Sports rivalries arise from playoff stakes, often reinforced by years of intense playoff battles. It almost seems misleading to call the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros a rivalry right now, despite the hatred shared between their fans.
But as they prepare to meet Sunday (FOX, 8:15 p.m. ET) for the first time in the playoffs, it’s gaining momentum.
With every dollar invested in the Rangers’ pursuit of their first championship, every victory pushing them to become relevant again in a division the Astros have dominated for the better part of the last seven years, every incident clearing the benches between the foes of the State, and with more and more matchups like these coming as the Rangers and Astros face off in the American League Championship Series, the contempt between the I-45 foes is growing.
Until now, the animosity between the teams has been based much more on proximity than on competition on the field. After original Houston owner Roy Hofheinz helped bring Major League Baseball to Texas with the expansion of the Colt .45s in 1962, he did everything possible to prevent the emergence of a second team in his state. It held out when North Texas was in play during the 1969 National League expansion, and new teams were instead granted to Montreal and San Diego. Yet Hofheinz’s efforts were only temporary.
In 1972, Washington’s senators moved to Arlington. But with the teams in different leagues and with both franchises’ struggles throughout the ’70s and ’80s, it was difficult for hostility to really fester.
Some fuel would be added in the late ’80s, when the Astros tried to get Nolan Ryan to take a pay cut. He refused and went to the Rangers, where many of the greatest feats of all time – including his 5,000th strikeout and his 300th victory – took place. Although he played nine years for the Astros and only five for the Rangers, Ryan was inducted into the Hall of Fame wearing the latter team’s cap.
Both franchises retired Ryan’s jersey and lay claim to the pitching legend, who would play a role in the turnaround of both clubs long after his playing days ended, including as team president of the Rangers in 2008. During his tenure, the Rangers made their first and only World Series appearances in franchise history in 2010 and 2011.
He would resign at the end of the 2013 season amid a shifting power dynamic within the Texas front office and join the Astros in an advisory role in 2014. The curse of Nolan Ryan began in Arlington for a Rangers team who, until now, had failed to return to a championship series since. Houston, meanwhile, would immediately end a nine-year playoff drought, winning a tainted World Series title two years later and beginning its authority in the American League West.
In the midst of all this, a significant change occurred in the potential for a budding rivalry: the Astros moved from the National League Central to the American League West. Before that, meetings between the teams were rare.
The Astros advance to the seventh straight ALCS and will face the Rangers
In 1992, the Rangers beat the Astros in an exhibition contest and received a Silver Boot for the occasion, but it would be another nine years before the two teams met in the regular season. The Lone Star Series was born in 2001, four years after the introduction of interleague play. Twelve years later, the Astros changed leagues, setting the stage for a possible rise in tension.
He arrived in 2015, when a few jokes exchanged between Rougned Odor and Hank Conger prompted the two players to come face to face, the benches to clear and managers Jeff Banister and AJ Hinch to yell at each other while protecting their guys. It was the first sign of what could happen when both teams were finally good at the same time.
Things will heat up again two years later. On April 30, 2017, Astros third baseman Alex Bregman tweeted and then deleted “Operation #BTSOOTR” (sic) – presumably he wanted to bat something out of his opponent – before a home game against Rangers. A day later, the benches cleared after Houston pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. threw himself behind Mike Napoli in retaliation for the two Astros batters who had been hit earlier. Later that year, there was also Hurricane Harvey. McCullers and the The Astros weren’t happy that the Rangers did not want to trade their home series after the disaster, prompting Houston to “host” the Rangers for a series in Florida.
Ultimately, none of the fights amounted to much more than yelling, shoving, and bickering, and the Rangers began to head in the wrong direction after the excitement of the early 2010s. That all changed when they have started spending — first on their center infield two offseasons ago, then on their rotation this offseason. Finally, Texas looked poised to potentially topple the division titans, causing the heat to rise between the division foes.
The two teams were in a tight division battle in July when growing tensions between Marcus Semien and catcher Martín Maldonado reached a boiling point after an Adolis García grand slam, causing both benches to clear out. The Rangers won the game, but the Astros have always had the upper hand this year, winning nine of 13 meetings. The last time the teams met, the Astros topped the Rangers by 29 points in three games in late September, which would have consequences heading into October.
The Rangers held a 2.5 game lead over an underperforming Houston club entering the final week of the regular season. But the Rangers lost three of four in Seattle to end the year, while the Astros swept Arizona. Both teams finished the season with 90 wins, giving Houston the lead.
“A lot of people wondered what it would be like if the ‘Stros didn’t win the division,” Bregman said as the Astros celebrated their sixth division title in the last six years, a day after the Rangers clinched a playoff spot. “I guess we’ll never know.”
The Rangers haven’t lost since.
Their explosive offense, which features four Semien All-Stars in Corey Seager, Josh Jung and Jonah Heim, came back to life in October, going 5-0 against the top two teams in the AL East. The Astros, meanwhile, are the only top-two seed remaining in the postseason, the only club with a wild-card bye that didn’t seem perturbed or bothered by the planned dismissal in the postseason format. They haven’t lived up to their potential this year, but their playoff experience is unmatched among other clubs.
The Astros are looking to repeat as champions. The Rangers are looking for their first championship. For the first time in October, they will embarrass each other.
It may take more of these matchups to create a real rivalry.
But it’s getting ready.
Rowan Kavner covers the Dodgers and MLB as a whole for FOX Sports. He previously served as editor-in-chief of the Dodgers’ digital and print publications. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner.
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