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The unexpected A.L. Champions

I’ve seen it, but I’m still having a hard time believing it

Championship Series - Texas Rangers v Houston Astros - Game Seven Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

It is the morning after the night the Texas Rangers won the 2023 American League pennant, and it still doesn’t seem quite real.

This team? This is the team that swept the Tampa Bay Rays, swept the Baltimore Orioles, then won two elimination games in a row on the road to knock off the hated Houston Astros to advance to the World Series?

I am still having a hard time wrapping my head around it. I mean, this club was dominant early in the year — 40-20 to start the year and all that — but it also rolled into the playoffs with two starting pitchers and a house of horrors bullpen, as well as an offense with a troubling tendency to go quiet at inopportune times.

The rotation had lost Jacob deGrom early in the year, but the front office responded by acquiring two — count ‘em, two — starting pitchers at the trade deadline, in Max Scherzer and Jordan Montgomery. When the Rangers were reeling off wins early in August, you could imagine that this team could do damage in October, with a stacked rotation featuring Scherzer, Montgomery, Nathan Eovaldi and Jon Gray.

But that was before reality rudely intruded. Before Scherzer tore a muscle in early September that had him proclaimed out for the season. Before Jon Gray landed on the injured list during the final series of the season due to forearm soreness. Before Nathan Eovaldi put up a 9.30 ERA (but with just a 7.88 FIP!) in six starts in September after being activated from the injured list.

Before the two relievers that the Rangers acquired via trade this summer, Aroldis Chapman and Chris Stratton, fell out of the Tree of Trust. Before Will Smith turned into a pumpkin. Before the closest thing to a reliable reliever the Rangers had was Jose Leclerc — the same guy derided by fans throughout the summer as a head case, a choker, someone who couldn’t handle the pressure and shouldn’t be near the mound in a key situation, someone who the Rangers should probably just DFA because Bruce Bochy would never, should never, rely on him.

Before broken bones landed Josh Jung and Jonah Heim on the injured list. Before a leap in a futile effort to try to catch a Michael Brantley home run put Adolis Garcia on the injured list with what we feared was a torn ACL. Before the the Ezequiel Duran/Travis Jankowski platoon that was so productive early on fell apart.

Before the offense took a powder in Seattle. Before the Rangers blew a big lead in the A.L. West, then took back the lead in the A.L. West, then gave it back up in the last week, highlighted by a flat, depressing, 1-0 loss in the final game of the season.

Early in the season, you could see this Rangers team being a serious threat to make the World Series. By the end of September, though? Come on. Even if the offense woke up and scored runs, the pitching staff was in shambles. This was a team commonly viewed as a speed bump for some other team’s playoff run.

And why not? I mean, look at the roster of this club. Yes, there is the half-billion dollar middle infield that anchors the lineup. But after that?

Adolis Garcia, twice DFA’d, acquired by the Rangers from the St. Louis Cardinals for cash considerations.

Nathaniel Lowe, the guy shipped out by the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for three minor leaguers because the Rays believed they had better options to play first base.

Jonah Heim, former Player To Be Named Later, thrice traded, acquired by the Rangers from the Oakland A’s, the A’s parting with Heim, essentially, so they’d have to pay less of Elvis Andrus’s salary.

Leody Taveras — “former top prospect,” as the national broadcast mentioned at least once every game, a guy who most Rangers fans had written off prior to this year and were ready to cut ties with.

Josh Jung, viewed as a reach at #9 overall in the 2019 MLB Draft because of questions about his power and glove.

Mitch Garver, the catcher who couldn’t stay healthy, shuffled out of Minnesota for Isiah Kiner-Falefa.

Evan Carter, the former second round pick whose selection by the Rangers was mocked and laughed at in 2020, someone who spent most of the year at AA, who only got a shot in September because of Garcia’s injury.

And that’s without getting into the pitching staff, led by Jordan Montgomery, the pitcher traded by the New York Yankees in the middle of the 2022 season because he wasn’t good enough to be in a playoff rotation.

This was a team that gave ample reason to not believe, to jump ship. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen folks, on here, on Twitter, write this team off, pronounce them dead, dismiss their chances. It was a team that was going to fade, would collapse, and even if they snuck into the playoffs they wouldn’t do anything, not with that broken down rotation and dumpster fire of a bullpen.

That’s one of the things that makes this team so different from the 2010 and 2011 teams. In 2010, the Rangers jumped out to a big lead early, maintained that lead throughout the summer, and went out and got a legitimate #1 starter, one of the five or so best pitchers in the world at that time, at the deadline. No one was writing them off. The 2011 team was a machine, a team that built on the success of the previous year, that chewed up and spit out opponents, that by October seemed to be expected to make the World Series.

The 2023 team hasn’t been like that — at least, not since Jacob deGrom went down, and the dream of having that dominant Cliff Lee-esque Game 1 starter in October died. The 2023 has consistently rope-a-doped us, getting our hopes up, then struggling, suffering injuries and bad performances, giving folks reasons to jump ship. After that last Sunday in Seattle, after that final kick in the nards that was the 1-0 loss to the M’s, anyone who said they thought the Rangers would be a World Series team would have been thought to have a screw loose.

There is a word that has come up throughout the season, time and again, when talking about this team — resilient. Bruce Bochy has talked about it, the players have talked about it, the folks covering the team have talked about it — every time we are ready to count them out, they get things going again. These are the Chumbawumba Rangers — throughout the season, they’ve been knocked down, but they get up again. You’re never going to keep them down.

