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Nathan Eovaldi does it again as Rangers survive nail-biter to force Game 7

Just like the first two games at Minute Maid Park, Texas got great starting pitching and just enough offense — and now this ALCS is headed for a mammoth Game 7 on Monday night.

Nathan Eovaldi of the Texas Rangers pitches during Game 6 of the ALCS between the Texas Rangers and the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on Sunday, October 22, 2023 in Houston, Texas. Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan/MLB Photos via Getty Images

One look at the box score might suggest that the Texas Rangers cruised to an easy win over the Houston Astros in Game 6 of the ALCS. But don’t be fooled: That was quite possible the most stressful 9-2 final in the history of baseball, one that had Texas fighting for its life in the late innings and very nearly watching its season going up in smoke. In the end, though, Bruce Bochy and Co. won’t much care if it wasn’t pretty; all they care about is that they’ve got one more game on the schedule, a Game 7 rivalry showdown at Minute Maid Park with a spot in the World Series on the line.

The Rangers earned their two wins in this series with a simple formula: great starting pitching, just enough offense and a bullpen that slammed the door. Back in Houston with their backs against the wall, they ran the same thing back — in large part thanks to Big Game Nate Eovaldi, delivering again when the chips were down.

Eovaldi wasn’t quite as overwhelming as he was during his nine-strikeout performance in Game 2, but he was just about as good. After giving up three runs on five hits over six innings last week, the righty ... gave up three runs on five hits over 6.1 innings on Sunday night, once again filling the zone with strikes while avoiding mistakes over the heart of the plate. Yordan Alvarez got Houston on the board early, continuing his dominance of Eovaldi — seriously, he has 10 hits in 14 at-bats against him — with an RBI single in the bottom of the first.

Eovaldi kept battling though, retiring 14 of the next 16 batters he faced — and allowing the Rangers offense to go to work. They didn’t knock Framber Valdez around as much as they did the first time they faced him in this series, but they made sure to do maximum damage whenever the lefty made a mistake. Valdez has struggled all postseason — all second half, really — with his sinker, leaving the pitch up far too often. He was far sharper overall in Game 6, but his misses really came back to haunt him — first on a solo homer from Mitch Garver that tied things up in the second:

And then on a go-ahead two-run homer from Jonah Heim in the fourth that barely got past the glove of a leaping Kyle Tucker:

Once Heim’s home run put Texas in front, you got the feeling it would be up to Eovaldi to make the lead hold up. He did just that for a while, but he began to crack a bit in the sixth: Base hits by Alvarez and Jose Abreu put the first two men on, and a sac fly from Mauricio Dubon pushed across a run to cut the Rangers’ lead to 3-2. Desperate to avoid exposing his bullpen, Bochy tried to let Eovaldi get through the seventh, but a one-out single from Jose Altuve forced his hand — and kicked off a white-knuckle half-hour for fans on both sides.

Josh Sborz has been just about the only Texas reliever to avoid a blowup at some point in this series, and he did the job once again here, inducing a double play from Michael Brantley to end the inning and avoid bringing up Alex Bregman, Alvarez and Abreu with a chance to tie the game.

Texas then gave itself some much-needed insurance in the top of the eighth, with Garver driving in Evan Carter with a double to left. With just six outs remaining, the Rangers held a two-run lead and had Game 7 officially in their sights.

Of course, if you thought it would be that easy, you clearly haven’t watched a minute of this barnburner of a series — or this extremely shaky Texas ‘pen. Rather than use Aroldis Chapman — who’s been an adventure just trying to find the strike zone in October — Bochy opted to stick with Sborz, despite Alvarez looming on deck. After a leadoff walk to Alex Bregman, that seemed like it might come back to haunt the Rangers ... only for Sborz to deliver an improbable strikeout.

But the Astros still were not done. Sborz promptly gave up a single to Abreu, and with the tying run on base, Bochy finally made a move — not for Chapman, but for closer Jose Leclerc, the man who gave up the game-winning homer to Altuve in the ninth inning of Game 5 on Friday night. Leclerc immediately walked Kyle Tucker to load the bases and bring Houston just a base hit away from tying the game. Surely, this was it, the moment where the defending world champs delivered the dagger. Or not!

Just like he did in Games 1 and 2, Leclerc made the big pitches when he had to, getting a soft lineout from Dubon and then striking out pinch hitter Jon Singleton to get out of the jam.

But that was just the bottom of the eighth; Houston still had three more outs to play with, and with Leclerc having pitched in all but one game this postseason — and having already thrown nearly 20 pitches — there was no guarantee that he’d have enough in the tank to get the Rangers to the finish line. The offense could desperately use an insurance run or two. Adolis Garcia decided to provide four:

Garcia turned himself into Public Enemy No. 1 in Houston in Game 5, not taking kindly to being plunked by Astros reliever Bryan Abreu and nearly touching off a benches-clearing brawl. The crowd at Minute Maid Park had been hounding from pretty much the moment he stepped on the field on Sunday, and he’d already given them plenty to cheer about, striking out in increasingly wild fashion in each of his first four at-bats. As a wise man once said, however, it’s not how you start but how you finish, and Garcia finished by finely getting a fastball he could handle — and parking it into the Crawford Boxes in left. What had been a 4-2 nail-biter wound up a 9-2 laugher, and Game 7 was officially on.

As for what that Game 7 will hold, it’s anyone’s guess. Texas will give the ball to Max Scherzer, who didn’t inspire a ton of confidence in his return from injury in Game 3. Scherzer has as much big-game experience as anyone, but much of that experience is mixed, and his health and effectiveness right now are still very open questions. Maybe his Game 3 start allowed him to knock the rust off, and he’ll have his usual command back on Monday; or maybe an Astros team that has lit him up twice already this season will make it three. Houston, meanwhile, will counter with righty Cristian Javier, who’s pitched to a 1.69 ERA in two postseason starts this year after a dominant run last October. Just based on the pitching matchup — and the state of Texas’ bullpen right now — you’d have to give the advantage to Houston. But Texas is now 3-0 at Minute Maid Park, with a manager in Bochy who’s been there and done that and knows how to keep a team’s heartbeat steady in a big spot. If anyone can pull this off, it’s the Rangers, and just about any outcome feels like it’s on the table Monday night.