ARLINGTON, Texas — The Houston Astros bounded out of the dugout, leaping and screaming as the ball left the yard. This game was chaos, bedlam, pandemonium. Choose your adjective, Jose Altuve encapsulated it once more when he sent a line drive screaming over the left field wall to put the Astros ahead 5-4 in the ninth inning when his blast marked another defining moment in this budding Astros-Rangers rivalry. Houston won Game 5 of the American League Championship Series 5-4, taking a 3-2 edge in the series. And that hardly tells the whole tale of an instant classic.
Jose Altuve take a bow 👏
A three-run blast in the top of the ninth gave the Astros the late lead over the Rangers.
— The Athletic MLB (@TheAthleticMLB) October 21, 2023
Five hours before Altuve’s mesmerizing home run, long before the benches cleared and pandemonium ensued, Adolis García had sat inside the stadium’s lower level talking about a familiar subject. He was asked about the emotion with which he plays, the exuberant zeal that has so often provided the Texas Rangers an immeasurable emotional lift. This is a player who pimps home runs and makes highlight catches, who wears colorful cleats and radiates swagger in all settings.
“I think I’m just trying to get that boost of energy to the team,” García had said, through an interpreter. “No matter what situation, we’re winning or we’re down in the game. I’m just trying to get that boost for the team until that final out.”
García has done this time and time again for the Rangers. He hit 39 home runs in the regular season. A player who has been designated for assignment twice in his career became the team’s unsung heartbeat. Never before, though, had García delivered a moment quite like this.
Here was the scene: Justin Verlander on the mound, sixth inning, García’s team trailing by a run. Marcus Semien had ended the previous inning with a redemptive diving play that stranded three runners and might have saved Texas’ season. Corey Seager popped an equally redemptive double down the right-field line, and rookie Evan Carter — the young man who plays with uncanny calm — lined a single to left. Runners were on the corners. A future Hall of Famer was on the mound.
Verlander came inside with a fastball. García unleashed his mammoth, looping swing. The ball towered above the playing field, hanging for what felt like a century. In left field, Chas McCormick backed up to the wall, his head tilted back, watching, waiting and then … conceding. García’s ball landed in the seats. The crowd erupted like never before. García had barely left the batter’s box, standing and admiring his wreckage once more. He slammed his bat to the ground before he began an epic trot around the bases. His home run, for a while Friday evening, looked like it might go down as one of the biggest swings in Rangers’ history.
García’s theatrics, however, were not as appreciated by the Astros. In his next at-bat. Astros reliever Bryan Abreu drilled García with a 98.9 mph first pitch. García jawed with catcher Martín Maldonado. The benches cleared and chaos covered the field. When the dust finally settled, Abreu, García and Houston manager Dusty Baker were ejected. The most tense moment yet in the history of this Astros-Rangers rivalry led to long deliberations from umpires. It will surely lead to further discussions over potential suspensions. There will be more fallout to come.
Things are getting tense in the #postseason 😲
— The Athletic MLB (@TheAthleticMLB) October 20, 2023
But before the swing that changed it all, this game had been a pitcher’s duel. For the first five innings, Verlander twirled in vintage form. Texas starter Jordan Montgomery spun curveballs and kept the Astros’ hitters largely off balance. However, it had started with a familiar sequence of events: A Texas Rangers’ pitcher threw a baseball over the heart of home plate, and a Houston Astros’ hitter sent the pitch into another dimension. Such is what Alex Bregman did to Montgomery with two outs in the first inning. That gave Houston an early edge. The Astros squandered another chance in the fifth, when Altuve dropped down a bunt with runners on the corners and two outs. Texas catcher Jonah Heim pounced on the ball, threw to first and ended the inning.
The Rangers tied the game in the fifth inning when, in a 2-2 count, Verlander went to Nathaniel Lowe’s biggest weakness: An elevated fastball. This time Lowe did not miss. He connected with the pitch on the outer third and sent it towering to left field. The ball just cleared the wall, but it counted all the same. The theme song from “The Natural” blared over the speakers as Lowe rounded the bases.
Another defining moment came in the top of the sixth. That’s when a 96.7 mph ball one-hopped off the bat of José Abreu and ate up Seager at shortstop. It was a difficult ball to field but still one a shortstop of Seager’s caliber is expected to knock down, at the least. The ball had the potential to be a double play. Instead, scored a base hit, it bounded into the outfield and allowed Bregman to score from third.
The inning could have been far worse had Semien — fighting through a nightmare of a series that already included an error and two popouts — not ended the frame with his game-changing play, diving to his backhand side to stop a ground ball and throwing to first to retire Jeremy Peña.
The Rangers were not out of the woods in the late innings despite their momentum after the García home run . Their beleaguered bullpen — one that had bent but not broken for much of this postseason — proved to be their undoing once more. Yanier Diaz singled and Jon Singleton walked off Texas’ de facto closer Jose Leclerc in the ninth. And then came Altuve’s blast, a swing that once again provided the Astros’ postseason might.
(Photo: Daniel Shirley / MLB Photos via Getty Images)