The Atlanta Braves-Philadelphia Phillies series was excellent. It had drama, revenge, heroics, and a lunatic home crowd at Citizens Bank Park.
However, it was lopsided.
The Battle of Texas that awaits us in the American League Championship Series, which begins Sunday at Minute Maid Park in Houston, will be better. In fact, it’ll be the best series you watch during the entire MLB playoffs.
The storylines attached to this best-of-seven are incredibly intriguing. These teams have never met in the post-season and now that they will, baseball fans are going to be spoiled.
Let’s take a closer look.
Under the watchful eyes…
If you’re a Toronto Blue Jays fan, chances are you have been bombarded by the discourse surrounding the manager of a baseball team and his role and responsibility in the modern era. Thankfully, this ALCS will give you a reprieve of that in the biggest way.
Astros bench boss Dusty Baker and Rangers skipper Bruce Bochy are probably the two most grizzled, old-school managers in the game. They’re the only two active skippers with over 2,000 wins each. (Baker sits seventh on the all-time list with 2,183 victories, while Bochy is 10th with 2,093).
Yet, despite the experience, the future Hall-of-Famers are no luddites. They incorporate analytics in their decision-making and blend it with a deep level of feel that’s been honed by their respective lifetimes in the game.
Baker, 74, and Bochy, 68, are maestros who know how to push the right buttons to get the most out of players. It’s going to be a joy witnessing their deft touch and watching how it manifests over the course of the next week.
The Aces meet again?
When the two right-handers faced off on Sept. 6 at Globe Life Field, it was surprisingly the first time they’d ever toed the rubber against each other. That was amazing considering Verlander has been a fixture in the majors since 2006 and Scherzer since ’08.
They were former teammates on the Detroit Tigers and reunited again with the New York Mets this season, before the tire fire in Queens led to them being dealt to the two Texas clubs. Adding another to the drama are the rumours that they were never close as teammates.
Oh, and Scherzer got smacked around in that start versus Verlander in September, allowing seven runs in three innings.
Scherzer hasn’t pitched since being removed from his Sept. 12 start against the Blue Jays with what turned out to be a strained teres major muscle in his right shoulder. However, he reportedly planned to throw a simulated game on Wednesday and has expressed optimism about being able to return for the championship series.
Regardless of his possible pitch count, that is simply crazy, considering his injury typically takes eight to 12 weeks for recovery. Mad Max has good measure of crazy in him, though. Like the time he returned from neck spasms to start Game 7 of the 2019 World Series for the Washington Nationals. The opponent then, of course, was the Astros, who lost 6-2 as Scherzer captured his only championship ring.
Verlander, meanwhile, has been healthy and humming along, allowing just one run over his past three starts, which includes six scoreless frames in a Game 1 ALDS win over the Minnesota Twins.
Should these two collide in the championship series, it will be appointment viewing.
The bully meets its match?
You should be familiar with the tenets of this Astros offence by now. After all, the club is heading to its seventh straight ALCS.
The 2023 iteration is much of the same. During the regular season, only two teams struck out less and only six hit more homers.
The offence looked even scarier at times during the ALDS with the seeming invincibility of Yordan Álvarez and the awakening of slugger Jose Abreu, who struggled for most of the season.
As good as they are, though, these Rangers led the AL in nearly every offensive category during the regular season and are used to outslugging the competition. Texas plated 32 runs in its five playoff games (6.4 per game average) and, in the process, put to rest any concerns about the way the group ended September.
The Rangers lineup is deep and scary. If Marcus Semien doesn’t get you, Corey Seager can. If not him, then Adolis Garcia or Nathaniel Lowe. This offence tied for the third-most home runs in MLB (233) and while the Astros are used to bullying teams offensively, they could meet their match here.
The stakes are more than you think
What’s at stake here for the Rangers is the opportunity to cement themselves as the New Sheriff in the AL West.
Forgive us for the use of that cliché, but it’s the truth. The Rangers sat atop the division for most of the season before slipping at the end while the Astros snuck in and stole the crown on the final weekend of the regular season.
That’s significant because, in the end, the Astros were able to return a normal equilibrium to the division. They’ve finished No. 1 in six of the past seven years, with the only exception being the shortened 2020 COVID campaign, in which they were second to the Oakland Athletics.
The Rangers, though, are not going to simply disappear after 2023. A strong nucleus is in place and ownership, as well as the front office, has proven it’s determined to invest in order to win.
So, from a symbolic standpoint, a Rangers win in the ALCS represents something deeper than just securing a trip to the World Series. It’s something tangible the club can point to as a real moment where there was… hold on for another cliché… a changing of the guard in the AL West and Lonestar State.