Gil LeBreton

Slow in starting, Rangers and rivalry have heated up

Rangers’ pinch-runner Drew Stubbs scores the winning run past Astros catcher Hank Conger in the ninth inning Tuesday night that put Texas into first place in the AL West and moved Houston out of first for the first time in 139 days.
Rangers’ pinch-runner Drew Stubbs scores the winning run past Astros catcher Hank Conger in the ninth inning Tuesday night that put Texas into first place in the AL West and moved Houston out of first for the first time in 139 days. Star-Telegram

On Sunday, May 3, the Texas Rangers hit rock bottom.

Their two best starting pitchers, Yu Darvish and Derek Holland, were injured and out indefinitely. Their clean-up hitter, Adrian Beltre, was batting .216, and the guy behind him, Shin-Soo Choo, was hitting a ghastly .141.

After a 7-1 loss to Oakland, the Rangers’ record fell to 8-16 — 9  1/2 games behind the first-place Houston Astros.

Some mountains, in other words, just take a little longer to climb.

When Mitch Moreland’s sacrifice fly line drive scored pinch-runner Drew Stubbs with the winning run in the bottom of the ninth Tuesday, the Rangers’ ascent from the depths was complete.

After 139 days in first place, the Astros were staring up at their instate rivals. The Rangers’ 6-5 decision was their second victory in as many nights.

Until this week, it seems, the Astros and Rangers were a rivalry only in our Wiffle ball games or in our Strat-O-Matic leagues.

One flag over both. We understand that.

But nobody around here grows up as both a Houston Astros and a Texas Rangers fan. Do they?

To baseball followers in this state, they are as different as waffles and pancakes. Mockingbirds and mosquitoes. The Astrodome and the Fort Worth Stockyards. Loel Passe and Mark Holtz.

Different leagues for different folks with different strokes.

It was former owner Tom Hicks who, with the advent of interleague play, advanced the notion that an annual series between the Astros and Rangers could become a veritable marketing bonanza.

But the idea never left its NASA launch pad.

Nor did those Astros and Rangers teams, for that matter.

And when the dust from the Silver Boot settled, the Rangers were still in the American League West, with its Pacific time zone and post-bedtime seventh inning stretches.

And the Astros were left to fight for their place at the feeding trough of the tough NL Central.

Until now. Until the Astros were dispatched across the MLB tracks in realignment. And until this week, when they meet for the first time with more than a makeshift trophy on the line.

Finally, the rivalry has its teeth.

You can hear it in the voices — 26,942 on Tuesday night that, at times, sounded like 40,000. You can see it in the extra hop in the Rangers’ and Astros’ steps.

The final verdict won’t be rendered this week — not in this series. But if the first two games have reminded us of anything, it’s that the sums of these two parts are mostly even.

Different teams, to be sure, that have taken different paths to the top of the AL West.

Whether it’s the Astros’ youth and starting pitching, though, or the Rangers’ momentum and veteran leadership from Adrian Beltre and Prince Fielder, the equations have brought them to this week’s crossroads.

A final series in Houston beginning in 10 days may well decide it all.

After 139 days of looking up at the Astros, however, the Rangers have finally put their injuries and April miseries behind them.

Gil LeBreton: 817-390-7697

Twitter: @gilebreton

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