The Texas Rangers entered the postseason with question marks up and down their pitching staff. A couple weeks later, that pitching staff now has them three wins away from their first World Series since 2011. Jordan Montgomery was sensational again and the back-end of the once-shaky Rangers bullpen handled the rest as Texas made two early runs stand up in an impressive 2-0 win over the rival Astros in Game 1 of the ALCS on Sunday night.
In the lead-up to this series, most of the attention was paid to 1) the health of Max Scherzer (the righty made it onto the Rangers’ roster, though his ultimate role remains to be seen) and 2) all the top-to-bottom offensive talent on both sides — from Jose Altuve to Yordan Alvarez to Corey Seager to Evan Carter and much, much more. So naturally, Game 1 turned into a pitchers duel, with Montgomery and Astros starter Justin Verlander going toe-to-toe.
It was Verlander who blinked first. Carter — who’s turning into a superstar before our eyes this month, at the plate and in the field — legged out a hustle double to right with one out in the top of the second, then came around to score on an RBI single from catcher Jonah Heim.
Verlander was hardly dominant; he generated just seven swinging strikes over 101 pitches, as Texas refused to expand the strike zone and put solid contact on just about everything in the strike zone. But the future Hall of Famer simply knows how to stay alive, especially this time of year, and that’s exactly what he did — navigating 6.2 innings and giving up just two runs on six hits and two walks. The only other run he’d allow came in the fifth inning via Leody Taveras, who took a hanging slider and parked it into the right-field seats.
Unfortunately for Verlander and the Astros, that was more than Montgomery would need. The lefty held Texas’ beleaguered rotation together down the stretch of the regular season, and he delivered his second gem in three tries so far in October — this time against as star-studded and seasoned a lineup as there is, on the road, in his Championship Series debut. Houston will always go as the top of its order goes, but Montgomery was more than equal to that task on Sunday night, holding the first five of Altuve, Alex Bregman, Jose Abreu, Alvarez and Kyle Tucker to just 2-for-19 with a walk and five strikeouts. He was particularly masterful against Alvarez; the lefty terrorized every pitcher the Twins threw at him in the ALCS, but he was flailing against Montgomery, with a trio of Ks all against his curveball.
Got him again with the curveball!— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 16, 2023
Jordan Montgomery strikes out Yordan Alvarez for the third time tonight!
: FOX pic.twitter.com/H9iPoBmpnB
Montgomery only faced one real jam all night, as the bottom of Houston’s order tallied three straight hits to load the bases with two outs in the fifth. He made pitches when he needed to, though, blowing a fastball by catcher Martin Maldonado — with Altuve on deck — to end the threat.
From there, he put it on cruise control, retiring the last seven batters he faced before giving way to Josh Sborz after 6.1 innings of shutout ball. Ordinarily, the prospect of Texas’ bullpen having to protect a two-run lead over eight outs, in that ballpark, against that lineup, would be terror-inducing. But these are the October Rangers, and the October Rangers — particularly the late-inning trio of Sborz, Aroldis Chapman and new closer Jose Leclerc — have been absolutely nails.
Things did get very briefly hairy, though. Sborz got out of the seventh with ease, but he walked Altuve to lead off the eighth, prompting Bochy to call on Chapman for the heart of Houston’s order. First up was Alex Bregman, who momentarily seemed to have tied the game with a dramatic homer ... only to come up just short thanks to a leaping catch from Carter.
MY GOODNESS, EVAN CARTER.— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 16, 2023
: FOX pic.twitter.com/o3iLugQe1v
As if that wasn’t enough of a gut-punch, though, things got worse: Upon review, it turned out that Altuve — who’d rounded second base in order to try and score should the ball fall in for a hit — hadn’t touched second again on his way back to first. What initially looked like a tie game turned into a double play, short-circuiting any potential rally and putting the game in the hands of Houston’s far less fearsome bottom of the lineup. Jose Leclerc had no problems slamming the door in the ninth:
Of course, this is far from this Houston core’s first rodeo. They’ve been here before — seven years in a row, in fact — and they’ve faced adversity plenty of times. Dusty Baker’s crew won’t sweat dropping Game 1 or losing home-field advantage; the Astros have won on every field imaginable, and they’ve more than earned the benefit of the doubt. Still, this win is hugely validating for Texas: We know the Rangers lineup is going to be tough, but the fact that the leap their pitching made over the last two weeks appears to have carried over to the ALCS appears to answer one of the biggest questions we had about this series. Now the Rangers have another red-hot starter on the mound in Nathan Eovaldi, with a chance to take control of this best-of-seven. First pitch from Minute Maid Park is set for 4:37 p.m. ET on Monday afternoon.