The Texas Rangers have been a tiny speck in the rearview mirror of the Houston Astros for so long that some fans might struggle to grasp what has happened in the opening two months of this MLB season. So far, that other team in the Lone Star State has spent most of the season atop the American League West division standings. For now, it’s the Astros who are chasing the Rangers. 

If you’re inclined to dream of a baseball summer in which the two Texas teams duel for first place, play tense games in front of rowdy crowds, and possibly square off in a playoff series, this is for you. “We’re tied of losing,” Rangers general manager Chris Young said after a 68–94 season in which his team finished 38 games behind Houston. Over the last five full seasons, while the Astros were averaging 102 wins a season, the Rangers were averaging 92 losses.

The Rangers pulled out all the stops to turn around the franchise’s fortunes: the team spent $800 million to acquire free agents over the past two offseasons, it hired one of the great managers in the history of the sport, and the entire organization overhauled its baseball operations.

Meanwhile, the Astros, who’ve long prided themselves on being one of baseball’s smartest teams, have had every important decision of the last offseason blow up in their faces. They’re still good enough to end up in the World Series for the fifth time in seven seasons, but their North Texas rivals have closed the gap.

The Rangers lead the Astros by two games at the top of the American League West. The Rangers have baseball’s highest-scoring offense; the Astros have MLB’s stingiest pitching staff. Neither team is perfect, and both will be looking to upgrade before MLB’s August 1 trade deadline. In fact, the division race may be decided by which franchise does a better job of shoring up its soft spots. The Rangers need help in the bullpen; the Astros could use another reliable bat and a starting pitcher. Thanks to a top-ten minor league system, the Rangers appear more likely to trade for an established veteran than the Astros, who have fewer top prospects to include in a win-now trade. 

If the Astros fall short, it could be because owner Jim Crane served as his own general manager last offseason between the firing of James Click in November and the hiring of Dana Brown in January. Crane’s biggest decisions all look like mistakes, beginning with a three-year, $58.5 million contract for 36-year-old first baseman José Abreu, who has been one of baseball’s least productive offensive players, with no home runs and a .221 batting average. Crane also re-signed free agent outfielder Michael Brantley to a one-year, $12 million deal despite Brantley having undergone shoulder surgery last August. The outfielder’s recovery has taken longer than expected, and he has yet to play a game this season.   

With third baseman Alex Bregman and shortstop Jeremy Peña off to slow starts, the Astros have scored three runs or less in 18 of their first 48 games. They’re sixteenth out of thirty teams in runs, twenty-third in home runs, and twenty-first in on-base plus slugging. If not for superstar slugger Yordan Álvarez, they could be in deep trouble.

But Álvarez could be enough. Just as in the 2022 postseason, Álvarez has been at his best when the at bats mean the most. According to Baseball Reference’s leverage index, which tracks performance in moments that are likely to change the outcome of a game, Álvarez is hitting .517, with six home runs, 33 runs batted in, and an 1.869 OPS in high-leverage situations. “Just video game stuff,” teammate Mauricio Dubón said of Álvarez. “He just keeps proving and proving he’s the best hitter in the league, and he’s humble about it, too. Watching him go about his business every day, it’s unreal.”

Finally, despite losing American League Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander to free agency, Crane opted not to sign another starting pitcher to add to the Astros’ rotation. With three other injured starters—Lance McCullers, Luis Garcia, and José Urquidy—the Astros’ pitching depth is all but nonexistent. What the team does have is a pair of aces in Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier, and one of baseball’s five best bullpens behind them, and that alone could make Houston a formidable postseason opponent.

The Rangers do it another way. Corey Seager and Marcus Semien are as good as ever, but catcher Jonah Heim, third baseman Josh Jung, right fielder Adolis García, and outfielder Ezequiel Durán have made the Rangers’ lineup baseball’s deepest. “It’s a lot of fun to watch these guys,” Rangers manager Bruce Bochy told reporters. “They’re just throwing out great at bats, they’re taking their walks, good two-strike hitting. A lot of good things happening throughout the lineup. . . . It’s been everybody. You know the front end [of the lineup]—you know how good they are. But the back end is just doing a great job.”

The Rangers have scored ten runs or more twelve times this season, most in the majors. Their fifteen victories by at least five runs are also the most in the majors. “This lineup is really good,” Seager said, “and hitting is contagious. Everybody wants to pass the baton and keep moving. That’s all we’re trying to do.”

Durán was acquired from the New York Yankees two summers ago in the trade that sent popular slugger Joey Gallo north. The 24-year-old’s first real chance to play came when he was inserted at shortstop after Seager was injured. He hit five home runs in eighteen games and hit the ball so hard that Bochy was forced to find a spot for him even after Seager returned to the lineup last week. Durán is now the Rangers’ everyday designated hitter.

“He’s got a gift, and that’s getting the barrel on the ball,” Bochy said. “Just consistently hard contact. And he’s a smart hitter. I think he sees what pitchers are trying to do. He’s adjusted on the fly, which you like to see from a young kid. He has shown good discipline up there, and he’s using the whole field. He’s just mature beyond his years.”

Problem is, way too often after Durán and the rest of the Rangers’ batters build a lead, the Texas bullpen coughs it up. The Rangers have lost six games after taking a lead into the seventh inning or later. If the division race remains tight in September, those defeats could loom large. “We’ve got to have somebody step up,” Bochy told reporters after a pair of Texas relievers allowed five earned runs in the seventh inning against Pittsburgh on Monday. “I don’t know what else to say, but that’s what we’re doing, is trying to get these guys on track. . . . We’ve got to get this thing in order, because we’re a team that scores runs, but we’ve got to find a way to win some of these close ones, too.”

One year after shelling out contracts totaling $500 million to shortstop Corey Seager and second baseman Marcus Semien, the Rangers rebuilt their starting rotation by spending $264 million on pitchers Jacob deGrom, Nathan Eovaldi, Andrew Heaney, and Martin Pérez. DeGrom was the big get, signing for $185 million over five years after nine seasons with the New York Mets, during which he won National League Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019. But deGrom was a gamble because injuries sidelined him for chunks of the previous two seasons, and he made just six starts for the Rangers before a cranky right elbow sent him back to the injured list, with no clear indication when he’ll pitch again.

But right-handers Eovaldi and Jon Gray have been excellent, and deGrom’s injury has given right-hander Dane Dunning, once a top prospect with the Chicago White Sox, a chance to show he belongs. In four starts this month, he has ridden a new and improved cutter to a 1.59 ERA. But unless the Rangers can improve their bullpen, they may not have enough to make a deep postseason run, despite the nightly fireworks display from the offense.    

“This is close to what I was hoping,” Bochy said. “I wanted us to get off to a good start. I thought that was important. . . . I think if you had told me that we were going to lose some key players like we did, then I’m really happy with where we’re at.”