Inside the visiting clubhouse in Phoenix, the Houston Astros finally cut loose Sunday afternoon. Amid the champagne showers and bear hugs and victory cigars celebrating an improbable and joyous end to a regular season that had tested the entire franchise in ways it hadn’t often been tested these last seven seasons, third baseman Alex Bregman’s opening toast set the tone.
Surrounded by teammates in their American League West championship T-shirts, he declared: “A lot of people were wondering what it was going to be like if the ’Stros didn’t win the division.” He paused briefly, smiled broadly, and borrowed a punch line from Kanye West: “I guess we’ll never know.”
With that, he unleashed a bubbly spray, signaling that it was go time. The previous night’s celebration—after the Astros clinched a seventh straight playoff appearance—had been more hushed. Manager Dusty Baker toasted his players, but pitcher Justin Verlander said there was still unfinished business, even if returning to the postseason had seemed like a long shot just a week before. “We knew we had a shot,” Baker said Sunday after the Astros claimed the AL West’s top spot with a season-ending 8–1 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks. “It wasn’t a real good shot, but we knew we had a chance.”
That they did. In a season in which the reigning World Series champions were almost undone by injuries and slumps, in which they’ll be the only playoff team entering the postseason with a losing record at home (39–42), the Astros somehow ended up right back where they always expected to be.
Houston’s win on Sunday, coupled with the Texas Rangers losing 1–0 in Seattle, left the two teams from the Lone Star State tied atop the AL West at 90–72. But it’s the Astros who will enter the playoffs as division champions, thanks to winning 9 of 13 against the Rangers in the regular season. Last Wednesday, after a loss in Seattle, FanGraphs pegged Houston’s odds of topping the AL West at 5.8 percent.
“We’ve had ups and downs this year,” Bregman said in Phoenix. “But it’s a damn resilient team. . . . You have to be able to win in so many different ways and with so many different guys. And so many guys in this clubhouse stepped up this year and made this possible.”
It was a far different scene 1,400 miles away in Seattle, where the Rangers, the team that led the American League West for most of the season, the team that had jump-started its way back to relevance with a two-year, $800 million spending spree, suffered the kind of gut punch of a defeat that will torture fans for years to come. It too had clinched a playoff berth on Saturday with a win that also eliminated Seattle from playoff contention.
Then, on Sunday afternoon, a Texas team that led the American League in runs and had two players (shortstop Corey Seager and second baseman Marcus Semien) likely to finish in the top five in AL Most Valuable Player voting never got a runner as far as third base in losing to a Seattle team that had absolutely nothing to play for.
Even after Seattle manager Scott Servais began removing his best players in the seventh inning, the Rangers went out with a whimper, finishing a seven-game road trip in which they batted a chilling .098 with runners in scoring position. To be at its worst when the stakes were the highest could haunt this team for years.
The perception will be that, unlike the Astros, the Rangers partied the night away on Saturday and could not answer the bell on Sunday. It’s true that the Rangers did pop a few bottles of champagne, and as Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic reported, “They had popped enough champagne bottles to create puddles on the clubhouse floor.” Also this, from Rosenthal, who was in the clubhouse: Rangers manager Bruce Bochy told the players to let loose. “You work too hard in spring training to pass this up,” he said. “You’ve got to enjoy it. You’ve got to celebrate.” The optics could be much worse, especially for a manager with so much postseason experience.
Never mind that the party apparently lasted about fifteen minutes, after which several players got dressed and departed, while others retreated to the dining room to watch the Astros-Diamondbacks game and order Chick-fil-A. But such bits of nuance are likely to be lost in the tempest, and history will likely record that the Rangers celebrated too early while the Astros were taking care of business, and the baseball gods punished them for it.
The Rangers and Astros could still meet with a trip to the World Series on the line, but Sunday’s loss means that the Rangers will have a long and difficult path to that mythical all-Texas American League Championship Series. Instead of having five days off and opening the division series at home on Saturday, as Houston will do, the Rangers will face the Tampa Bay Rays in a best-of-three wild card series starting Tuesday, with all the games being played on the road in Florida. If Texas clears that hurdle, the team’s next stop will be Baltimore, for games one and two against a young Orioles team that had the league’s best record. Before boarding a plane for Florida, the Rangers struggled to find the right words to describe their predicament.
“Once we get on the plane,” Bochy said, “we have to realize, ‘You’re in the postseason.’ You got to get your head back to where it needs to be. We’re in the postseason and this is what we strive to do.”
The Rangers held first place in the AL West for 159 days this season and were scoring so many runs in the opening two months that they were being compared to the 1927 Yankees of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. They survived losing an array of starting pitchers, most notably their new ace Jacob deGrom, who made just six starts before undergoing elbow surgery. They got only eight starts from Max Scherzer, their star trade-deadline acquisition, who is dealing with arm issues and probably won’t pitch again this season. Right-hander Jon Gray is on the injured list.
But on the final day of the season, the Rangers got solid pitching from Andrew Heaney and three relievers, stabilizing for a day a bullpen that made Texas the first team to ever reach the postseason with more blown saves (33) than saves (30) since 1969, when the save statistic became official. “We’re taking a little different road than we wanted to,” Semien said on Sunday, in one of the great understatements of the season. “Seattle has a great pitching staff and they did a great job against us. But I’m still high on this team. We deserve to be in the playoffs and we are.”
Meanwhile, the Astros will have five days to rest their bullpen and line up their starting rotation for a best-of-five series against the winner of the wild card series between the Minnesota Twins and the Toronto Blue Jays. Game one will be Saturday at Minute Maid Park. Same old same old.
“They’re used to winning and they maintain the same heartbeat and maintain the stomach for this,” first-year Astros general manager Dana Brown said. “Even though it was getting difficult for myself, these guys maintained it. To see them pull it out like this is really special.”
His team’s story is no less bizarre than that of the Rangers. After finishing in first place in the AL West in five straight full seasons—the shortened 2020 season being the exception—Houston didn’t spend a day in first place this year until overtaking the Rangers for the first time on August 29. It increased its hold on first place to two and a half games and was about to play nine of its next twelve games against the Oakland A’s and the Kansas City Royals, two of the weakest teams in baseball. From there, the MLB world expected Houston to cruise back to the playoffs and possibly to a seventh straight appearance in the American League Championship Series, if not a fifth trip to the World Series.
But Houston somehow lost seven of those nine games against bottom-dwelling Oakland and KC, and when the team left Minute Maid Park on September 24 after being swept by the Royals, its postseason hopes were on life support. “We set a goal on the plane, and we talked about at least taking two out of three in Seattle,” catcher Martín Maldonado said. “And then here, as soon as [the Rangers] lost the first two games [to the Mariners], we knew we had a shot.”
And now, after a season in which the Rangers finally turned the tables on Houston and established themselves as the best team in their division and the best in Texas, the Astros found a way to land back on top when it mattered most.