June 13, 2024

HOUSTON — Adolis Garcia stood at home plate to watch his ninth-inning grand slam soar toward the Crawford Boxes in left field at Minute Maid Park on Sunday night, and in that moment, the perspective of everyone in the building seemed to shift.

The Texas Rangers players could exhale, having taken control of a tense Game 6 that they would go on to win 9-2. Houston Astros fans immediately flooded the aisles to get out of the park, and Astros players made three outs on four pitches in the bottom of the ninth inning — perhaps in a hurry to move on to the deciding Game 7 of an American League Championship Series that has been wholly dominated by the visiting teams.

The home team has lost every game in this series. The only other time that has happened in the first six games of a best-of-seven series in MLB history was in the 2019 World Series — which was lost by the Astros and won by the Washington Nationals, whose Game 7 starter will be the same guy who will start Monday night for Texas, Max Scherzer, the three-time Cy Young Award winner.

Nathan Eovaldi started for the Rangers in Game 6 and lived up to his long history of postseason success, allowing two runs over 6⅓ innings and becoming only the third pitcher ever to collect eight wins in his first 10 postseason starts. (David Wells and Orlando Hernandez are the others.) Mitch Garver and Jonah Heim hit homers for the Rangers before Garcia finished off the Astros in the ninth and spun the attention of everyone to what’s ahead.

When the Rangers players spoke late Sunday in anticipation of Game 7, it was as if uttering Scherzer’s name alone carried the weight of implied excellence.

“Max Scherzer, Game 7,” Texas catcher Jonah Heim said.

“Mad Max,” said Marcus Semien, the Rangers second baseman who reached base four times on Sunday.

The Astros’ Cristian Javier threw the bulk of a no-hitter in the World Series last year. This year, he will start the Game 7 that Houston needs to have a chance to win back-to-back championships; he has been throwing the ball effectively in recent weeks, gaining command of his fastball.

Scherzer is coming off a rough start in Game 3, when he allowed five runs in four innings. His fastball had life in that game, reaching 95 mph, and Scherzer had a good curveball. But his slider, a pitch that has long been his go-to selection to finish off hitters when he’s ahead in the count, betrayed him in that start. Rangers manager Bruce Bochy said after Game 6 that Scherzer has felt good in his side session and is hopeful that the slider will be better.

“I think he’ll be well-prepared and learn from last time,” Semien said of Scherzer. “That lineup was attacking him. I’m sure his arm gets better and better as time goes on. I’m excited to see how he bounces back.”

Scherzer joined the Rangers’ postgame celebration on Sunday briefly before escaping the clubhouse without speaking with reporters. Texas officials announced that Garcia would not be available.

The Houston pitching options in Game 7 could be complicated by the looming enforcement of a two-game suspension for reliever Bryan Abreu, who is an important setup man for Astros manager Dusty Baker. Abreu was suspended for hitting Garcia with a pitch in Game 5. About an hour before Game 6, Abreu appealed that suspension, and the case will be heard on Monday, presumably before the start of the night game. It’s possible that if Abreu loses his appeal — or even if the suspension is reduced to one game — he will not be available for Baker.

“That could be a huge blow,” Baker said. “I thought about using him two innings today, had the decision been made. But you’d hate to have the fine and the suspension go past tomorrow, and then I wouldn’t have had Abreu tomorrow, had he gone two innings.

“So you wish you had a decision. You wish you had some final decision about his status. So we took a shot there. Hopefully, some of this will be postponed and we’ll have him tomorrow, as well.”

Texas’ bullpen options, on the other hand, could be enhanced. Jordan Montgomery, the Rangers’ reliable left-hander, will be available, according to sources, and a barrage of ninth-inning runs reduced the workload of Texas closer Jose Leclerc in Game 6.

With Texas leading 3-2 in the seventh inning, Bochy relieved Eovaldi.

“The makeup of this man, it’s amazing,” Bochy said of his starter. “He wants to be out there in a game like this. He has great stuff, four pitches. He’s got really good focus, maniacal focus on every pitch.”

Texas added a run in the top of the eighth, and with the Rangers protecting a 4-2 lead in the bottom half of that same inning, Leclerc was summoned for a possible five-out save, and he snuffed out the rally by striking out Jon Singleton with the bases loaded.

In the top of the ninth inning, however, the Rangers piled on five more runs, with Garcia — who was booed all night by Houston fans after his role in the bench-clearing incident in Game 5 and struck out in his first four plate appearances on Sunday — burying the Astros with a grand slam.

When Garcia’s ball landed to stretch the Rangers lead to 9-2, Bochy suddenly had the flexibility to remove Leclerc, after just 16 pitches. Andrew Heaney took over and got three outs on four pitches to the dispirited Astros, who continue to struggle at home.

If Houston prevails in Game 7, the Astros will be the first team in history to reach the World Series after having lost more than half of their home games. If Texas wins, the Rangers will make their first appearance in baseball’s championship round since 2011.

“It’s been entertaining with me,” Bochy said of the series. “It’s intense. There’s no getting around it. People ask you, ‘Are you having fun?’ Yeah, it’s fun, you try to enjoy it, but it’s intense out there. That’s what I came back for, to be in this situation. It’s exciting.”

As Garver explained, “I said it in August, it’s going to be a dogfight all the way to the end. Really, really good ball club on both sides. They have pitching. They have hitting. But so do we. It’s one game to settle it all, and I think everyone is excited for that.”

Corey Seager has played in Game 7s before, with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and he didn’t hesitate when asked what he would tell his young teammates about playing in a Game 7. “That they’re a lot of fun,” he said. “They are. That’s what you want. One game to decide who’s going to win.”

Who’s going to win, who will lose, who will be home Tuesday wondering about what might’ve been.

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