The Texas Rangers had just won their biggest game in a dozen years—their fifth straight playoff victory, which they claimed with power and swagger and dominance to qualify for the American League Championship Series. They had finished their celebration in the middle of the diamond, and as many of the record 40,861 fans at Globe Life Field remained to roar their approval, the team still had one last piece of unfinished business.

Rather than retreat to the clubhouse, where a room had been set up for the ritual opening of champagne bottles, and all the toasts and bear hugs and spray fights that go with it, the Rangers remained on the field in a large, loose huddle and began pointing toward the fans and tipping their hats. Later they would say that this Tuesday-night crowd in Arlington had been as loud and emotional any they’d ever heard.

A week ago, you wouldn’t have bet a plug nickel on this team after the Rangers dropped a dispiriting 1–0 loss on the final day of the regular season, allowing the Houston Astros to claim first place in the AL West division. That reversal of fortune forced the Rangers into a wild card playoff series on the road against the Tampa Bay Rays. After taking care of business there with a two-game sweep, they stayed away from home for the first two games of an American League Division Series against the Baltimore Orioles, who had the second-best regular-season record in baseball.    

By the time the Rangers returned to Arlington on Sunday night, they’d been on the road for fourteen days and defied just about every expectation except their own. They’d dispatched the 99-win Tampa Bay Rays and flown back to Texas with a 2–0 lead on the 101-win Orioles. The Rangers are the first team in MLB history to sweep two teams with a combined 200 regular-season wins in one postseason, according to OptaStats.

On Tuesday, they finished the deal with right-hander Nathan Eovaldi, who appropriately enough hails from Alvin, the hometown of Nolan Ryan, the best there ever was (at least around these parts). Eovaldi allowed one run in seven overpowering innings, then took an in-game curtain call that he called one of the best moments of his twelve-year major league career. “These are the moments you play for as an athlete,” he said. “I love pitching in these big moments. . . . I enjoy having these big games that are the big deciding games on the line.”

Eovaldi had also been on the mound for the clincher against the Rays, allowing one run in six and two-thirds innings. A hero of the Boston Red Sox’s 2018 championship, Eovaldi has been at his best when the lights are brightest, with a 2.70 ERA in thirteen postseason appearances. He missed almost two months this season with forearm tightness and had a 9.30 ERA in his final six regular-season starts. He has turned the page, and quickly, in the playoffs, with a fastball that averaged 95.1 miles per hour on Tuesday, the best it’s been since mid-June.

After a roller coaster of a regular season, in which the Rangers were nearly gutted by injuries and flirted with missing the playoffs after leading the AL West for most of the year, the team has suddenly and unexpectedly become the version of itself that drew over-the-top, early season comparisons to the 1927 New York Yankees. The Rangers’ five postseason wins have the combined score of 32–12, the second-highest run differential ever in a team’s first five playoff games.

Former Tigers, Marlins, and Pirates manager Jim Leyland once told me: “Don’t tell me how many games a team won in April and May. Tell me how they’re playing in September. Tell me if they’re healthy. It’s catching lightning in a bottle at that time of the year.”

He was describing the exact kind of groove the 2023 Texas Rangers seem to have found. Their 2.20 ERA in these playoffs is more than two runs per game better than their season-long 4.28 mark. Manager Bruce Bochy has masterfully juggled his rotation, swapping relievers and starters for favorable matchups and high-leverage outs.

Adjustments like these were Bochy’s specialty during his years managing the San Francisco Giants and leading the team to three World Series championships. Few managers are better at handling a pitching staff. His skill was most vividly on display in game one against Baltimore, when Bochy got a combined five-hitter out of six different Texas pitchers, including two, Andrew Heaney and Dane Dunning, who’d been starters for much of the year.

“This is what I came back for, hoping something like this would happen,” Bochy said after Tuesday’s win. “I know how blessed I am to be in this situation. These guys have been warriors.” When asked about the team’s postseason turnaround, he said: “It’s a matter of getting hot. These guys got hot after a really tough series there in Seattle—couldn’t quite get it done there, had to go to Tampa. You’ve just gotta put that behind them, and they’ve been doing that all year.”

Offensively, Rangers rookies Evan Carter and Josh Jung have joined with Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, and others to make this baseball’s deepest lineup. The Rangers homered seven times in five postseason games, with a .373 on-base percentage. Seager is hitting .429 in the playoff, and his booming home run got the Rangers off and running in the bottom of the first inning on Tuesday. 

Jung, hitting .400 this postseason, returned from a fractured thumb in mid-September and hit just .196 in the final two weeks. But he has again looked very much like the player who made the American League All-Star team in July. The Rangers had lost fifteen of nineteen games when general manager Chris Young decided to summon Carter, the club’s top prospect, to the big leagues on September 8. What seemed like a panic move at the time became one of Young’s smartest decisions. Carter had just turned 21 and had played only eight games in triple-A at the time of his major league debut. He singled in his first at-bat, batted .307 in 23 games, and has not blinked in the playoffs, with an astonishing .429 batting average and a .619 on-base percentage.

During Tuesday’s celebration, Young told the Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal about a conversation he’d had with his wife Liz earlier that night. During the seventh inning, she told Young, “I guess Christmas Eve was worthwhile.” She was referring to a marathon negotiating session with Eovaldi’s agent on December 24, in which Young closed the deal that brought the pitcher to the Rangers. “God, he was nasty,” teammate Max Scherzer said of Eovaldi’s performance on Tuesday. “He just had everything working: the cutter, the curveball, fastball, splitter even. He had every pitch and located them.”

Young’s secret sauce is that he dotted the roster with stars like Seager, Semien, and Scherzer, but in outfielder Robbie Grossman, Eovaldi, and others, he also built around players with reputations for outstanding professionalism. Over a long, grinding season—when even a great club might lose fifteen times during a nineteen-game stretch—it all matters.

To get over the team’s late-season swoon, the Rangers clubhouse boomed with a peculiar choice of music—Creed, a rock group that hasn’t released a studio album since 2009. “It’s something to bond over,” Seager said. “That’s the hard thing about teams, right? You have people coming in and out. How do you gel? How do you come together? How do you fight for each other? You find little ways on different teams, and that’s one of our ways.”

On Tuesday, the rowdy Globe Life Field crowd sang along to Creed’s “Higher” after Adolis García’s three-run homer gave the Rangers a 6–0 lead in the second inning.

In the final couple of innings on Tuesday, and especially afterward, Rangers fans began chanting, “We want Houston!” The Astros had come to Arlington on Labor Day weekend and demolished the Rangers in a three-game sweep in which they outscored the home team 39–10. That series was the low point of the Rangers’ season. Even so, ever since the Rangers arrived in Arlington in 1972, many Texan baseball fans have dreamed of an Astros-Rangers playoff series that would captivate our football-crazed state. Stay tuned—the Astros lead their ALDS series against the Minnesota Twins 2–1, with a chance to clinch tonight in Minnesota.

“Knowing where we’ve been, knowing what we’ve accomplished this year, it excites everybody,” Seager said. “We know our fans are excited. Ownership is excited, the front office is excited, the coaches—everybody is really excited about this moment. We don’t take it lightly.”