Rangers Make Sweet Escape, Take Command of ALDS

Texas Rangers
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

BALTIMORE — The Orioles were one of the toughest teams to put away in the regular season, as their record, status as the AL’s top seed, and distinction of never having been swept all attest. But in Game 1 of the ALDS against a Rangers team that kept going the wrong way in the standings in September, the script was reversed.

In front of a capacity crowd in a game delayed an hour by rain, it was the Rangers who clung to a narrow lead for six innings, as every Baltimore rally fell short. Despite the conditions and an unfavorable pitching matchup, Texas took an upset 3–2 win behind the tandem of Andrew Heaney and Dane Dunning. With that win comes control of the series.

Going into the weekend, the biggest question mark about the 101-win Orioles was a rotation that didn’t look like your typical postseason steamroller. After Kyle Bradish comes rookie Grayson Rodriguez, who’s only figured things out in the past couple months, and then a series of unknowns. For a moment, it seemed like the Orioles might actually have an advantage over the Rangers, who are down Jacob deGrom, Jon Gray, and (despite a late flirtation with the ALDS roster after a Friday afternoon sim game) Max Scherzer. Jordan Montgomery and Nathan Eovaldi were burned in the Wild Card series, leaving Bradish, Baltimore’s no. 1 starter, matched up against Heaney.

Unfancied as a prospect and more recently dismissed as a finesse guy, Bradish came out of the gate pumped up, hitting 97.3 mph with his last pitch of the first inning — the seventh-fastest pitch he’s thrown all year out of more than 2,700. After striking out the final batter of each of the first two innings, he stormed off the mound with his fist in the air, keying up a crowd of more than 46,000 that hadn’t seen a home playoff game in nine years.

But Bradish had to flatten Heaney to take the most of this opportunity to put the favorites up 1–0 in the series against the fuzzy side of Texas’ rotation, and he didn’t quite get all of it. Though he struck out nine in just 4 2/3 innings, he started losing velocity on his fastballs and gaining it with his slider after the second inning. He allowed seven hits and a walk but avoided catastrophic damage by keeping the ball on the ground. Even when the Rangers hit the ball hard, they didn’t lift it (none of Texas’ seven hits off Bradish had a launch angle of more than 18 degrees), which meant they had to string hits together to score.

That they did in the top of the fourth, with four hits in a row and five in the span of six batters. Adolis García and Evan Carter contributed the biggest damage of the inning on back-to-back doubles, one to each corner, to start the rally. But after struggling to miss bats all inning, Bradish struck out Marcus Semien with the bases loaded to end it.

The Orioles counterpunched in the bottom of the inning, as Ryan Mountcastle doubled to the left field corner, where Carter rummaged around for the ball long enough for Anthony Santander to score from first. When Bradish left the game with two outs in the top of the fifth, the Orioles only trailed by a run.

“I don’t think he was as sharp as he is usually,” Hyde said. “But he punched out nine and had really good stuff.”

Before the series, much was made of the Rangers’ and Orioles’ differing paths out of their respective rebuilds —Baltimore through homegrown talent, Texas through free agency. But in addition to the aforementioned absences in the rotation, the Rangers’ veteran position players were a mixed bag; Corey Seager reached three times, but Semien was 0-for-5 with three strikeouts. Instead, a pair of rookies, Josh Jung and Carter, keyed the Rangers’ offense to victory.

It was Jung who gave Texas its final necessary cushion in the sixth with a booming solo homer to center, and who started a crucial double play in the eighth. Carter, who turned 21 just six weeks ago, went 1-for-2 with two walks; in his three-game postseason career, he’s now 4-for-6, with all four hits going for extra bases, to go with five walks.

“I’ve never seen someone come up here and not chase pitches out of the zone,” Jung said of his young(er) teammate. “He has that quality about him every time he’s at the plate and finds the barrel more often than not. It’s incredible. It’s awesome to see.”

And yet Carter did his greatest damage — the double that drove García in during the two-run fourth inning — by ambushing a first-pitch slider low in the zone.

