Death, taxes and the Houston Astros. It seemed like the Texas Rangers — or, heck, even the Seattle Mariners — were poised to finally unseat Houston atop the AL West, as the Astros lost series against the likes of the Royals and A’s in recent weeks and entered the final week of the 2023 season trailing Texas by 2.5 games.
And yet, here we are once again. Houston snatched its sixth division title in the last seven years on the season’s final day, routing the D-backs 8-0 while the Rangers stumbled to a 1-0 loss against a Mariners team that had been eliminated from playoff contention less than 24 hours prior.
Those results pulled Houston into a tie with the Rangers at 90-72, and since the Astros won the season series over Texas, the West crown will once again reside in H-town. It’s hard to overstate the significance of that shift as it pertains to the playoff picture: Houston now gets the second seed in the AL playoffs, and a bye into the Divisional Round. The Rangers, meanwhile, tumble all the way to the fifth spot, and now they have to travel to Tampa Bay for a best-of-three Wild Card series against the 99-63 Rays.
The Astros have hardly looked like the reigning world champs for much of the second half, as Justin Verlander got off to a slow start in his second go-round with Houston and Cristian Javier, Hunter Brown and JP France all struggled in the rotation. But Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker are the cure for a great many ills, and Verlander and Javier managed to right the ship at just the right time — Javier shoved for six shutout innings while the bats erupted for five runs in the first two innings.
Even when the ‘Stros were scuffling, it felt like a Halloween movie, where no one really believes Mike Myers is dead until you see the body go up in flames — this is just a veteran team that knows how to win, and until the final out is recorded, underestimate them at your own risk.
For Texas, meanwhile, it’s another down note in what’s been a rather bumpy second half. The Rangers set the Majors on fire with a record-setting offense, then got ultra-aggressive in acquiring Max Scherzer and Jordan Montgomery at the trade deadline. But Scherzer (and Jacob deGrom) are now out for the year, Nathan Eovaldi still doesn’t look right after returning from a forearm strain and now Dane Dunning, Andrew Heaney and Martin Perez will likely have to throw some meaningful postseason innings. The offense that papered over those pitching questions has gone cold recently, getting shut out by George Kirby in Sunday’s loss.
George Kirby, Disgusting 73mph Knuckleball.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 1, 2023
That movement. pic.twitter.com/qzFXWoDUjw
Texas still has World Series upside — the heart of their order can still go toe-to-toe with anyone, and they won four of six against Tampa this year — but it won’t be an easy road to the franchise’s first AL pennant since 2011.