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Baseball

The Rangers Magic Number: Texas-Baltimore, Game 1

Texas steals one on the road thanks to a crucial caught stealing in the bottom of the ninth.
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Jonah Heim's throw to catch Gunnar Henderson stealing is a Rangers playoff moment to remember. Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports.

Editor’s note: What’s old is new again. Mom jeans are fashionable. Same goes for loafers. You are, at most, three degrees of separation from someone with a variation of a mullet. And the Rangers are back playing October baseball.

So, back for the first time in seven years is Jamey’s Magic Number format. The premise is simple: for however many wins the Rangers have left to capture the World Series, Jamey will write that many items in this column. After Saturday’s 3-2 series-opening win against Baltimore, that number is now 10. If they take Game 2 in Baltimore on Sunday, it will be 9. And if the Rangers go all the way? Well, that’s the only time you should be excited about a Jamey Newberg column with zero to say (even though you’ll forgive him when he inevitably finds a thing or five to remark upon the World Series trophy finally coming to Arlington).

Let’s have some fun.

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Illustration by Devin Pike.

Here we go: 10 things.

10. Bruce Bochy, man.

Here’s the thing. You don’t have to (and you probably don’t) blindly buy into every decision he makes. But you have to admit that there is a level of trust there. I can’t imagine what the Orioles faithful thinks about Brandon Hyde’s fateful decision to run Gunnar Henderson with nobody out in the ninth. Actually, I don’t have to imagine it; I heard it all around me in the seats, on the 20-minute walk back to the hotel, and in the elevator lobby.  

Neither of these teams is playoff-tested or anywhere close to it. Corey Seager has been through his share of the wars, as have Nathan Eovaldi, Max Scherzer, and Will Smith, but neither the Rangers nor the Orioles (and their fan bases) have tasted postseason baseball since 2016. Bochy makes it feel otherwise here.

The man is 47-33 as a playoff manager. That’s insane. Getting your team to the playoffs regularly is hard enough. Building a winning record doing it is quite another, not to mention doing it without ever having what was considered a juggernaut roster.

9. Andrew Heaney over Dane Dunning? Over the dependable Dunning, who had nearly twice as many starts this year allowing one earned run or none (nine) as starts with more than three earned runs (five)? Heaney, who made a huge 4 1/3-inning start against Seattle a week earlier but who otherwise hadn’t started a game in more than a month and is prone to bouts of wildness? And who, in one of his two early-season starts against Baltimore, gave up seven runs and couldn’t get out of the third inning—before handing the ball off that day to Dunning, who then fired four one-hit, scoreless frames?  

OK, that call was probably driven by the data. The thinking? Keep the Orioles’ left-handed-hitting firepower at bay long enough for the Rangers to carve out a lead, plus to take advantage of the deeper and higher fence in left field, which would make Heaney’s fly-ball tendencies less scary. Still, it was still Bochy’s call to make.

But I mean, c’mon, Will Smith? Smith, the man who hadn’t been entrusted with a meaningful inning in 19 days? Smith, who before that, had given up six runs in his previous two innings? Smith, when Brock Burke and Cody Bradford and (theoretically) Martin Perez were also available from the left side? Smith in relief of Dane Dunning, who had allowed one run while getting six outs, and possibly not just to get the lefty Henderson out?  

With the three-batter minimum in play, if Henderson were to reach base, Smith would have had to face switch-hitter Aaron Hicks, who has a .970 OPS against southpaw pitching.

Will Smith?

Slider, slider, slider, slider, slider. You knew it. I knew it. Gunnar Henderson knew it.

Strikeout.

Bruce Bochy, man.

8. Once the Heaney/Dunning/Smith trio got the Rangers through six innings, the 3-2 lead felt, of course, like anything but a lead. The Texas bullpen is what it is, and the Orioles led MLB this year in comeback wins. If you only watched the beginning of the bottom halves of the seventh, eighth, and ninth, you’d have thought—probably did think—to yourself: “Yep. Here goes.”

Josh Sborz, entrusted with the one-run lead and the Orioles’ 6-7-8 hitters, threw seven straight balls after the Seventh-Inning Stretch to get his inning started. A mound visit ensued. Then came just three balls surrounded by 10 strikes, one of which coaxed a lazy fly to right and two others of which finished off strikeouts, one swinging and one looking.