“With the runner on second after a double by Doli, I don’t necessarily want to go up and see a bunch of pitches and draw a walk,” Carter said. “That’s one of those RBI situational hitting times. That’s what the team needs right now, to put something in play right there.”

While Bradish’s Game 1 start wasn’t the knockout blow Baltimore had hoped for, it was close enough to keep them in the fight. But even as Heaney gave way to a cavalcade of relievers — some convincing, others not — the Orioles never could quite pull level.

“This is a tough team to beat if you score two runs,” Hyde said. “They’re unbelievably patient. They don’t chase out of the zone. We did a great job on the mound, [allowing] three runs. We just didn’t have the offense today.”

Hyde went on to bemoan a lack of traffic on the bases, but that wasn’t really the problem. Baltimore put at least one runner on base every inning from the fourth inning on, but the lead only changed in the sixth on Jung’s homer, and Santander answered with a solo shot of his own in the bottom half of the frame. The problem wasn’t the Orioles’ lack of baserunners, but an inability to convert the opportunities they had.

Any crowd that’s so frequently frustrated is going to ebb in and out of the game, but the Rangers kept waking Orioles fans up. In the sixth, after Santander’s home run, Rangers manager Bruce Bochy brought in Will Smith to face Gunnar Henderson. That gave the Camden Yards DJ occasion to play Henderson’s walk-up song (the 2006 pop banger “The Sweet Escape” by Gwen Stefani feat. Akon) twice. The second time through, the crowd sensed that this would be an ideal time for Baltimore’s franchise shortstop to enter franchise lore with a game-tying home run. Instead, Henderson struck out on five pitches.

In the seventh, Bochy replaced Smith with Josh Sborz, who threw seven straight balls to start the inning. Once again, the crowd sensed blood and got loud, but Sborz settled down and was out of danger within 13 pitches, 10 of them strikes. In the eighth, Aroldis Chapman walked the first two batters he saw on nine pitches, one of them a wild pitch, to bring up Santander, Baltimore’s danger man on the afternoon, with nobody out and the go-ahead run on. (This briefly brought Baltimore’s win expectancy back over 50%.) Santander bounced into a double play, and once again the Rangers were out of the inning shortly thereafter.

Henderson started the ninth with a ringing single to right but was caught stealing, out by so much he had time to think up a swim move on his headfirst slide into second. (After the game, Hyde explained the ill-fated stolen base attempt as a “miscommunication.) Seager tagged Henderson around the navel, and the game was over two batters later.

“Right now a win is a win, no matter what it looks like,” Carter said. “It’s a big one to come in on the road, in the first game, and get that. It’s good for the club. It’s good going forward. We’ll keep the pedal to the metal tomorrow.”

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
6 months ago

I mean, the Rangers had more hits and more hits extra base hits than the Orioles and the same number of walks and home runs. If the Orioles didn’t take their opportunities then the Rangers didn’t either. I know it’s fashionable to spin a narrative around of “if the losing team just got a bit luckier they could have pulled this out” but it’s weird to hammer it since the Rangers luck was similar.

6 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

The names in the Rangers lineup definitely seem more impressive than their projections. The fans recognised their talents electing many of them as all star starters

Oops this was supposed to reply to your next comment

Last edited 6 months ago by Ivan_Grushenko
6 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I mean the Rangers BABIP was over .400 and the Orioles was under .200. I’d call that luck.

6 months ago
Reply to  markakis21

I’m looking at the xBA on each in-play events on Baseball Savant and it doesn’t look like one team was particularly lucky at the BIP level either. Lots of noise but in the end, it seems like when one team got a lucky bounce the they got unlucky about as frequently. The EV’s at the pitcher level back this up, with Bradish giving up a higher EV (92.7) compared with either Heaney (87.6) or Dunning (90.4).

While BABIP is often thought of as “luck” it is probably better conceptualized as a “joint responsibility between pitchers and fielders.” If we want to assign blame to the Orioles’ defense instead of pitching, we might be able to make that argument. But not that all of it was “luck.”

Too bad I can’t find barrel % by team, or xwOBA by team for that game. Would have saved me a lot of time.