BY: Richard W. Humphrey
ARLINGTON, Texas – Texas swept a four game series against Houston this week to move into first place in the American League West. Houston, which has led the division for a majority of the season (139 days) fell to second place with 15 games remaining in the season. Texas has now won six of seven games on the current home stand to lead the Astros by two and one-half games, three in the loss column, with 16 games left to play.
All four games were played with the look and feel of a playoff games. It wasn’t always pretty, as the teams combined to commit seven errors, but both teams played hard. There were plenty of outstanding defensive plays, clutch hits and clutch pitching performances. It was perhaps the most meaningful regular season series in the history of the Texas Rangers.
Cole Hamels opened the series for the Rangers with a good start. It began ominously as he surrendered a home run to Jose Altuve, the second batter of the game. In the bottom of the second inning, Rougned Odor hit a rocket line drive over the center fielder’s head with Prince Fielder on second and Mike Napoli on first base. Fielder scored easily to tie the game, but Napoli was thrown out at the plate to end the inning.
Houston went back in front 2-1 with a third inning run, but Texas took their first lead of the game in the sixth inning when Mitch Moreland hit an opposite field home run into the left field seats. Unfortunately, the lead did not last long. Houston pushed across another run in the seventh to tie the game at three.
The middle of the Ranger batting order did the job in the eighth inning. Adrian Beltre singled, and Fielder followed with a home run. Shawn Tolleson gave up a leadoff single in the ninth, but got a double play ground ball and a strike out to end the game.
It was a game that had the look and feel of a playoff game. Essentially it was, as it pitted the two teams most likely to win the West. Hamels went seven innings, giving up the three Astros runs on seven hits. Keone Kela finished the eighth inning to earn the win. He’s 7-5. Tolleson’s save was his 32nd of the year. Will Harris (5-4) gave up the Fielder home run in the eighth inning to take the loss.
On Tuesday night, the Rangers struck early for four first inning runs. Houston came back with three of their own in the second inning and rallied to take the lead with two more in the fourth. However, the Rangers got the run back in their half of the inning to tie the game at 5-5. Astros starter Collin McHugh was knocked out in the fifth inning while Ranger starter Derek Holland pitched into the sixth. They gave up the 10 runs and turned the game over to the bullpens.
Both pens performed well, as the score remained tied at 5-5 after eight innings. Ranger closer Shawn Tolleson came on to pitch the ninth inning, as there would be no save situation for Texas with a tie game after eight innings at home. He was perfect. In the Ranger half of the inning, Prince Fielder singled leading off. Drew Stubbs pinch ran for Fielder and advanced to third base on Adrian Beltre’s single. That set the stage for Mitch Moreland to drive in the game winning run with a sacrifice fly.
6-5, the Rangers won in walk-off fashion. Tolleson (6-3) was the winning pitcher. Oliver Perez (2-3), the seventh of eight Astro pitchers on the night took the loss.
The win moved the Rangers past the Astros into first place. It also clinched the Silver Boot trophy for the Rangers as it was their 10th win of the year against Houston.
On paper, Wednesday’s pitching matchup was the most favorable in the series for the Astros. Houston starter Dallas Keuchel came into the game leading the American League with 17 wins and a 2.22 ERA. His mound opponent, Martin Perez, is the weakest link in the Rangers’ rotation.
No matter what it looks like on paper, the game is played on the field. The Rangers started fast with a six run first inning. The big blows came off the bats of Mike Napoli, a three run homer, and Rougned Odor, a two run shot. Prince Fielder ran the lead to 7-0 with a solo homer into the right field upper deck in the third inning, and the Rangers chased Keuchel in the fifth inning with two more runs.
Keuchel gave up the nine runs on 11 hits, and the outing ended a streak of 40 consecutive starts in which he had thrown at least six innings. His ERA rose to 2.56, and the loss dropped his record to 17-8.
Meanwhile, Perez threw a nice game. He ended up allowing a run on nine hits over seven innings to improve his record to 3-5. 14-3 was the final score as the Rangers hit five home runs.
In Thursday’s finale, the Rangers struck first with three third inning runs. The Astros cut the lead to one when they clipped Ranger starter Colby Lewis for two runs in the fourth inning. That was as close as the Astros would get though. Texas pulled away with five runs in the seventh and eighth innings to win 8-2.
Lewis completed six innings for a quality start as he gave up the two Astros’ runs on seven hits. He got the win, his 16th, one behind league leaders Felix Hernandez and Dallas Keuchel. Lance McCullers, Jr. (5-6) took the loss for Houston, as he gave up three runs on five hits in six innings.
The crowds were noisy and intense. The Tuesday and Wednesday games were received the highest ratings of the year on Fox Sports Net. The crowds at the park though were disappointing. The series drew 120,319, an average of 30,080 per game. That’s actually slightly less than the per game average for the season – 30,199. Wednesday’s game had the largest crowd – 34,483. Wednesday was coincidentally $1.00 hot dog night, though there were more than 6,800 tickets sold on the day of the game, an overwhelming number.
The Astros return home for three games with Oakland this weekend. The announced pitching matchups are Mike Fiers (7-10) verses Felix Doubront (3-2) on Friday night, Scott Kazmir (7-10) against Sonny Gray on Saturday night, and Collin McHugh (16-7) facing Aaron Brooks (2-3) on Sunday afternoon. The series is the first of three series in the home stand totaling 10 games. The Astros finish the season with a six game road trip to Seattle and Arizona.
The Rangers play Seattle this weekend for the last time this year. The Mariners have already won this season’s series with the Rangers as they have won 10 of 16 games. Yovani Gallardo (12-10) goes against James Paxton (3-4) in Friday night’s opener. Cole Hamels (3-1 with Texas and 9-8 overall) faces Vidal Nuno (1-2) on Saturday, and Derek Holland (3-2) starts Sunday afternoon’s finale against Felix Hernandez (17-6).
* It’s been a bad few days for former Astro radio and television announcers. Milo Hamilton passed away on Thursday at the age of 88. The Astros (then Colt .45′s) first radio play-by-play announcer in 1962, Gene Elston, passed away 12 days earlier at the age of 93. Both had been awarded Baseball Hall of Fame’s Ford C. Frick Award.
* The Rangers have won 78 games, 12 more than all of the 2014 season.
* Over the current five game win streak, three and four hitters in the batting order, Prince Fielder and Adrian Beltre, have combined to hit .488 with five home runs, 17 runs batted in and 16 runs scored.
* Josh Hamilton hopes to rejoin the team for Sunday’s game after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery.