Defending champion Astros make big statement in dominant Game 4 win

ARLINGTON, Texas — Rudy Tomjanovich famously exalted a doubted Houston titleist, saying when the NBA Rockets repeated in 1995, “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.”

The sentiment feels proper for another Houston team trying to repeat. The Astros have spent a good deal of this season down, but not out. They tracked the Rangers in the AL West for most of the season and caught them in the end. Texas led the division for 160 days this year, Houston for just 24.

The teams finished with identical 90-72 records, but the Astros claimed the division title because they went 9-4 against the Rangers during the regular season, including 6-1 at Globe Life Field.

That gave the Astros home-field advantage for this ALCS, which might not have been great. Houston has been terrible at home this season, going just 40-45. That included going down 0-2 in this ALCS at Minute Maid Park. At that moment, the Rangers were 7-0 in these playoffs and going home.

But that also is when Houston manager Dusty Baker channeled his inner Tomjanovich. It might not have been as pithy and thus bite-sized memorable as what the Rockets coach once offered. But on the off-day before Game 3, questioned about the implications of the deficit, Baker said, “I am not thinking about being down 3-0. That’s the last thing on my mind. My mindset is to be down 2-1, and then be even 2-2, and then hopefully get to 3-2 and hopefully get to the World Series; that’s how my mind thinks.”

Jose Abreu (center) is greeted by a jubilant Jose Altuve (right) and Mauricio Dubon after belting a three-run homer in the Astros’ 10-3 Game 4 win over the Rangers.
KEVIN M COX/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

That also is how his team has played, following the confidence of its manager. The Astros have merged their remarkable comfort on the road (55-30 including the postseason), in general, and at Globe Life, in specific, with facing the problematic pitching depth of the Rangers. The result is the ALCS is now tied at two games apiece after the Astros bludgeoned the Texas staff again in Game 4 Thursday to win 10-3.

So Houston has gone from reeling to within six victories now of being the first back-to-back champions since the Yankees’ 1998-2000 threepeat. The ALCS is now a best-of-three with the Game 1 starters — Houston’s Justin Verlander and Texas’ Jordan Montgomery — due for Game 5. That one of Bruce Bochy’s trusted pitchers will be back on the mound is positive for the Rangers; that it is this mound is not. For the Astros are now 8-1 at Globe Life, outscoring Texas 81-40.

Yordan Alvarez rips an RBI single in the first inning of the Astros’ Game 4 victory.
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Beginning with a vital three-game sweep here from Sept. 4-6, the Astros are 5-0 and have scored 57 runs at Globe Life, hitting 19 homers in those five games and generating a .336 batting average. These last two games have emphasized the duality of the Texas pitching staff. The Rangers main five of starters Montgomery and Nathan Eovaldi plus relievers Aroldis Chapman, Jose Leclerc and Josh Sborz have a 1.87 ERA over 53 innings this postseason. The other Texas pitchers now have a 7.07 ERA over 28 innings.

Montgomery and Eovaldi have spent this October emphasizing what the Yankees once had and failed to maximize. Andrew Heaney did not do the same. He started Game 4 and a Yankee fan could have felt like they had seen this movie before. In 10 pitches and four batters in the top of the first Thursday, the lefty put Texas behind 3-0. Heaney recorded two outs before being removed.

Alex Bregman rips an two-run triple in the first inning of the Astros’ Game 4 win.
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In all, Texas needed three pitchers (also Dane Dunning and Cody Bradford) and 105 pitches to complete four innings. They trailed 7-3. Houston starter Jose Urquidy also was shaky, recording just seven outs. But the quality length of the Astro staff is superior. Ryne Stanek delivered a key one-pitch inning-ending double play with the score 3-3 in the third in relief of Urquidy and Hunter Brown followed with three shutout innings, stabilizing the game for the Astros in a way that the Ranger pen never could.

Jose Abreu smacks a three-run homer in the fourth inning of the Astros’ Game 4 victory.
USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

And if the topic is the heart of this champion, no player more personifies the Astro pulse than Jose Altuve. He was 0-for-8 in the two home losses. But in the 8-5 Game 3 win Wednesday, Altuve had two hits (including a homer) and scored two runs. In his 100th career postseason game, he reached base safely four times in Game 4 and scored three runs. As Altuve goes, the Astros often follow.

He is the pulse — and the heart of this champion is beating strongly yet again.

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