June 13, 2024

HOUSTON — You hear it so often at playoff time that the words take on the form of the cliche: The team that wins the big moments wins in the postseason.

For two games over two nights in the ALCS, and for seven games since the playoffs began, the Texas Rangers have won just about all of the big moments that have come their way this October.

Texas was at it again Monday, winning a nail-biting 5-4 decision in Game 2 at Minute Maid Park that puts the Houston Astros in the kind of postseason hole they’ve rarely been in during their seven-season run of October dominance.

“I think that’s what makes baseball special,” said Rangers catcher Jonah Heim, who clanged a homer in Game 2 off a metallic sign above the Crawford Boxes. “You never know who’s going to win the big moment.”

While the Rangers haven’t faced this kind of pressure cooker as a group before, a number of their key performers have been there and done that during their careers. One of those seasoned standouts is Texas Game 2 starter Nathan Eovaldi, who won his seventh career playoff game.

Texas gave Eovaldi an early margin to work with, jumping on Houston starter Framber Valdez for four runs in the first inning and chasing the lefty after 2⅔ innings. Texas built a 5-1 lead before Houston started chipping away.

Eovaldi wavered at times, giving up solo homers to Yordan Alvarez and Alex Bregman. The game appeared to be on the verge of flipping Houston’s way in the fifth, when Michael Brantley and Chas McCormick singled. Josh Jung, who otherwise put up a highlight-reel performance in the field at third base, misplayed a slow Jeremy Pena grounder.

Bases jammed, no one out, the Rangers clinging to a 5-2 lead. These are the moments the Astros have won so often over the years during their streak of seven straight ALCS appearance that has included two World Series titles and four pennants.

“I feel like in those big moments you’ve got to bear down and make big pitches,” Eovaldi said. “The stadium is crazy. You have all the fans and everything going nuts. But at the same time you try to simplify everything down to your strengths and what you do best.”

In this instance, pulling off an escape that would make Houdini jealous is what Eovaldi did best. Eovaldi won the moment, striking out Yanier Diaz and Jose Altuve, then getting Bregman on a chopper to third. Threat extinguished.

“That was the turning point in the game,” Rangers manager Bruce Bochy said. “Found a way to get through it. And terrific job by [Eovaldi]. He had good stuff today. He pitched very well.”

Eovaldi departed after gutting out six innings, allowing three runs and striking out nine. He has now struck out 23 batters over three 2023 playoff starts and for his postseason career is 7-3 with a 2.87 ERA over 14 appearances, including eight starts.

The next big moment arose in the bottom of the eighth against the Texas bullpen. Alvarez mashed his second homer of the game and sixth of the postseason, taking lefty Aroldis Chapman deep to trim the Rangers’ lead to one run.

With the orange towel-waving fans in Houston worked into a frenzy, anticipating the kind of climatic moment they’ve come to expect from the Astros, Bochy decided to insert closer Jose Leclerc for a possible four-out save, one of the first instances this October in which the manager has pushed one of his relievers.

“I didn’t really think about [four outs],” Leclerc said via a team interpreter. “I just had to get one out, then three more outs.”

Bochy, in pursuit of his fourth World Series title as a manager, has guided as many teams through big moments as anyone. But it appeared that he might have made the wrong call for once when Leclerc started off wild, walking both Jose Abreu and Brantley. Surely this was the tipping-point moment for the inevitable Astros.

Instead, Leclerc got McCormick to reach for a slider down in the zone. McCormick chopped it at Jung. The rookie third baseman has excelled with the glove all season but also missed time in September because of a thumb injury that still requires him to wear a guard on his glove hand.

“It hit off my little thumb guard,” Jung said. “Just hit right off there and popped up in the air. I didn’t panic or anything.”

That’s how it played out, with the ball deflecting off Jung’s glove and suspending in the air for what felt like a long time. Jung simply gathered it back in and stepped on the third-base bag for the forceout, ending the inning.

Leclerc was back out for the ninth and after Pena flied out to the wall in right, Jung went to his knees to smother a sharp Diaz grounder and threw across for the second out. That brought up perennial postseason hero Jose Altuve.

But this was the Rangers’ moment, too: Altuve reached for a Leclerc offering and flied out harmlessly to center. Leclerc said, “I’d didn’t have my best stuff,” but his stuff was good enough for the bend-but-don’t-break Rangers.

“We had balls bounce our way a couple of times and we’ve made some really good plays defensively,” Heim said. “I think that makes us who we are.”

Now the Rangers are getting into historical territory. Texas has reeled off seven straight wins to start the playoffs, including six on the road. Only the 2014 Royals had a longer streak (eight games) to begin a postseason. Only the 2005 White Sox had a longer road win streak (eight) within the same postseason.

Perhaps more importantly, the Rangers have pushed the Astros into a corner from which they’ve rarely had to respond. Only once in 14 series since 2017 has Houston hosted the first two games of a matchup and lost both.

But the Rangers would be well served to recall what the Astros did when they last faced an 0-2 hole with three games looming on the road. In the 2019 World Series, Houston dropped two straight games to the Nationals at Minute Maid. They then traveled to Washington and won three straight.

Game 3 is slated for Wednesday at Globe Life Field. Texas will send ace Max Scherzer to the mound for his first action of the postseason. Houston will start righty Cristian Javier.

Anyone expecting the Astros to panic now will probably be disappointed. After seven years of excellence, the Rangers can expect an opponent that still very much expects to win.

“You treat it like the game of baseball,” said Bregman, whose homer gave him 17 career playoff long balls and 50 postseason RBIs for the Astros. “You got to continue to play and have that next-pitch mentality. So true too. We’ve seen what this October has been like, and sometimes things don’t make sense.”

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