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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Different version of the Texas Rangers awaits the Houston Astros in ALCS

Texas Rangers manager Bruce Bochy, second from left, watches his team during the fifth inning of a game against the Houston Astros on Sept. 6 at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.  (Tribune News Service)
By Evan Grant Dallas Morning New

ARLINGTON – It was just 40 days ago the Rangers and Astros last met. Perhaps you’ve forgotten. Or, more accurately, perhaps you’d rather not remember.

A refresher, which admittedly should come with a warning label: The Rangers were outscored as if Brock Purdy was running the opposing offense. They gave up homers in bulk. Adolis García crumpled to the ground with what appeared to be a devastating knee injury, the Rangers’ hopes with him.

“And Evan Carter was still in high school,” first baseman Nathaniel Lowe said.

Well, not quite. But you get the picture.

When it was over, the Astros had swept three games by a composite 39-10 score. The Rangers were a season-worst three games down in the AL West and out of the playoff picture. The best thing that could be said: Hey, the Cowboys’ season was starting that weekend.

My, how times have changed.

Good thing they will do introductions before the AL Championship Series begins Sunday evening in Houston. The Rangers are a far different team. García is back. Carter graduated – to the major leagues – with a master’s in strike zone command. Josh Jung, who missed the series entirely while still rehabbing a fractured thumb, has returned. Jonah Heim is again able to swing with both hands.

The Rangers, who were in the midst of a 4-16 spiral at the time, have won five consecutive postseason games with sweeps of Tampa Bay and Baltimore, the teams with the best records in the AL. Now, all that’s ahead is the defending world champs.

“We were missing two or three bats and had a couple of pieces that weren’t fully firing on all pistons,” Lowe said of the last Houston series. “Our offense has gotten hot; it would be a good series for me to get again. The pitchers are doing a great job. We know we’ve got our work cut out for us, but, yeah, I think we’re as strong as any of the four teams that are left.”

While the second half of the Rangers’ season was filled with as many low points as highs, the Astros series was perhaps its nadir.

Look, until this moment we hadn’t even mentioned Jose Altuve’s five-homer barrage in six at-bats (oops, sorry) or the fact the Rangers closed out consecutive games with catcher Austin Hedges on the mound. Yes, the pitching was a disaster, but the Rangers had been treading water there for a while. It was the lineup that collapsed against the Astros. That sweep also gave rise to the crystallization of the club that it is now.

“It’s been a tough go,” manager Bruce Bochy said at the end of the series. “We have to remind ourselves who we are and the team we’ve been.”

They were about to become a different team. García’s injury, initially thought to be a ruptured tendon in his knee, led to the call-up of Carter. Put simply, Carter has changed the offense.

At first, hitting from the No. 9 spot, he gave the Rangers another on-base threat at the bottom of the lineup to give Marcus Semien and Corey Seager more opportunities to hit with men on base. Carter handled that task so well, Bochy moved him to the No. 5 spot. All Carter has done in the postseason is reach base in all five games.

It’s also allowed Bochy to balance and “lengthen” out his lineup. He’s moved right-handed hitting Mitch Garver into the No. 3 spot behind Seager. Baltimore chose not to pitch to Seager, walking him nine times, including five in one game.

He became the first player to walk five times in a postseason game and became the first player to walk nine times in the division series. Garver rolled up seven RBIs in the past two games of the division series.

Meanwhile, Lowe and Jung, who combined for 40 homers and 152 RBIs this season, are hitting seventh and eighth, respectively. Lowe wore out Baltimore starter Dean Kremer with a 15-pitch at-bat in Game 3 that began a five-run inning that included a two-run double from Garver and a three-run homer from García.

“It’s been a pretty relentless attack,” Garver said. “You have to beat us in the strike zone. The biggest thing in postseason is putting the ball in play, working counts, but swinging at good pitches. We need to continue that, having a really good approach one through nine.”

For the postseason, the Rangers are slashing .282/.373/.492/.865 and averaging 6.4 runs per game.

After clinching the division series and a date with the Rangers, Houston manager Dusty Baker said of the approaching ALCS: “We know them, and they know us.”

Perhaps not. This is a different team than the one that last faced Houston.