Just days ago, the Lone Star State stood to become the exclusive home of the American League Championship Series.
Now, after both the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros had their bids to flip playoff scripts foiled by the favorites, there will be no Friday night lights on in Arlington. Instead, they’ll be beaming brightly inside Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium, where the defending AL champion Royals will face-off in Game 1 against a Toronto Blue Jays team looking to book their first trip to the World Series in 22 years.
The baseball fever that’s turned Toronto on its head was all but over after the Jays dropped a brutal, 14-inning Game 2: an encounter that saw MLB’s top-ranked run machine stymied for a second consecutive night at the Rogers Centre. But their bats recovered on the road, and the Rangers were shut down in games three and four, setting up a Game 5 showdown on the turf in Toronto, one which brought about what could be the most singularly bizarre moment many baseball fans have ever witnessed.
By the top of the seventh inning, the Jays had clawed back to tie the game at two. With Rougned Odor on third base and two outs and Shin Soo-Choo at the plate, catcher Russell Martin’s throw back to reliever Aaron Sanchez hit Choo’s hand and bounced into foul territory on the third base side – Odor took off for home and scored easily, putting the Rangers on top, late. Russell and the Jays were stunned, while the home crowd dishonored their franchise by throwing bottles and debris onto the field in protest, causing a lengthy delay to the game. The umpires obliged manager John Gibbons by looking at the play, but because Choo did nothing to cause the deflection, the ball was live and the Rangers had one of the most unlikely leads in the history of the game.
For a time, it seemed like the Blue Jays year was set to end thanks to non-sense, not common sense. That a season that started all the way back in February would be settled by a fluke of a play, one that had absolutely nothing to do with action or talent, would’ve left a cold, bold, black-mark on the sport.
“Everybody was a bit pissed off,” said Jays manager John Gibbons. “I don’t think anybody understood what happened, you know? You’d hate for that to be a difference-maker in a game of this magnitude.”
RA Dickey told a teammate in the dugout “there is no way that a baseball game like this is going to end with Russell Martin throwing a ball of Choo’s hand.”
Sensing the potential for injustice, the baseball gods got busy on the Rangers in the bottom of the inning. Two errors by Elvis Andrus, an above average fielding shortstop, sandwiched between miscue at first by Mitch Moreland, loaded the bases. These weren’t tough bounces: they were easy, routine, everyday baseball plays, bumbled by a Rangers team that suddenly seemed spooked. Then Ben Revere grounded out, bringing Josh Donaldson to the plate, where the would-be AL MVP hit a floater just beyond the reach of the second baseman Odor and came Dalton Pompey home to score. It was a sequence that seemed appropriate considering earlier events.
The game was tied, but with two on, Jose Bautista’s bat flip for the ages followed a blast which would ultimately send the Jays into their sixth ALCS. Watch it again and again and again.
Thanks to what may be the single nuttiest inning imaginable, the party was back on in Toronto, even if some fans seemed set on diluting the day by throwing even more items onto the turf, a real shame considering the sudden rising of baseball’s stock in Ontario and throughout Canada. Benches cleared before the third out as Texas reliever Sam Dyson, obviously on edge after Bautista watched his fastball fly off the facade of the second deck for a very, very long time, mistook Edwin Encarnacion trying to calm the trash-chucking crowd, as showboating – just another oddity in an epic 53-minute inning that sank Texas.
For the Rangers and their fans, the pain is real, it is brutal and it is piling up. Texas weren’t supposed to win the AL West this season, but they did, and it only put them in a position to suffer even more. In the 2011 World Series they blew a two-run lead in the ninth, and again in the 10th as the David Freese’s Game 6 home run stunned the Rangers. A season later, they blew a four-game AL West lead over the Oakland A’s with just seven games to play. In 2013, they won seven straight games to reach the playoffs, only to be ousted in the wild card game by the Tampa Bay Rays. Now an unlikely storybook season is soured by their blowing of a 2-0 series lead as yet another long winter awaits in Arlington.
Meanwhile, their intra-state rivals to the east are dealing with a dull ache that won’t disappear anytime soon. The Astros had the defending AL champs counting their outs in Game 4. Then a 6-2 eighth inning lead evaporated as KC singled the big swinging ‘Stros to death: five straight knocks turned into five runs as the Royals roasted Houston in their own house.
From there Game 5 in KC was a formality: you don’t get extra chances against Ned Yost’s Royals, a team that gracefully galvanized last season, and made a swift, easy transition up and out of the underdog role in 2015. Johnny Cueto pitched like the difference-maker he was acquired to be, quieting the bats of homer happy Houston over eight innings of two-run ball during which he retired his final 19 Houston hitters. Alex Rios, who before this series had been baseball’s longest tenured player to not reach the playoffs, had the big blow: a two-run, fifth inning double that put KC on top 3-2. Then a sac-bunt by Alcides Escobar and a sac-fly by Ben Zobrist, the type of small-ball that burns the bright minds of baseball’s sabermatricians, doubled their lead.
That was all before Dallas Keuchel, entering the game four innings too late, allowed Kendry Morales’ three-run blast, an unfitting end to a season for the future AL Cy Young Award winner and his team. Houston, two years after losing 111 games, spent a season showcasing their early arrival and stars such as Carlos Correa, coming extremely close to reaching the last four for the first time in a decade. They’ll be back, and soon, but in the meantime, the Jays and Royals toppling of Texas’ teams have left the AL with a tantalizing match-up between its best.
This article was written by David Lengel, for theguardian.com on Thursday 15th October 2015 13.04 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010