Rangers stave off elimination, force ALCS Game 7 vs. Astros

HOUSTON — Before Texas Rangers outfielder Adolis García stepped to the plate in the first inning Sunday at Minute Maid Park, a hostile Houston crowd showered him with raucous boos. The Rangers entered the house of a borderline dynasty on the brink of elimination. They stared into the lair of the defending champs knowing bad blood was afoot. And for eight innings, the jeers appeared to penetrate García’s headspace. The powerful slugger struck out four times. He chased pitches outside the strike zone. He took mighty hacks and whiffed even more violently. But the poetry of the postseason did not go gently.

In the ninth inning, the game remained close. A flawed Texas bullpen was hanging on for dear life. It was a 4-2 game, the bases were loaded, and García was up. Finally, the man connected with a Ryne Stanek fastball and sent it throttling into the ballpark’s Crawford Boxes. García rounded the bases in a more subdued fashion after his Game 5 theatrics. The Rangers went ahead 9-2. They will live to see another day.

García provided the deafening blow, but the game’s defining moment may have come earlier. Here was the marching order: The Texas Rangers needed eight outs from their tenuous bullpen. The pulsing heart of the Houston order was up. Brantley. Bregman. Alvarez. This is where this team was supposed to fail, where all the success from their first seven charmed games this postseason was supposed to come crumbling down.

With one out in the seventh, after Jose Altuve singled to right-center, Texas manager Bruce Bochy had little choice but to turn to his bullpen. This time it meant handing the ball to Josh Sborz, a 29-year-old Virginian who had a 5.50 ERA in the regular season but has synthesized his best stuff this postseason. Sborz immediately got Michael Brantley to ground into a 4-6-3 double play. If the heart rate in the Texas dugout lowered, it was only for a moment.

In the bottom of the eighth inning, Sborz still on the mound, Alex Bregman walked and Jose Abreu singled. There was one out with left-hander Kyle Tucker at the plate. Bochy took his time deciding. He waited until Sborz was about to step on the rubber. Then the venerated manager made his hobbled walk out to the mound and called for Jose Leclerc, the Dominican-born pitcher who had blown Game 5, who had watched the ball rocket off Altuve’s bat and heard the sighs of his home crowd.

Leclerc walked Tucker on five pitches. Now the bases were loaded, and Mauricio Dubón stepped to the plate with a chance to go down as one of the men who helped a dynastic run continue. Orange flags signifying the Astros’ American League pennants loom above the ballpark. Two gold flags commemorating their World Series victories in 2017 and 2022 hang just to the right. Dubón lined softly to shortstop. Pinch-hitter Jon Singleton battled in a full count but ultimately whiffed on a 92 mph cutter. Leclerc exhaled.

And in the top half of the ninth inning, the Rangers’ offense relieved the pressure. García’s slam — as well as earlier home runs from designated hitter Mitch Garver and catcher Jonah Heim — helped validate another sterling postseason start from Nathan Eovaldi, who is now 4-0 for the Rangers this postseason.

Houston starter Framber Valdez surrendered three runs over five innings. His team took an early edge in the first inning when Alvarez singled to score Altuve. But the Astros in all had only six hits, and the Rangers overcame their supposed tragic flaw to keep the reaper at bay for one more day.

Now this series is tied at 3. Max Scherzer will start for the Rangers in Game 7. The Astros will counter with Cristian Javier. Winner goes to the World Series.

(Photo: Troy Taormina / USA Today)

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