ARLINGTON, Texas — So as not to leave you in suspense, we’ll start with what everyone wanted to know after the Astros beat the Rangers 5-4 to take a three-games-to-two series lead in the ALCS: Was it intentional?
“Everybody on their side is going to say it wasn't,” Rangers second baseman Marcus Semien said. “Everybody on this side is going to say it was.”
Such is the predicament of polling people with not just some skin but also their entire selves in the game on a divisive call made when emotions ran high. But let’s back up.
Through the first four games of the ALCS, there was not one single lead change. Whichever team scored first went on to win, and the team that scored first was never the home team. The players and plays were good, but the baseball, to be honest, was a little dull.
Not so in Game 5. With the series tied at two apiece, the Rangers and Astros met in a clash that made the Lone Star State showdown worthy of launching a renewed rivalry.
The Astros jumped to an early lead on an Alex Bregman solo shot. Several precedents were working in their favor — the Astros are inevitable in October, they’ve routed the Rangers in Arlington all season, that’s just how this series has gone so far. But Texas tied it (Nathaniel Lowe home run), and then fell behind again.
Semien led off the bottom of the sixth with a harmless pop-up — one of five outs on the night to drop his postseason average to .159. His acquisition, along with that of Corey Seager, before the 2022 season signaled a new era in Arlington. He is, if not the clear face of the club, certainly its voice. Three days ago, you could’ve said his struggles hadn’t held the team back this month. But with the Rangers’ season on the brink, they seem a lot more conspicuous.
But then Seager doubled, Evan “little savior” Carter singled, and with two on, Adolis García strode to the plate and promptly hit the biggest home run of his career off future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander. For the first time all series, the home team was winning. While the sold-out crowd responded accordingly, García strode halfway down the first-base line, unhurried. Just before breaking into a trot, he whooped at his teammates in the dugout and spiked his bat.
“You hit a ball like that, you're going to celebrate,” García explained later, an anodyne bit of analysis if not for what unfolded in between.
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) October 20, 2023
García gave Texas a two-run lead after the sixth. If it held, they’d head to Houston one win away from their first World Series appearance since 2011 and a chance at their first championship ever.
But remember all the consternation about the Rangers’ bullpen? Well, Bruce Bochy was not going to let an ulcer-inducing Aroldis Chapman blow it, so after the erratic flamethrower gave up a two-out double in the eighth, Bochy called for his closer. José Leclerc had gotten four outs as recently as the last time the Rangers won a game. The off day and two losses since meant he was plenty rested. He got pinch-hitter Michael Brantley to pop up.
On to the ninth. Granted, nothing is assured against the Astros, whose fearsome lineup is plenty capable of putting up a couple of runs in an inning, but that would be twice as many as Leclerec had surrendered the entire postseason so far.
The drama was just beginning.
Two innings after his electric home run, García came to the plate with a runner on first. The Astros’ goal was to keep it within two. Critically, that goal is neither entirely compatible nor entirely at odds with García winding up on first base. Keep that in mind.
The first pitch García saw from Astros reliever Bryan Abreu was 99 mph, and it hit him squarely in the upper arm. In the time it took him to recoil, García decided that he had been plunked on purpose, immediately getting in Astros catcher Martín Maldonado’s face.
Both benches cleared, the bullpens came sprinting in, and García had to be restrained by not only his teammates but also Astros slugger and fellow Cuban Yordan Álvarez.
“I was saying, ‘My bad, it wasn’t on purpose,’” Abreu explained to reporters later. “He was like, ‘bulls***.’”
So was it intentional?
The umpires thought it was.
“We had a conference among the six of us, and we decided that the pitch that Abreu threw was intentional on García,” crew chief James Hoye said. “We know it's the playoffs. We don't want to make a mistake in a situation like that. So we're going to make sure that everybody is on the same page, that we all felt the same way. And to a T, all of us felt like that pitch was intentional.”
For that, they ejected Abreu — and the next day, they suspended him for two games. For escalating the situation by confronting Maldonado, they also ejected García.
“Obviously, it was completely unintentional, one of those balls that just slipped out of his hand,” Astros reliever Ryan Pressley, who came in to replace Abreu, said.
“I know he said it slipped, but if you go back and watch it, it looks like it slipped straight at Adolis,” Rangers third baseman Josh Jung said.
The Rangers’ assumption was that García got plunked in retaliation for how emphatically he enjoyed his home run earlier in the game. There’s more history than that — a dust-up in July in which Semien was hit early in a game and briefly got into it with Maldonado after scoring on a García grand slam — but the gist was: The Astros didn’t like getting shown up.
“I think the optics of the situation are really bad,” Lowe said. “It’s the playoffs. You’re allowed to get excited. He got excited. He celebrated because that was a huge swing for us. To have to wear 98 [mph] on the arm after something like that, it's pretty disappointing.”
Jung said that even before the fateful at-bat in the eighth, he worried the Astros might try to punish García.
“Given the situation, the tense rivalry, we've kind of been there before with some things — in the back of my mind, yeah, it was there,” he said, “But I was hoping it didn't happen.”
Abreu claimed he doesn’t care about demonstrative celebrations, and even if he did, some things are bigger than beef — things such as winning.
“You're not going to add runs on in the ninth inning in the playoffs when we're trying to win a game,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said after the game. He tried that same argument, repeatedly, with the umpires in the moment, to no avail — and ultimately, it cost him his seat in the dugout.
“Dusty threw his hat,” Hoye explained. “We ejected Dusty from the game for arguing the ejection.”
“I haven't been that mad in a long time,” Baker said. “And I don't usually get mad about nothing.”
Bryan Abreu and Dusty Baker have been ejected from the game. pic.twitter.com/YbKtgv5JXZ
— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 20, 2023
So was it intentional?
“Who knows?” Bochy mused. “The guy hits a three-run homer. The next time up, he gets smoked there. It doesn't really matter. I'd be upset, too, if I was [Adolis]. But like I said, it just took too long to get things back in order. That's what was frustrating me.”
“I'm just glad that we won the game and it turned out right for us,” Baker said.
Ah, yes, the game. The one that had been interrupted by the commotion and the punitive fallout. While the Astros and Rangers brawled, Leclerc was in the training room, waiting to return to the mound. And waiting … and waiting. Almost 20 minutes elapsed between the out he recorded in the top of the eighth and when he took the mound for the ninth. Enough to give his pitching coach pause.
“Mike Maddux did ask me when I was in the dugout if I was willing to go out there, if I need to warm up a little bit more,” Leclerc said through interpreter Will Nadal. “I said no, that I was good to go.”
Then a single and a walk brought up Jose Altuve, playing in his 101st playoff game, about to author a singular moment. His three-run home run put the Astros up 5-4. There would be no more lead changes on the night.
Ultimately, it was that last home run, not the hit-by-pitch, that mattered. Whether there was any causation — Leclerc getting cold, the Astros getting fired up — between the two is as impossible to prove as any intent. Both teams will tell themselves a story about what happened in Game 5 of the ALCS. Maybe the Astros will see themselves as unfairly maligned (again?) and able to overcome anything through their machine-like propensity to steamroll anyone in October.
As for the Rangers, they will need to find a version that sees this moment — after losing three in a row at home, the last one in heartbreaking fashion, to head to Houston on the ropes — as the nadir and the dawn of something better.