HOUSTON — It was June 23 and the Texas Rangers held a 6 1/2-game lead in the American League West over the Houston Astros, a cushion that almost seemed insurmountable, given how the teams were performing at the time.
There was little reason to predict the frantic chase for the division title that would follow over the final three-plus months of the regular season. It was a pursuit that concluded with the Astros claiming the AL West crown on the final Sunday of the season.
Houston won nine of 13 games in the Lone Star Series, and after the Astros completed their rundown of the Rangers, there was this suspicion that their collective story wasn’t quite finished.
On Sunday, the Astros will host the Rangers in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series in what will mark the first postseason matchup between the in-state rivals. The Astros’ closing surge yielded homefield advantage in the ALCS, but any advantage they might claim has largely been rendered moot by the Rangers’ postseason run.
Texas has won five consecutive games to open this postseason, matching the longest such streak in franchise history. The Rangers offer a winning blend of things tangible and intangible, from an intimidating lineup, quality starting pitching and an aura of toughness and tenacity.
“I’d say gritty,” Texas manager Bruce Bochy said when asked for an adjective to describe his team. “I mean, we’ve had our ups and downs. But, you know, they keep fighting. They keep grinding through the ups and downs that we have had all season.
“That’s what I feel good about this team. There’s no quit in them. You saw how our season went. Got off to a great start, and we had to battle at the end, which they did and they found a way. Had to go to Tampa and Baltimore to get to this point.”
The offense, led by shortstop Corey Seager but undergirded by the contributions of Marcus Semien, Adolis Garcia and Evan Carter, has been at the forefront all season. The pitching has taken a step forward this postseason, with left-hander Jordan Montgomery — the scheduled starter on Sunday — going 1-0 with a 3.27 ERA against the Rays and Orioles.
Montgomery, 4-2 with a 2.79 ERA in 11 starts with Texas this season, is 1-1 with a 3.73 ERA over six career starts against the Astros. His start on Sunday will be his first career postseason start against Houston.
“I’m excited for the opportunity,” Montgomery said. “I mean, it’s a big game, big series. And I’m excited to go out there and kind of do my best for the team.”
The Astros extended their AL-record run of consecutive ALCS appearances to seven with a 3-1 series win over the Minnesota Twins in the AL Division Series.
Their current nine-year run of excellence has been described as the ‘golden age’ in franchise annals, and Houston continues to thrive in the postseason despite elevated and often outsized expectations. Winning is the norm.
“The season you have 162 (games) to make a lot of adjustments, versus now you have to win today and the next day,” Astros second baseman Jose Altuve said in framing that postseason success. “And just almost like no tomorrow. So I think the whole team focuses on winning, focusing on keeping advancing and get to the World Series.”
Right-hander Justin Verlander (1-0) is scheduled to start for Houston on Sunday. He tossed six shutout innings at the Twins in Game 1 of the ALDS. Verlander is 17-11 with a 3.54 ERA in 36 career postseason appearances (35 starts).