Aroldis Chapman, on three days’ rest—proven to be his most effective amount of rest between outings (he has a miniscule .408 OPS in such situations)—was missing high in his warmups, and followed suit once the eighth got underway. A four-pitch walk and a five-pitch walk, worse even than Sborz’s entry. Then came a nifty 5-4-3 started by Josh Jung—Chapman had induced one double-play grounder all year, all the way back on May 3 (against Baltimore!)—followed by a strikeout of Ryan Mountcastle on 101 mph up in the zone, ending what seemed poised seconds earlier to be an game-tying inning for the 101-win team, if not more.

An incredibly loud and energetic Orioles crowd—more on that in a bit—was cavernously quiet after Mountcastle flailed at strike three.

Jose Leclerc has been comfort food for weeks, but when Henderson singled sharply to start the ninth, the score still 3-2, the feeling of impending doom that’s in 2023 Rangers fans’ late-inning DNA flooded in. When Hicks rifled a 93-mph four-seam fastball foul—a good three or four ticks slower than Leclerc has sat for a while now—that sense of dread gained traction.

But on the next pitch, a changeup low and away, Jonah Heim cut Henderson down trying to steal. More on that in a bit, too.

Two pitches later, Hicks swung through a center-cut four-seamer—this time a more customary 97-plus—and two pitches after that, Adam Frazier bounced weakly to Jung to end the game.

Sborz, Chapman, and Leclerc threw a first-pitch strike to three of 11 batters. They allowed the leadoff hitter each inning to reach. 

They allowed zero runs.

Bochy is known as a bullpen-managing master, with much of that reputation forged in his Octobers with San Francisco. But yesterday was crazy. Every move eventually worked—even the ones that absolutely didn’t at first.

7. Much has been made of the potential trouble a first-round bye can give a team that  must wait a week to play, see pitches that matter, make pitches that count, lock back into a rhythm. I would guess that factor might be more of a focus with a young team, or at least a playoff-inexperienced one.

Kyle Bradish definitely had his stuff—he struck out seven in 4 2/3 innings—but he allowed seven hits, three for extra bases. The last time the Baltimore ace was tagged for more base hits than innings pitched was more than two months ago (July 26).

But he also blew by his career-high workload for a season a month ago, so it isn’t just postseason baseball that’s new territory for the impressive 27-year-old.

Same with today’s starter, Grayson Rodriguez, who is two months past his previous high-inning count. And while Bradish was working on five days’ rest, Rodriguez hasn’t pitched in 11 days. Wonder if he threw a sim game early last week. But even if he did, it’s obviously not the same as what today’s atmosphere and stakes will bring, with the Rangers now having stolen home field advantage in the series.

Just before Joan Jett sang the National Anthem (which was very cool), the sound system in the ballpark played Foreigner’s “Feels Like the First Time.” An odd choice, I thought. But it might have been on point.

6. A lot of what this ballpark and its surrounding neighborhood have to offer is electrifying. The playoffs are funny—the Cardinals and Blue Jays never registered with me as a Rangers fan until, you know, and that’s where the Orioles are for me at the moment. I feel no hostility toward the team. Its fans, much like the St. Louis fans I was around in 2011, are cool. They love baseball. They are loud and don’t need to be prompted for intensely high energy. This is a town that, to me, feels deserving of where its team is now and should be for the foreseeable future.

(The volume, however, doesn’t excuse what has to be the worst outfield communication in baseball. Everyone good with Leody Taveras being enrolled in voice lessons this winter?)

I love baseball in an urban setting. I love the walkup vibe, even in the rain (though to be fair, it’s probably not like this in May or July). There’s music blaring from the bars onto the streets before the ballpark is even in sight. Kiosks every block selling sausages or T-shirts (or, yesterday, ponchos). Once in the concourse, impromptu coordinated “Let’s Go, O’s!” chants among hundreds, maybe thousands. And everything about the game presentation is up-tempo and smart.

It’s a really, really cool scene.

Maybe I wouldn’t be saying this or thinking this if the Rangers got drummed. But they didn’t.

Oh, also, a mile or so down the road: Miss Shirley’s for the breakfast win. Good grief. I’m headed back this morning, and will wait out the crowd once again. (I’m there by now; sorry, but I probably wouldn’t have allowed this paragraph to be published before I had my Miss Shirley’s place in line. You’re free to head over to get the best breakfast of your life now; I’m probably almost done.)

