Rangers win is a step closer to all-Texas ALCS; dissecting Michael Harris II’s catch

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The Texas Rangers are the first team to punch their ticket to the LCS, and the Astros took a big step toward making it an LSCS (Lone Star Championship Series) in the AL. I’m Levi Weaver, here with Ken Rosenthal — welcome to the Windup!

Rangers sweep Orioles, advance to ALCS

“Everything will be just right down here in Texas

So the Rangers swept the Orioles, who hadn’t been swept since May 2022. Who would have thought, when the Rangers wilted out of the AL West lead in the last week of the season, that they’d be the first team to advance to the American League Championship Series? And that they would do so by beating the Rays and Orioles, teams with the two best records in the AL? And that they wouldn’t lose a single game in the process?

Not me.

But their offense (which led the AL in runs scored, with 881) has been monstrous since the playoffs started. With last night’s 7-1 win, the Rangers have scored 32 runs over five postseason games. Chief among the dangers: $325 million shortstop Corey Seager, who is now hitting .429 (1.537 OPS) this postseason.

Seager has been setting records with his patience, walking five times in Game 2 (a postseason record) and nine times (in just 15 plate appearances) in the ALDS, which breaks a Division Series record set by none other than Barry Bonds.

“I think we all know I like to swing,” Seager said, chuckling, before the clinching win. “So I probably would not have bet that I would be the person to do that.”

His walk rate in 2023 — even with opponents playing it cautiously — was just 9.1 percent, good for 63rd among qualifiers. But he has adapted well. And when the opponent opts to pitch to him, well …

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Of course, the other big star of the game (no, not Adolis García, though his three-run home run was the dagger in a five-run second inning) was the Rangers’ starter. For more, here’s Ken.

Ken’s Notebook: Nathan Eovaldi, best Christmas gift

From today’s column:

Sometime after the seventh inning, right around when Nathan Eovaldi took his curtain call, Chris Young’s wife, Liz, turned to him and said, “I guess Christmas Eve was worthwhile.”

Liz remembered. Her husband, the Rangers’ general manager, should have been enjoying the holiday with his family. Instead, he was negotiating a two-year, $34 million free-agent contract for Eovaldi with the pitcher’s agent, Seth Levinson.

“She was a little mad at me,” Young said with a smile Tuesday night, in the afterglow of a 7-1 Rangers victory that completed a three-game sweep of the Orioles in the American League Division Series.

Nearly 10 months later, Levinson also had a vivid recollection of his back-and-forth with Young, whom practically everyone in the industry calls “CY.”

“CY and I were just doing our jobs, except this time, the negotiations went until 11:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve,” Levinson said. “CY’s Zoom call (with Eovaldi) a week earlier was so damn impressive that Nate had to be a Ranger, and I wasn’t accepting no for an answer. As it turns out, Nate is an especially good Christmas gift for everyone.”

Yes, all is well now that the Rangers are returning to the ALCS for the first time since their back-to-back World Series appearances in 2010 and ‘11. Not much could be better, really. Except perhaps a showdown with the Astros.

Not to get ahead of ourselves, and with no disrespect to the Twins, who currently trail the Astros two games to one, but the prospect of an all-Texas ALCS is rather intriguing. Rangers fans itching to finally topple the Astros spent the ninth inning chanting, “We want Houston.” And the heated in-state rivalry only would be part of the appeal.

Dusty Baker vs. Bruce Bochy would be a matchup of likely Hall of Fame managers and former Giants skippers. Max Scherzer, if healthy, could oppose Justin Verlander in a matchup of future Hall of Fame pitchers, former Tigers and former Mets.

Maybe Buck Showalter, a former Rangers manager who started the season with Scherzer and Verlander in New York, could throw out a first pitch in Arlington. Or maybe Steve Cohen, the Mets owner who authorized the trades of the two aces, could do the honors to standing ovations in both parks.

Astros take command

“Houston, Texas — this is the way we ball

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Pitchers, beware: Yordan Alvarez is hot. (Matt Blewett / USA Today)

It was all going to plan for the Twins: Steal a game in Houston, come back home with a Cy Young contender on the mound, and take a 2-1 lead. Simple, right?

