This is what you dream about, Texas Rangers manager Jeff Banister said.
Banister, who grew up rooting for the Houston Astros in La Marque, did not hide his excitement. The Rangers host the Astros for a four-game series beginning Monday with the American League West division title in the balance.
The first-place Astros lead the Rangers by 1 1/2 games. Texas has 20 games remaining, the Astros have 19. The teams also square off for a three-game series Sept. 25-27 at Minute Maid Park in Houston.
“I can’t wait. Are you kidding me?” Banister said before the Rangers defeated Oakland 12-4 on Sunday. “The idea of having the two baseball teams in this state go head to head this late in the year of the magnitude for what it means on the season … for me it’s special.”
Banister, a proud Texan, is especially proud of the turnaround both organizations have made in 2015.
“Who picked them to be in the playoffs this year before the year started?” he asked. “They buried us, believe me. We had dirt on us. You guys put the headstone on us when [Yu] Darvish went down. I’m proud of it. For what we have done. Where [the Astros] have come from. To have the eyes of baseball on Texas. I think it’s great for the state of Texas. I think it’s great for baseball fans in the state of Texas.”
Banister, of course, couched his praise for both teams, with three weeks remaining in the regular season.
“We haven’t done anything yet. We’re not there yet,” he said. “We’ve got a chance. We’ve given ourselves a chance.”
Neither fanbase had high expectations when the season began. Both teams lost more than 90 games in 2014 and finished at the bottom of the division. The Rangers lost ace Yu Darvish to injury during spring training and were without pitchers Derek Holland and Martin Perez for the first half of the season. The Astros were talented, but too young, and figured to still be a season or two away from contending. The Astros have powered their way with 197 home runs (second only to Toronto) and have received outstanding starting pitching, including Cy Young candidate Dallas Keuchel, who has a league-leading 17 wins. The Rangers have reloaded their rotation with a trade for Cole Hamels and the return of Holland and Perez and bolstered a sketchy bullpen with the acquisitions of Jake Diekman and Sam Dyson and emergence of closer Shawn Tolleson.
Texas leads the season series 8-4, with seven games remaining. A year ago, Houston won the season series 11-8 for the first time since 2006. In 2013, the first year both were in the AL West, Texas dominated, 17-2.
Astros second baseman Jose Altuve put the series in proper perspective.
“I think that’s the series the whole world is waiting for,” said Altuve, who leads Houston with a .313 batting average and 69 runs scored. “All our fans want to see us face the Rangers. They want to see us beat the Rangers, and it’s very important to beat the Rangers. I think this is what will make the difference this month.”
The Astros have been in first place for much of the season and have led the division since July 28. After a woeful 8-16 start, the Rangers regrouped and started returning vital pieces to their rotation.
“Obviously, both teams are going to be really, really excited to play each other,” Astros first-year manager A.J. Hinch said after Houston scored five runs with two outs in the ninth to beat the Angels Sunday afternoon. “They’re going to have their home crowd behind them ... it’s tough to play at that park. I like the momentum coming out of this one.”
The Rangers have a little bit of momentum, too. They’re 33-21 since the All-Star break compared to the Astros’ 28-24.
“It should be fun, for our club, the community, the fans, the state of Texas,” Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. “Both clubs effectively control their own destiny. You hope to be in this position at the end of the year and I expect the guys will be up for it.”
Beginning Monday, for the first time, Rangers-Astros games are for much more than the Silver Boot trophy.
“I’ll enjoy every one of them because I know the implications and the energy it should bring,” Banister said. “As a fan of baseball in the state of Texas, to have your two teams square off in meaningful games right now? It should be your dream.”
Stefan Stevenson, 817-390-7760