5. At precisely 3:42 p.m. Eastern, the correct orange team was winning (at the Cotton Bowl) and the correct orange team was losing (at Camden Yards), each by one score. Alas, the Sooners drove the field in the final minute in Dallas and, instead, both of the Venable(s) won.

4. Mitch Garver is presumably not hurt, as he faced Scherzer in his Friday sim game. I’m not sure Robbie Grossman is in any better of a rhythm than Nathaniel Lowe right now: after doubling inside the first base bag in the first inning on Saturday, Grossman proceeded to strike out looking, strike out looking, strike out swinging, and strike out looking. He was 1 for 9 in the Wild Card series with four strikeouts, and 1 for his last 12 in his final six regular season games before that. To be fair, he’s also drawn seven walks amidst this 3-for-26 skid, which includes 12 strikeouts. But surely Bochy has to be thinking about a different idea between the Marcus Semien/Seager and Adolis Garcia/Evan Carter duos.

Garv is my guy. Give him a shot at this.

3. I guess I could see Bochy moving Carter again, after just one day in the five-hole, but it just doesn’t seem like a Bochy thing to do. Still, it was (another) heck of a day for the 21-year-old on Saturday, moved from his familiar ninth spot in the order all the way up to fifth.

Though Carter is still measurably less productive against lefties, Bochy left him in to face both Danny Coulombe (fifth inning) and DL Hall (seventh). I’m not sure we’ll see Carter rested against a left-handed starter at this point, not that Texas will see one this series anyhow.

You just can’t sit the guy down. Yesterday: a five-pitch walk (getting one borderline call from Lance Barrett, a notorious pitchers’ umpire), a smoked double (101.5 mph to right field), another walk (with two more borderline calls going his way), and a groundout to first that he made dangerously close.

The double was my favorite, and not just because it opened the game’s scoring (or gave him an MLB-tying four extra-base hits as a rookie in his first three playoff games, a record he and Jung now share with two others). The gameplan against Carter, whose minor-league reputation of possibly being too passive at the plate has been accentuated by a steady log of deep counts in the majors, has to be getting ahead in the count while he is tracking pitches. 

And then Carter goes out and ambushes a Bradish first-pitch, get-me-over slider, seconds after Garcia had pulled up to second with his own double.

Good grief, I loved that Carter double.

Two pitches later, he properly froze—and almost stumbled—as he let Heim’s rope go by into left center field, but he still motored around third so effortlessly that there was no thought of a throw to the plate. (A major-league record there, too: he’s the first player to fill his line in the box score with an extra-base hit, a walk, and a run in each of his first three career playoff games.)

Evan Carter is great at baseball.

2. Jung entered pro ball with considerably more fanfare in 2019 than Carter did in 2020, but he’s another player who has very quickly redefined how he’s viewed. What a ballplayer. The power that scouts questioned in terms of whether it would translate to pro ball? Old news. The defense that was projected as average at best? What a horribly horrible scouting report.

The sixth-inning home run, which extended the Texas lead to 3-1, was obviously massive, and it came on a pitch that went from sun to shadow to sun on its 60-foot path before Jung turned it around. But it was his defense in Game 1 that I’ll remember most. Coming in on a slow roller, starting a crucial double play with a clean dig to his left, making every routine play just that—I never don’t want the ball hit to Josh Jung.

Helluva day in the House of Brooks and Cal for the 25-year-old third baseman.

1. And, once again, for the 28-year-old Heim.

The abovementioned single on a Bradish curve at the knees pushed the Rangers’ early lead to 2-0.

The agility, pop time, and arm strength he coiled into the unforgettable throw to Seager to cut down Henderson in the ninth—on a changeup down in the zone—was as elite as it gets. The play wasn’t close.

But here’s what I want to say about Heim, some of which we’ve already hit on. That’s now 22 games caught in the last 23 his team has played. Pro catchers just aren’t asked to do that. The 20th, 21st, and 22nd of those were playoff games in which the Rangers’ decimated and much-maligned pitching staff—and Heim—allowed a total of three runs to teams that won 99 and 101 games this year.

Neither Tampa Bay nor Baltimore has added to that regular-season win total—at least not yet.

Jonah Heim is a very big reason why.

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Photo by Jamey Newberg

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Jamey Newberg

Jamey Newberg

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Jamey Newberg covers the Rangers for StrongSide. He has lived in Dallas his entire life, with the exception of a…

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