Cole Hamels was pushed back to start the opener of the Texas Rangers’ most important series in two seasons.
Mike Napoli was playing left field to get the best nine hitters in the lineup — including Mitch Moreland.
The top setup relievers were called upon in the late innings.
The Rangers had their best on the field Monday against the team they are chasing in the American League West, and at times it didn’t look like it was going to work.
But it did, as Prince Fielder swatted a two-run homer in the eighth inning, the Rangers’ second two-run homer of the game, to lift the Rangers to a 5-3 victory over Houston and move them only a half-game back of the Astros.
The Rangers survived two errors, two hit batters, a balk and a steady stream of Astros base runners to also keep a one-game lead over Minnesota for the second AL wild card.
“A little bit of everything we’ve been through all season long,” manager Jeff Banister said. “We had to grind and show some mettle and grit, and we needed for some guys to show up big for us tonight, and they did.”
Moreland hit the other two-run homer, an opposite-field shot with two outs in the sixth inning, and Fielder scored three runs. Hamels allowed three runs in seven innings, and Shawn Tolleson recorded his 32nd save of the season.
Improbable? No, not with the Rangers improving to 9-4 against the Astros this season. But yeah, kind of, with the Rangers seemingly hanging on from the first inning.
The Rangers trailed 1-0 after Jose Altuve hit a one-out homer off Hamels.
The Rangers tied it in the second on a two-out double by Rougned Odor, scoring Fielder, but fell behind in the fifth as Hamels allowed a one-out double, then balked on an appeal to first base and saw that runner Jake Marisnick dive home safely on a smash that Moreland fielded at first base but double-clutched on his throw home.
But then the Rangers’ biggest bats showed up.
Moreland has played sparingly against left-handers since Napoli was acquired, but Banister on Monday wanted his best hitters in the game to end the Rangers’ struggles against lefties.
Moreland made good on the manager’s move, taking lefty Scott Kazmir out to left field for his team-leading 20th homer of the season. Fielder, who had singled with one out, scored.
Fielder hadn’t hit a homer since Sept. 1, his only homer in 31 games. But his deep, towering drive off Will Harris carried 408 feet and just beyond the extended arm of a leaping Marisnick as it sailed over the center-field wall.
“I knew I hit it good, but here you never know,” said Fielder, who has 19 homers this season. “The wind plays tricks on you sometimes. I knew I had hit it hard enough, but the way he was going back on it I didn’t know if he was going to rob it or not.”
Hamels was sent back out for the seventh after Moreland’s go-ahead homer, and he thought he had twice gotten out of a two-out jam.
Hamels thought his eighth pitch to Jonathan Villar was good enough for strike three to end the inning, but plate ump Gerry Davis said it was inside and called it a ball to extend the inning.
Hamels thought his sixth pitch to Colby Rasmus should have resulted in another called strikeout, but it was a ball off the plate and Rasmus sent a one-hop smash off Moreland and into shallow right field to tie the game on the next pitch.
Jake Diekman and Keone Kela (7-5) combined on a scoreless eighth, and Adrian Beltre singled with one out ahead of Fielder.
Fielder, though, downplayed the significance of his homer, deferring to Moreland’s blast.
“I thought Mitch’s at-bat, the homer to the opposite field, I thought that right there was the biggest at-bat of the game because to do that off that guy — clearly that guy has been excellent all year,” Fielder said.
“So for a lefty to go oppo on him is impressive. That right there is the at-bat of the game.”
No matter who gets the credit, the Rangers used their best and won with their best to move within a half-game of the AL West lead.