Ranking the most disappointing teams of the 2023 MLB season
USA TODAY Sports’ Steve Gardner shares his top 5 most disappointing teams of the 2023 MLB regular season.
HOUSTON — The battle for American League supremacy has played out 250 miles down I-45, from the bustling center of Houston’s ballpark to a masterfully planned ode to suburban comfort in Arlington. And after seven months of baseball, after 19 straight games and six adrenaline-fueled battles in this AL Championship Series, the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers will compete for nine more innings to decide the ticket to the World Series.
It’s a baseball first: Game 7 the size of Texas.
This ALCS bracket seems like destiny for many of its participants, with the Astros and Rangers each winning 90 regular season games, needing a tiebreaker to decide the division, going through their respective AL Division Series and then showing their respective your skills on the national stage by winning road games night after night.
This is nothing new for the main characters, but something completely different for so many: the hard hallucination that Game 7 produces.
“I said it until mid-August, it’s going to be a hand-to-hand fight until the end,” Rangers designated hitter Mitch Garver said after the Rangers’ must-win 9-2 victory in Game 6. “Really, really good ball club on both sides.
“It’s one game to decide it all and I think everyone is excited about that.”
An inside look at this winner-takes-all rodeo:
Mad Max vs. El Reptil: Narrative versus Nasty
Casuals might peek into the matchup, see Max Scherzer starting Game 7 for the Rangers and assume that the mound-stomping, intimidating future Hall of Famer immediately gives Texas the edge.
The Rangers adhere to this concept.
“He’ll probably take 16 shots with P4,” catcher Jonah Heim says of the popular energy supplement, “and he’ll be the same old Max. I would be thrilled.”
Yet the reality is that Scherzer is still progressing, somewhat, toward peak form after a major strain in his throwing shoulder sidelined him for five weeks. That point was reached in Game 3, when the Astros overwhelmed him with five hits and four runs in four innings of an 8-5 triumph that put the Astros back in the series.
The Rangers expect a better Scherzer Monday night. The problem is, he’s going up against one of the greatest postseason pitchers in modern history.
Christian Javier helped pitch a no-hitter in Game 4 of the 2022 World Series, a triumph that changed the trajectory of a series that ended with the Astros’ second championship. In Game 3 of that ALCS, he retired 14 of the first 15 Rangers.
Oh, Javier gave up the first postseason run of his career, but his ERA is now 0.82 in four playoff starts. And opposing hitters are now 5-for-70 (.071) in Javier’s four postseason games.
That’s a tall order for any opposing pitcher, let alone one still finding his way after an injury.
“Mad Max. He’ll be well prepared, he’ll learn from last time how this lineup attacks him,” Rangers second baseman Marcus Semien said. “I’m sure his arm is getting better and better as time goes on, so I’m excited to see how he recovers.”
If he doesn’t, the leash will certainly be short.
All hands meeting
The drama of Game 7 was felt most acutely in the bullpen, much more crowded than usual thanks to starters crammed in there, spiked and ready to perform in any situation. The Rangers will likely have Game 5 starter Jordan Montgomery, a lefty who started Game 5, available for a batter or two after two days of rest. His counterpart, Astros right fielder Justin Verlander, can do the same.
Either way, with questions surrounding Scherzer, Rangers manager Bruce Bochy will need to expand his circle of trust. He navigated Game 6 by avoiding the mercurial Aroldis Chapman and rookie Cody Bradford, instead needing only starter Nate Eovaldi, suddenly red-hot reliever Josh Sbortz and closer Jose LeClair to make it to the ninth inning before the revenge Adolis Garcia’s grand slam to open the game.
In Game 7, all of the above will likely play a role – along with any number of mystery guests.
The Astros have their holy trinity of high-leverage relievers — Hector Nerys, Brian Abreu and closer Ryan Pressley — but the specter of Abreu’s appeal since his two-game suspension hangs over their heads.
Whether or not Abreu’s suspension holds up to playing time, the Astros certainly need Javier to carry them into the sixth inning. Middle innings guys Rafael Montero and Ryne Stanek — the winning pitcher in Game 4 — combined to give up five runs in Game 5.
It’s probably going to be a long night of chess moves and guys working from awkward positions.
Too much was done for the road team to win every game in this ALCS. Of course, there could be some tangible factors that go into it — the Astros seem to really, really like to hit at the Rangers’ Globe Life Field, for example. Still, you’re more likely to find public transportation in Arlington than to have a firm theory about why the road crew was driving.
For the Astros, it’s a matter of reversing history.
Perhaps their best team in that seven-year streak of trips to the ALCS or beyond was in 2019, when they lost the first two games at home to the Washington Nationals, swept all three games in D.C., but lost Games 6 and 7 back to back at Minute Maid Park.
“I don’t know the answer. If we had an answer, I think we would have fixed it a long time ago,” said outfielder Michael Brantley, who pitched the final out of Game 7 in 2019. “That score, it doesn’t matter. That’s in the past. We have to turn the page and be ready for (Monday).”
And history repeats itself: Scherzer started that seventh game in 2019 with a no-decision, but emerged with his only championship ring as the Nationals recovered from the Astros’ bullpen.
The script for Monday night has yet to be written, with a Game 7 finale looming for both clubs.
“It’s going to be really fun,” says Heim. “And I know everyone will bring their A game.”