Nearly three weeks into October, it was hard to escape the feeling that this postseason had yet to really deliver on the drama. All four Wild Card series ended in sweeps. Three of the four top seeds in both leagues went down in the Divisional round, but while the Braves at least gave us a memorable comeback win on their way out, the Orioles and Dodgers lost three anonymous games. Where were our walk-offs? Our controversial calls? The instantly iconic moments destined to be replayed in perpetuity?
They were just waiting for Friday night, as it turns out, when the Astros and Rangers played not just the game of this postseason but one of the best games in recent playoff history. Game 5 of the ALCS had it all: in-state rivals clearly sick of each other midway through a long series; two red-hot pitchers going zero for zero; a dramatic go-ahead homer punctuated by an even more dramatic bat spike; a benches-clearing brawl in part inspired by said bat spike; and then, at the very end, the latest in a long line of incredible October moments from Jose Altuve. This time it was a three-run homer off Jose Leclerc — nails all postseason as Texas’ closer — to turn a 4-2 deficit into a 5-4 win and a 3-2 series lead headed back to Houston.
As Yainer Diaz’s single and Jon Singleton’s walk conspired to bring Altuve to the plate as the go-ahead run, that lightning bolt began to feel inevitable — this is Altuve we’re talking about, and this is simply what Altuve does in October. The long ball was his second in as many days and his whopping 26th career in the playoffs, just three back of Manny Ramirez for the all-time lead. Even more importantly for Houston, it turned what would’ve felt like a very perilous 3-2 hole — with the red-hot Nathan Eovaldi looking to close things out for Texas in Game 6 — into a 3-2 edge that guarantees at worst a Game 7, with the Rangers likely forced to run out Max Scherzer again after his dismal outing in Game 3.
It also put an exclamation point on a game that had almost too many twists and turns to count. With Verlander and Montgomery taking the mound again after combining for a 2-0 final in Game 1, we knew we were in for something of a pitcher’s duel. And that was exactly what we got — even if things didn’t start out that way. Instead, Alex Bregman jumped Montgomery in the first, hitting a solo homer to give Houston an early 1-0 lead.
Most HRs in Astros playoff history:— Brian McTaggart (@brianmctaggart) October 20, 2023
Alvarez 12 pic.twitter.com/cVINvfI3Sm
From there, though, Montgomery settled in, retiring 10 in a row between the end of the first and the beginning of the fifth. Verlander, meanwhile, was dealing on the other side. Whereas Texas made him work for his 6.2 innings of two-run ball on Sunday, the righty was cruising early, using a riding fastball to produce a seemingly endless string of flyouts and popups that could most accurately be described as “lazy”. After Montgomery escaped a jam in the top half of the fifth, Verlander finally made a mistake in the bottom half, giving up a game-tying, opposite-field homer to Nathaniel Lowe.
NATHANIEL LOWE TIES IT— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 20, 2023
: FS1 pic.twitter.com/iDXESVu2HF
The game reset, things went to the sixth — at which point a fun, tight game began going completely off the rails and into baseball history. The Astros finally started getting a bead on Montgomery, with a walk from Alex Bregman, a single from Yordan Alvarez and another hit from Jose Abreu — who’d had two awful strikeouts against the lefty up to that point — chasing Texas’ starter producing the go-ahead run for Houston. A Globe Life Park crowd that had been on edge all night seemed to audibly deflate, resigned to yet another Houston rally and inevitable win.
But the home team had other ideas. Seager pounced on one of very few pitches left over the heart of the plate by Verlander, lining it into the right-field corner for a double. Evan Carter followed with a sharp single to left, bringing Adolis Garcia to the plate. Verlander had worked Garcia all night, throwing fastballs up in his eyes that the big-swinging outfielder consistently offered at but could never quite reach. This time, Verlander blinked: His fastball rode horizontally instead of vertically, staying low enough for Garcia to muscle one to deep left-center. The ball seemed to hang in the air forever, and when it landed, the Rangers had an improbable 4-2 lead.
Garcia — understandably, considering he’d just hit the biggest homer of his entire life — took a long look at his work, then spiked his bat after the ball sailed over the wall. Remember that celebration, we’ll be coming back to it.
In the meantime, Texas’ bullpen held firm. Sborz sailed through the seventh, then Chapman got the first two outs of the eighth. He couldn’t put away Kyle Tucker, though, giving up a double — and prompting Bochy to turn to Leclerc one out early, just as he had in Game 2. Leclerc did the first job, getting Michael Brantley to pop up to end the threat.
And then things got even wilder in the bottom half. Garcia came back up to bat in the bottom half and was immediately greeted by a 100-mph fastball from Houston reliever Bryan Abreu. As you might imagine, Garcia felt like that might not have been fully an accident, and he turned around and let catcher Martin Maldonado know about it. In a matter of seconds, the benches had cleared:
Benches have cleared in Arlington. pic.twitter.com/F1abofICpX— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 20, 2023
Cooler heads ultimately prevailed to avoid a full-on donnybrook, but when the dust settled, Abreu, Garcia and manager Dusty Baker — irate at the decision to toss his pitcher — had all been ejected. Houston would escape, though, stranding runners on the corners and staying within striking distance heading into the ninth.
In addition to three ejections and some near-fisticuffs, the eighth-inning brawl also took forever to resolve. There was a ton of standing around as the players were separated and the umpires deliberated — time in which Leclerc, not normally used to up-downs as a reliever, spent just sitting in the Rangers dugout. Maybe that had no effect on him; there’s no way to know for sure. All we do know, however, is that he came unglued in the top of the ninth, giving up a single to Yainer Diaz before walking pinch-hitter Jon Singleton — in his first postseason at-bat — to bring up Altuve as the winning run. From there, you already know what happened.
The Rangers do still have Eovaldi up for Game 6, and they know how to win at Minute Maid Park. It’s hard to see how Texas comes back from this blow, though. Emotionally recovering in time to stave off elimination once will be hard enough, but even if they manage that, they’ll have to survive Game 7 — with Cristian Javier up against a major question mark in Scherzer. Anything goes in October, but the Astros seem to have figured out how to tame the baseball gods over the past few years, just like they did on Friday night.