HOUSTON — Only four minutes had elapsed between the time Framber Valdez began his first-pitch delivery and the moment when the scoreboard read 2-0, with two more Texas Rangers runners on base. That is how quickly Game 2 of the American League Championship Series seemed to be imploding before the Houston Astros’ eyes Monday afternoon at Minute Maid Park.
This, though, is the postseason. Drama lives in the spaces between every pitch. The difference between the first inning and the ninth Monday was immense. On the way to an eventual 5-4 victory, the Rangers remained on their feet through perilous jams, deafening home runs and a cardiac bullpen that keeps bending but has yet to fully crumble in this postseason.
Abysmal as that first inning was, the defending champion Astros remained competitive thanks to home runs from two of their most potent hitters. Yordan Álvarez put the Astros on the board in the second inning when he demolished a Nathan Eovaldi fastball left right down the middle. It was the fifth home run this postseason for the Astros’ middle-of-the-order force, and there would be more Álvarez wreckage to come.
In the fourth inning, third baseman Alex Bregman lined a home run off the left-field foul pole to reinvigorate the Houston crowd. It was Bregman’s 17th career postseason home run, more than any other third baseman in major league history. Reminder: Houston has been here and done all this before.
The Astros had their biggest chance in the fifth inning, when they loaded the bases with no one out, trailing 5-2. Yainer Díaz pinch hit for catcher Martín Maldonado. Eovaldi, who entered Monday with a 2.70 career postseason ERA, struck out Díaz with a filthy curveball. He then faced Altuve, who was 10-for-29 with five home runs in his career against Eovaldi. The right-hander got ahead 0-2, raised Altuve’s eye level with a high fastball, then finished him with a splitter down and away. With two outs in the frame, Eovaldi got Bregman to roll over to third base and completed a masterful escape job.
Houston nonetheless cut the Texas lead to two runs in the sixth inning, when Michael Brantley doubled to score Álvarez from first. Undeterred, veteran Texas manager Bruce Bochy made clear he was going to ride or die with Eovaldi on the mound. Eovaldi rewarded his manager’s faith by striking out Chas McCormick on three consecutive splitters below the zone. Eovaldi allowed three earned runs over six innings before the Rangers finally opted for relief.
From there, a Texas bullpen that blew 33 saves in the regular season continued its nail-biting redemption tour this postseason. Josh Sborz pitched a clean seventh before left-hander Aroldis Chapman faced the heart of the Houston order in the eighth. Chapman retired Bregman and Kyle Tucker. But the Rangers had not heard the last of Álvarez, who crushed a first-pitch slider into the right-field seats for his sixth home run in these playoffs. Texas, though, held onto a one-run advantage it had secured thanks to a home run from catcher Jonah Heim in the third inning. Despite striking out six batters, Valdez finished with an abysmal final line: 2 2/3 innings, seven hits, five runs, four earned runs and a walk.
With two outs in the eighth, Bochy turned to closer José Leclerc. And again things got dicey. Leclerc walked two batters on eight consecutive balls before Michael Brantley grounded to third — on a ball Josh Jung bobbled before stepping on the bag.
When the ninth inning came, Leclerc remained on the mound, and the game remained in the balance. Jeremy Peña hit a deep liner that died at the right-field warning track. Jung slid in the dirt to make a stop and record an out on Díaz. And on a 3-1 count, Altuve hit a fly ball to deep center that landed in the glove of Leody Taveras.
For the Rangers, this win did not come easily. But here they are, 7-0 in the postseason, now only two wins away from a trip to the World Series.
(Photo: Troy Taormina / USA Today)