MLB playoffs 2023: With ALCS Game 7 win, Texas Rangers put all the pieces together, wrest control of the AL from Astros

Twelve years since their last appearance and two years after they went all-in on building a contender, the Rangers are headed to the World Series

HOUSTON — Corey Seager is a dominant but not exactly dynamic baseball player, eminently productive if not all that expressively passionate. He’s a four-time All-Star, former Rookie of the Year, two-time Silver Slugger and NLCS and World Series MVP in 2020, but to be honest, he’s a little boring.

Or, as his teammate, his middle-infield partner and the twin pillar that put this organization on the map two years ago, Marcus Semien, describes him: “A very stoic player.”

The Very Stoic Corey Seager was a big part of how the Texas Rangers got to the American League Championship Series. His 6.1 fWAR this season was third behind only Semien and Shohei Ohtani in the American League. Through the Rangers’ first five playoff games — sweeps in the wild card and Division Series — he had an OPS of 1.649.

But facing the reigning champion Houston Astros, Seager and the Rangers stumbled. Going into a winner-take-all Game 7, the Rangers’ second straight on the brink of elimination, Seager was batting .192 with no walks, one homer and two RBI this series. Yet even though he and Semien had both struggled of late, manager Bruce Bochy kept them at the top of the lineup. Calling someone “old-school” can be fraught, but Bochy is certainly consistent.

On Monday against Cristian Javier, who started the first game this postseason that the Rangers lost, Semien grounded out to start the game. But then, on the second pitch he saw, Seager sent the ball 440 feet into the second deck above right field. While the Rangers fan who made the drive to Houston cheered, he jogged dutifully around the bases with his head down — until he greeted third-base coach Tony Beasley with an emphatic high-five and a roar.

“Emotion comes out every once in a while,” Seager said later.

“When he shows emotion,” Semien said, “watch out.”

Just a few minutes into the decisive Game 7 against a division rival that has all but owned the AL for half a decade, the Rangers had a 1-0 lead. They never lost it, mashing their way to an 11-4 victory and a pennant.

By now, the story has been told so many times it has become a parable about big payrolls and a no-holds-barred approach to rebuilding through free agency: With a star-studded class of shortstops available in the offseason following 102 losses in 2021, the Rangers splurged, signing Seager and Semien for half a billion dollars in the span of 48 hours. The point was to get better but also to become a destination for other impact players. Last year, that credibility helped reel in an entirely new rotation, which the Rangers have since upgraded further as needed.

“He came here to win a World Series,” Semien said of Seager. “So did I.”

But did they expect it so fast? In December, it’ll be two years since the two of them were introduced in Arlington. On Friday, they’ll host Game 1 of the World Series.

“Um, you never know,” Seager said on the field as teammates and their families celebrated around him. “It's hard to be here. So this is why it's fun, and this is why it's exciting — because it's not easy to do what we've done.

“But this was their vision from the beginning. So for it to come true, it really is special.”

'You can't really deny that October has that type of emotion'

No one would ever accuse Adolis García of being stoic.

He became a central figure in the series when he got hit by a pitch that inspired a brawl in Game 5, only to follow it up with four strikeouts and a grand slam in Game 6. The former — likely exacerbated by the latter — earned García hearty boos every time he stepped to the plate in Houston. Which he did in the first inning Monday, with rookie sensation Evan Carter on first base after a walk. With the count full, García also launched a ball deep, this one toward the Crawford Boxes.

He did not jog dutifully out of the box. García stood there, admiring the 346-foot arc of the ball that came down juuuust shy of the seats, hitting off the wall as it fell. If he had hustled, he probably could’ve had a double. Instead, García had to settle for a long single, an RBI, a stolen base to make up for his mistake and a run scored — at least until he got another crack at it.

In his very next at-bat, García homered for the fourth straight game. You better believe he celebrated. An inning after that, he singled again to drive in two runs as part of a four-run inning that put the game out of reach after Houston had pulled within two.

