or win 80. It’s just about winning now. There’s no tomorrow. So the teams that are out of the postseason, I don’t think that means anything. The Diamondbacks, Phillies, Rangers are playing as good as they can be playing. So we’ve got to just focus on winning. It doesn’t matter, numbers, stats, anything but winning.”
— Altuve on 100-win teams getting knocked out early
(Top photo of Verlander: Jerome Miron / USA Today)