We saw that all season long. We saw the Rangers get knocked down in Seattle, get up again, fly cross country to Tampa, and kick in the teeth of the best team in the American League. They then flew to Baltimore, took two from the team with the best record in the American League, then finally, after the marathon road journey, came home to finish them off in Arlington.

Then the ALCS. Up 2-0, in position to finish off the hated Houston Astros at home, things go south. Game 3 and Game 4 saw the Astros beat up on the Rangers weaker pitchers. The offense, largely quiet in the first two games in Houston despite winning both games, underwhelmed, one of those mysterious patches that we’ve seen the team hit when suddenly they can’t hit fastballs.

Then Game 5. Jordan Montgomery pitching his ass off, as he’s done since coming to Texas. Adolis Garcia’s big home run to give the Rangers the lead. The hit by pitch, the brouhaha, the ejections. Jose Leclerc — pitching with his mother in the stands for the first time in his career! — comes back out for the ninth after sitting a long time, allows a single, walks Jonathan Singleton, of all people, then sees Jose Altuve take him deep.

It seemed to be a season defining blow. The Rangers bullpen blowing up at the worst possible time. The Rangers getting the tying and winning runs on base in the bottom of the ninth, only to see Seager and Semean crush balls that found gloves. Leclerc, whose redemption arc had been one of the most joyous storylines of the late and postseason, giving up the Altuve kill shot.

The season seemed over. We had given up. Yes, the Rangers weren’t eliminated, but they had lost a gut punch game in devastating fashion, and would have to win two games in Houston against an experienced, playoff-hardened Astros team that had all the momentum. Yes, Nathan Eovaldi would pitch Game 6, and he’s Nathan Eovaldi, but the bats had been somnolent for most of the ALCS, and even if Texas pulled out Game 6, there was Game 7. Broken Max Scherzer, who got rocked in Game 3, slated to start, hopefully giving you three or four innings, going up against Cristian Javier, the guy who started a no hitter last year, the guy with a postseason resume arguably even more impressive than Eovaldi.

Think back to early Sunday evening. Think back to the bottom of the first of Game 6. Altuve single, a stolen base, a walk. A deep shot by Alex Bregman that was scary. A single by Yordan Alvarez.

It was 1-0 Astros with one out in the first, the Juice Box was rocking, the Rangers looked dead. It was over. Twitter and LSB and anywhere else there were Rangers fans were full of sadness and recriminations and accusations that the team had given up.

But there’s that word again — resilient. The Chumbawumba Rangers were resilient. Eovaldi got out of the inning. Mitch Garver led off the second inning with a homer — a sign of life. A reason to believe again.

We know how things went from there. Jonah Heim homered, just barely, on a ball that we all thought Kyle Tucker had leapt over the fence and caught until we saw he didn’t. Eovaldi kept it together. Mitch Garver gave the Rangers an insurance run. Jose Leclerc, on the heels of the ninth inning blown save in Game 5, brought into a two on, one out situation in the eighth, walked Kyle Tucker to make us all freak out again, got Mauricio Dubon on a soft liner to shortstop, then battled Jonathan Singleton in an eight pitch at bat to end the inning, setting the stage for Adolis’s grand slam in the ninth, the defining moment of the series.

When Corey Seager homered in the top of the first inning on Monday off of Cristian Javier, I knew. I felt it then. This Texas Rangers team was going to the World Series. The final two games of the ALCS featured the early season Texas Rangers, the team that put up crooked numbers and boat raced teams and yeah, sometimes the pitching would make things a little more exciting than they needed to be, but that just adds to the fun.

Max Scherzer kept the wheels from flying off while getting eight outs. Jordan Montgomery came out of the pen and got seven more, and by the time he left the game it was a blowout. Given the final score, Montgomery’s performance might get overlooked, but his coming in and stabilizing things and giving the Rangers a bridge through the middle innings was huge. His shutting down the Astros gave the Rangers breathing room, kept Houston from being able to get back into things until it was too late.

Adolis Garcia went four for five in Game 7, with a pair of home runs, sealing his claim to the ALCS MVP Award. He was the dominant factor in this series, setting a record for most RBIs in a postseason series. The bombs — the grand slam in particular — will be playing on highlights for years to come.

But to me, what sticks in my mind isn’t the homers. It is the first inning line drive off the left field wall in Game 7, after Evan Carter had walked and then stolen second. Garcia stood at the plate watching, obviously thinking the ball was gone, and thus ended up with just a single rather than a double.

We were all ecstatic over the RBI hit, but also thinking, dammit, Adolis, you should be at second base. And moments later, Adolis steals second base off of Javier. It was just so damn...disrespectful. To say, yeah, I can pimp my single off the wall, and it doesn’t matter because I’ll just steal second anyway, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Texas won Game 7, 11-4, and it didn’t seem as close as the score indicates.

And here we are, with the Texas Rangers back in the World Series. “For the first time since 2011,” we have heard time and again, and yet, as a Rangers fan who waited almost 40 years to see the Rangers actually win a playoff series, 2011 doesn’t seem that long ago. This is three World Series appearances in 14 years, which, you know, seems like a lot. In the past fourteen years, along with the three appearances by the Rangers, the Houston Astros have gone to the World Series four times, the Kansas City Royals twice, the Boston Red Sox twice, and the Detroit Tigers, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cleveland Indians once apiece.

The Rangers have been to the World Series now three times since the New York Yankees were last there, since the Anaheim Angels were last there, since the A’s and the Blue Jays and the Orioles and the White Sox were last there. The Rangers have been three times in the last fourteen years, and the hated Seattle Mariners have never been there.

That’s pretty amazing.

Its a fun time to be a Texas Rangers fan.