By the eighth, the Rangers had double-digit runs, every member of the lineup save one had at least one hit, and Astros fans were leaving in droves. Just because he could, García homered again, and because the rooting interest ratio of the crowd had shifted as a result of the early exits, this time he heard more cheers than boos.

“You can't really deny that October has that type of emotion,” he said after the game — and after he’d been awarded ALCS MVP honors.

David Freese holds the record for RBI in a single postseason. Any baseball analyst worth their peanuts wouldn’t put much stock in RBI as an evaluative stat (too context-dependent), but sometimes, the context is the point. Like in the postseason. The sample sizes are small, and the numbers don’t even count toward career totals! Plating runs, though? That’s pretty damn important.

Anyway, Freese has the record — set in his magical 2011 World Series run with the St. Louis Cardinals that cemented him forever as a local hero. In 71 plate appearances across 18 games that fall, Freese drove in 21. No one has ever had a more productive postseason from the perspective of driving in runs — you know, the currency of the sport.

That year, powered by Freese, the Cardinals won the World Series, besting the Texas Rangers. Two years later, the Cardinals were playing in the Fall Classic again, losing to the Boston Red Sox in six. Twelve years later, the Rangers had not been back — until now.

Every team that makes a deep October run has its David Freese — the guy who gets hot at exactly the right time and becomes synonymous with the series, enmeshed in the memories. For the Rangers right now, that’s García. Through just 12 games and 54 plate appearances, he is already second to Freese (and tied with Seager in 2020) with 20 RBI.

The playoffs are longer these days, which means more rounds to rack up stats, but of the 12 players in history who drove in 17 or more in the course of a single postseason, only one did so in fewer plate appearances than García has so far.

And now, he has at least four additional games to knock in a few more and take the all-time lead.

'They’re in that win-now mode'

“CY, when he initially reached out, and we were talking about negotiations and everything, he mentioned about how great the offense was,” said Nathan Eovaldi, who joined the Rangers as a free agent last offseason. “Pitching was one of the most important needs.”

Pitching was the problem last year. And so general manager and former big-league starter Chris Young added a lot of it over the winter. So much so that Eovaldi actually figured he missed his chance to return to Texas, where he’s from, after the team signed Andrew Heaney and Jacob deGrom before him. But then the Rangers signed him, too.

“They’re in that win-now mode,” Eovaldi said.

So far, he has started four games this postseason, and he has won all of them — including Game 6 of the ALCS to force a Game 7. But when the Rangers got there, it was not Heaney or deGrom who started but Max Scherzer. And it was Jordan Montgomery, pitching in relief three days after he started Game 5, who ultimately got the win.

Win-now meant that when the starters the team added in the offseason went down due to injury, the Rangers traded for even more. That unwillingness to let circumstances determine their fortunes when instead they could simply change them has taken them all the way to the World Series. It’s not an accident. Which is why when Eovaldi joined the Rangers in December, he really did expect that they could be competing for a championship in less than a year.

“I mean, that was my intention,” he said.

As the booze-spewing part of the celebration inside the clubhouse died down Monday, coaches and players returned to the field to take soggy photos with their families. Mike Maddux, the pitching coach, posed with his wife on the Minute Maid mound, pointing at the rubber for a picture.

He explained that this was where he had thrown his last big-league pitch, spending the final season of his 15-year playing career in Houston. On July 4, 2000, he threw two scoreless innings for the Astros and has basically been a pitching coach ever since.

He was with the Rangers for that 2011 playoff run. Now they’re going back to the World Series together after he spent years elsewhere — coaching for the Nationals and Cardinals before returning to Texas as part of Bochy’s staff this season.

After 12 years away from the World Series — for the Rangers and for Maddux — did he really think it would happen this quickly upon reuniting?

“Is this for print?” Maddux clarified when asked that question. “F*** yeah.”