No. Not when you’re facing the Astros, who have played the proverbial possum all year; 6 1/2 games back in mid-June … they’re dead, right? Four games left, 2 1/2 games down … OK now they’re dead, right? Lose home-field advantage in the ALDS before heading to Minnesota to face Sonny Gray?

Oh, they’re very much alive.

As Eno Sarris pointed out in our Division Series live blog, Gray’s sweeper has been one of the best pitches in baseball this year, but not only was it not very sharp (and too often in the zone) yesterday, he also might have waited too long to adjust to a more fastball-heavy approach when the Astros came out of the gates with an approach that appeared to be “smash that sweeper.”

Houston scored four runs in the first inning, and never looked back, winning 9-1. Yordan Alvarez hit another home run (that’s four in three ALDS games), and José Abreu hit two dingers of his own.

Meanwhile, Cristian Javier struck out nine over five shutout innings, working around five walks by allowing just one hit. Javier’s regular season may not have been what the Astros and their fans expected, but “El Reptil” de octubre is now 5-1 with a 1.91 ERA over 37 2/3 innings in 15 games.

All of a sudden, this series has shifted hard in the Astros’ favor. It’ll be José Urquidy against Joe Ryan tonight at 7:07 p.m. ET (FS1) — here’s a preview from Stephen Nesbitt.

NLDS off-day stories

“It’s only been one day, but I’m not alright”

The NL took their travel day yesterday. Here’s what we’ve got from the off day. Both series resume tonight on TBS, 5:07 p.m. ET in Philly (tied 1-1) and 9:07 p.m. ET in Phoenix (2-o Diamondbacks).

• It’s been more than a day since the play that ended Game 2 between the Braves and Phillies, and I still cannot stop replaying that moment (and I’ve waded through a postgame celebration that featured Absolute Peak Max Scherzer) in my mind. Fortunately for me (and you, unless you’re a Phillies fan), Chad Jennings has parsed through the 14 seconds that ended Monday’s game from just about every imaginable angle.

• Tyler Kepner does his best to capture the moment as the Braves and Phillies move to Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. As Kepner puts it, it’s a chance to pit two baseball tropes against each other: momentum vs. home-field advantage.

• Meanwhile, Sam Blum writes about D-backs reliever Ryan Thompson, who was designated for assignment by the Rays in August after compiling a 6.11 ERA. But in 13 games since arriving in Arizona, he’s posted a 0.69. ERA isn’t always the most informative stat for relief pitchers, but when the manager says, “He’s been a savior for us,” that’s a pretty good indication.

• Dodgers manager Dave Roberts says he’s “considering” tweaking his lineup a bit in Game 3, with the Dodgers down 2-0. Fabian Ardaya has more in our live blog, but while a shake-up might mean a start for Chris Taylor or Kiké Hernandez, Roberts acknowledges there’s an easier path to success: “I think the simple answer is getting Mookie (Betts) and Freddie (Freeman) going.”

Handshakes and High Fives

You know, 2004 and 2005 were a couple of magical years in baseball and for its footwear-inspired teams. In 2004 the Red Sox broke an 86-year World Series drought. The next year, the White Sox snapped an 88-year drought. A mere 11 years later, the Cubs snapped the mother of them all: a 108-year curse, beating the team that hopes to be next in line — the Cleveland Guardians, who now hold a 75-year drought. Zack Meisel digs deep to tell the story.

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the 2023 Orioles. No, they didn’t expect to be bounced in the ALDS. But they were a lot of fun, and they’ve set high expectations for the next few years.

The Mets don’t have to make a decision on Pete Alonso just yet — he doesn’t hit free agency until around this time in 2024. But when he does, it will be important for them to know what to expect as he ages. Will Sammon talked to some scouts to try and gauge what might happen.

Hey, fans of non-playoff teams: do you have questions about, say, the Mets’ payroll? The Red Sox’s coaching staff? The Padres’ 40-man roster? The Blue Jays’ just, like, everything? You are in luck.

Rintaro Sasaki of Japan, a 17-year-old who hit 140 home runs in high school, is doing something unprecedented: Rather than play in the NPB and go through their posting system, he is jumping stateside early, opting to play college ball in the U.S. It’s not entirely unprecedented, but he’s definitely the highest-profile player to take that route.

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(Top photo: Richard Rodriguez/ Getty Images)

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