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MLB Playoff Roundup: Altuve stuns Rangers in ninth, Astros on brink of pennant

The Astros fired the last salvo in a back-and-forth battle and will aim for their third consecutive AL pennant tomorrow.

Jose Altuve rounding the bases after his decisive three-run homer.
Jose Altuve rounding the bases after his decisive three-run homer.
Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

Although they lost the last two games at home, the Rangers had lined everything up perfectly for the rest of the ALCS against the Astros. They rested their trio of trusted relievers — José Leclerc, Aroldis Chapman, and Josh Sborz — and had their two best starters primed to clinch the series. But sometimes even the best-laid plans go awry, as a seesaw game filled with decisive homers, bench-clearing almost-brawls, and tension in just about every other moment ended in a 5-4 Houston victory that devastated the crowd in Arlington.

ALCS Game 5

Houston Astros 5, Texas Rangers 4

(Houston leads series 3-2)

For the third consecutive game, all at Globe Life Field, Houston took an early lead. After Montgomery notched a pair of first-pitch groundouts to start the game, Alex Bregman opted for patience, taking a sinker for a strike. Montgomery followed up with a changeup outside before returning to the sinker 1-1. Jonah Heim set up low and in for this second sinker, but Montgomery missed middle-high, and the rest was history:

Yesterday, Bregman kicked off the scoring with a two-run triple. But while the previous pair of contests saw the Astros jump out to early 3-0 leads, Montgomery kept them at one this time.

The Rangers almost tied it in the bottom of the third, when Verlander found himself in his first real bit of trouble. After retiring the first seven Rangers he faced on the night, he walked Mitch Garver and then Heim somehow got on top of a carrying Verlander heater for a single. With first and third and one out, the Rangers’ lineup flipped over. But after Marcus Semien and Corey Seager managed just a pair of popups to start the Texas half of the first inning, they each swung at the first pitch, with just another popup and a flyout to show for it.

Montgomery, meanwhile, was in the midst of his own perfect streak. He ultimately retired 10 in a row, thanks in part to this grab from Adolis García on another Bregman drive:

The streak ended when Kyle Tucker led off the top of the fifth with a single. Montgomery then coaxed a weak flyout from Chas McCormick and a weak grounder from Jeremy Peña that looked like a potential inning-ender. But Semien couldn’t come up with the ball at second, and everyone was safe. For the All-Star second baseman, it represented his offensive struggles in the postseason leaking into his defense. But no matter, for Montgomery set down Martin Maldonado on a flyout and Jose Altuve’s bunt-for-a-hit attempt fell flat.

Verlander, who had been cruising largely behind his elite fastball, threw five in a row to Nathaniel Lowe. The first two missed up and away. The third was center-cut, and Lowe fouled it off. The fourth, on the high and inside corner, notched a whiff. On the fifth, Verlander tried to go up and away again, but the ball drifted down and caught too much of the zone. Lowe powered it the other way, and it just kept carrying:

After snapping their 10-inning scoreless stretch, the Rangers had tied the game at one. But the Astros took the lead right back in the top of the sixth, as Montgomery pitched around Bregman and Yordan Alvarez, ultimately walking the former and allowing an eight-pitch single to the latter. The next hitter, José Abreu, whiffed on a pair of curveballs to start his at-bat, but Montgomery mistakenly tripled up and Abreu got a hold of the third bender, singling home Bregman on a ball that Seager couldn’t quite come up with:

Montgomery walked Tucker next, and Bruce Bochy had seen enough. Luckily for the Rangers, the aforementioned Sborz was available to come in, and he wiggled out of the bases-loaded jam to keep the deficit at one.

The ability to keep things close proved crucial, as the Rangers grabbed the lead — for the first time at home in this series — in the bottom half of the inning. Seager made up for his fielding folly with a one-out double, and Evan Carter moved him over to third with a single. Texas hitters had struggled to get on top of Verlander’s fastball all night, but García finally got on top of one that drifted low and in the zone — just enough to allow for a moonshot but wall-scraping homer:

García’s emphatic bat smash didn’t go unnoticed, however. The next time he strode to the plate, he was beaned on the first pitch of the at-bat with a 99-mph heater, and he confronted the Houston catcher Maldonado immediately, clearing the benches.

The fracas led to the ejections of García, pitcher Bryan Abreu (who hit him), and Astros manager Dusty Baker.

But the free base didn’t come back to bite the Astros. If anything, it seemed to rally them on both sides of the ball. The Rangers went down quietly in that half inning, sending the Astros up to bat for the final time, down 4-2. After Sborz fired 1.2 hitless innings and Chapman neutralized Alvarez (though he couldn’t retire the other lefty Tucker), closer Leclerc came on. The hard-throwing righty had finished the top of the eighth for Chapman, and he came out looking cold, perhaps due to the layoff brought on by the benches clearing.

Leclerc immediately ran into trouble, yielding a single and a walk to pinch-hitters Yainer Diaz and Jon Singleton. As the scoreboard in Cincinnati used to warn, walks will haunt — especially ones to inferior hitters in front of an October legend.

Altuve strode to the plate next, 0-4 on the night. Still, he had pounded seven homers at Globe Life Field in the regular season, eight if you include the playoffs, and he was coming off of a three-hit night. Leclerc wasn’t going to throw him any heaters. He started Altuve off with a slider on the outside corner for a called strike, before opting for his rarely-used changeup. It didn’t faze the veteran, and he turned on it for a three-run shot to put Houston in the lead:

The Rangers started the bottom of the ninth off with two singles, but a pair of hard-hit balls from Semien and Seager didn’t amount to anything thereafter, and Carter struck out to end the game and Texas’ hopes of hitting the road in control of the series.

The Rangers still have their number two in Nathan Eovaldi geared up for Game 6, but it’s anyone’s guess whether Max Scherzer will be able to take the hill effectively should there be a Game 7. Finally, the Rangers’ lack of pitching depth has caught up to them, even as they’ve lined up their relievers just right. Game 6 is scheduled for Sunday; Framber Valdez will toe the slab for Houston, and though he faltered in his first start of the series, Texas would be hard-pressed to count on another clunker from the All-Star.

With one more victory, the Astros will capture their third consecutive American League pennant, not to mention their fourth in five years and fifth in seven years. They are nothing if not a relentless juggernaut.