It’s one of the oldest adages in baseball, that your momentum is only as good as the next day’s starting pitcher. The Texas Rangers had all the momentum in the world just 48 hours ago, fresh off taking the first two games of the ALCS against the rival Astros in Houston. But that major statement at Minute Maid Park masked an inconvenient truth: that there are more than two games in a seven-game series, and it was still very much unclear whether the Rangers had anyone behind Jordan Montgomery and Nathan Eovaldi to fill them.
Texas has found out over the last two nights that the answer is “no, not really”. First, the Astros jumped all over Max Scherzer, spoiling his heroic return from injury. Then, in Game 4 on Thursday night, they did themselves one better, scoring three runs within Andrew Heaney’s first 10 pitches and pouring it on late for a 10-3 blowout victory that resets this series at two games apiece. All of a sudden it’s the Rangers facing the existential questions, while Houston looks like the defending champs again.
We knew that Texas’ lack of starting pitching depth was a major question. They just hadn’t had to answer it yet, given how short their series against the Rays and Orioles wound up being (and all the extra days off those two sweeps afforded them). That schedule meant that Montgomery and Eovaldi could start a whopping six of the team’s first seven games in October — which, in turn, allowed the Rangers to hide the iffy underbelly of their bullpen, given Montgomery and Eovaldi’s ability to churn out at least six innings consistently.
Removing those two from the equation, however, was Texas’ first real stress test, one that they cracked under the weight of in Games 3 and 4. Scherzer looked as rusty as you’d expect from a pitcher who hadn’t seen game action in over a month. Heaney, on the other hand, looked ... well, like you’d expect a pitcher with a 4.15 ERA on the year to look, especially against an Astros lineup that’s increasingly locked in after a rough start to this series. Houston clearly set out to be aggressive on Thursday night, and aggressive they were: Jose Altuve doubled to begin the game, Mauricio Dubon singled to put runners on the corners and Alex Bregman scored them both on a triple into the right-center gap.
Yordan Alvarez followed by lining the first pitch he saw into center, and just like that, the ‘Stros had a 3-0 lead before an out had even been recorded. Two outs and a walk later, and Heaney’s night was done, Bruce Bochy’s best-laid pitching plans up in smoke already.
To the Rangers’ credit, however, they didn’t cave despite the brutal start. First it was Adolis Garcia, taking Jose Urquidy deep to left to get Texas on the board:
A Josh Jung sac fly later in the inning cut the deficit to one, and in the third, Corey Seager tied it back up with an opposite-field homer.
In the end, though, asking their bullpen to pick up 25 outs was simply too much to ask — too many chances for this loaded Houston lineup against low-leverage relievers. Just as they did in Game 3, the Astros answered every sign of life from the Rangers with another bang, and again it came from the resurgent top of the order. Houston began the top of the fourth with two walks — Texas’ inability to get the light-hitting Martin Maldonado out has come back to really bite them a couple of times over the past two games — and a single, loading the bases with no one out and Bregman due up. Dane Dunning got a badly-needed strikeout, then induced a sac fly from Yordan Alvarez to get just one out away from escaping further trouble.. Sure, the Astros were back in the lead; given where this half-inning started, though, one run wouldn’t seem so bad.
And then, as he has several times in this postseason, Jose Abreu got a hold of one:
That monster three-run shot broke things open and took the air out of Globe Life Park for good. Ryne Stanek, Hunter Brown, Phil Maton and Rafael Montero combined for 6.2 scoreless innings of relief of Urquidy, and Houston put it on cruise control for the remainder of the game. The only question left to answer was what exactly the final score would be, with a Chas McCormick homer and another RBI knock from Alvarez — who finished 2-for-4 with three RBI on the night, his fifth multi-hit effort of the postseason already — stretching it to 10-3.
The Astros clearly heard all the noise over the off day after Game 2, and saw fit to remind everyone of who exactly the reigning world champion is here. This core has answered the ball when they needed to in October time and again for years now, raising their level when their backs are to the wall. For those keeping score at home, Houston’s tally over Games 3 and 4 stands at 18 runs, 23 hits and three homers, with Altuve, Bregman and Abreu coming alive after slow starts to this series. Now the Astros will get to carry that offensive momentum as they flip the rotation over and give the ball to postseason stalwart Justin Verlander in Game 5 on Friday evening (first pitch at 5:07 p.m. ET).
Of course, Texas flips their rotation over as well, and if the old adage holds true, that gives them quite a bit of momentum when they desperately need it. Given what we’ve seen of the rest of this pitching staff so far, though, it feels like the Rangers’ margin for error in games started by Montgomery and Eovaldi is basically nil — those two are going to have to carry the team if they hope to make it to the World Series, barring a miraculous turnaround from Scherzer as he knocks the rust off.