Jose Altuve will probably win the MVP this season. Aaron Judge is leveling out. Mike Trout missed too many games.
That’s what made yesterday’s 6-4 win so special. No, it wasn’t that the Rangers were facing the rival Astros. The intensity of that rivalry dissipated when the Astros clinched the division title in the season’s first week. And it wasn’t as if this 6-4 victory was nip and tuck the entire game. The Rangers had this one comfortably in the bag until a totally dominating Cole Hamels was removed from the game in order to give the Astros a fighting chance. Rangers manager Jeff Banister nearly blew his twenty-first game of the season.
No, the best thing about yesterday’s game, which underscores the best thing about the game of baseball, is that while it’s a team sport, it all comes down to matchups. And when you take a guy like Jose Altuve, who came into the game leading the planet with a batting average of .365, he usually wins those matchups.
But the entire game hinged on Altuve’s final two at-bats in game defining moments.
In the eighth inning, Jose Leclerc, whose control has been erratic, decided it was time to give back some of the 6-0 lead Cole Hamels handed him. He walked the first batter, gave up a home run, then walked another batter. And just like that, fingernails all across Rangers fandom that thought they were safe for the night were suddenly the victim of serious gnawing.
Because up came Jose Altuve, league MVP, in a situation where the game could suddenly turn ugly. Altuve revealed a rare moment of being a mere mortal. On a 3-1 pitch, he swung at ball 4, and grounded into a very much needed double play. It didn’t kill the rally, but it put it on life-support. Especially considering the Astros scored two more runs in the inning, had a runner at second and the tying run at the plate when Nomar Mazara, seconds after butchering a play in right field, made a brilliant inning-ending diving catch on a sinking line drive.
But the Altuve menace would return. After retiring the first two hitters in the top of the ninth, Alex Claudo allowed two singles. It was time for more MVP heroics from Jose Altuve.
It was an epic at-bat. In a nice piece of drama, Claudio got ahead 0-2, then Altuve battled back to take the count all the way to 3-2.
Then Alex Claudio dropped a perfect molassis-slow changeup down and in to fool Altuve for strike three. Game over.
The Rangers survived Altuve.
Mike Fiers (7-6, 4.06) vs. Tyson Ross (2-2, 7.52)
Game time: 7:35