Houston finds its sweet spot in Game 4 rout of Rangers to knot ALCS

ARLINGTON, Tex. — Texas Rangers Manager Bruce Bochy made the logical decision in the fourth inning. Yordan Álvarez — the Houston Astros’ feared postseason hitter, in the midst of a fearsome postseason — was stepping up to the plate with the bases loaded. So Bochy went by the book and called for left-hander Cody Bradford to face the lefty Álvarez.

The choice resulted in a sacrifice fly. But that was only the second out of the inning.

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Bradford still had to face José Abreu. And Abreu then launched a no-doubter that quieted the crowd at Globe Life Field. Rangers outfielders didn’t bother to give much chase as the three-run blast settled into the seats in left-center, the key blow in a 10-3 Astros win that knotted the American League Championship Series at two games apiece.

“I use the phrase that both of us couldn’t have missed him,” Álvarez said. “I couldn’t get it done, so he was able to get it done.”

“I think it was important for me just to have a really good swing in that at-bat,” Abreu said through an interpreter. “Tried to put the team in a better position than it already was. The pitch was in a location that I wanted it and did what it took to get it.”

The offensive eruption could be traced to Houston Manager Dusty Baker tweaking his lineup in front of Álvarez during the series. After struggling to produce offense in the first two games in Houston, Baker slotted Michael Brantley into the No. 2 hole for Game 3 before going with Mauricio Dubón for Game 4. Yet Jose Altuve has remained at the top of the order and Abreu has batted behind Álvarez in every game of the ALCS. Baker said he wanted to break up the lefties in his lineup with Abreu so Bochy couldn’t bring in lefty relievers to face a string of Astros lefties.

Baker’s plan worked to perfection Thursday night. Álvarez and Abreu combined for six RBI. But after the game, Abreu admitted it was hard to hit behind Álvarez this year.

“He drives in all the runs,” Abreu said with a laugh.

But Álvarez provided Abreu several base runners to work with, and Abreu delivered. He even turned a double play in the fifth by himself.

The four-run fourth turned a game that had been a back-and-forth affair to that point. Houston grabbed a 3-0 lead off Rangers starter Andrew Heaney in the first behind four straight hits to open the game — a double from Altuve, a single by Dubón, a triple from Alex Bregman and a single from Álvarez. Bochy pulled Heaney before the inning was over.

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The Astros have gone as Altuve has gone through the first four games — he was 0 for 8 in the team’s two losses to open the series. He’s 5 for 9 in the past two games.

But the Rangers had an answer against Astros starter José Urquidy. In the second inning, Adolis García sent a solo shot into the left field seats that snuck just inside the foul pole. Josh Jung hit a sacrifice fly to trim the Rangers’ lead to 3-2 before Corey Seager — who entered Game 4 just 2 for 13 with two singles in the series — blasted a home run off Urquidy that landed in the visiting bullpen to knot the game at 3.

Then came Álvarez and Abreu. Abreu, who spent the previous nine seasons with the Chicago White Sox, has been one of the most feared power hitters in the game for the past decade.

Abreu hit more than 22 home runs in seven of his nine seasons with the White Sox and was named the American League MVP in one of the two years he didn’t — the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. But he had played in only seven career postseason games. This past offseason, Abreu joined the Astros on a three-year deal and paired up with Álvarez, who has hit 129 home runs since he was called up ahead of the 2019 season.

This regular season was a disappointing one for Abreu. He finished with a career-low .237 batting average, and his OPS+ was 87. In each of his first nine season, his OPS+ was at least 117 (the major league average is 100). But in the final month of the season, Abreu started to look like himself with seven home runs and 28 RBI.

That carried over into the first round of the playoffs when Abreu hit three home runs in the team’s division series triumph over the Minnesota Twins. Then came Thursday night’s performance in a game that the Astros needed to seize momentum in this series.

“It couldn’t have happened to a better guy than Abreu,” catcher Martin Maldonado said. “That guy has been through a lot of stuff this year. We keep believing in him. … Yordan had a good at-bat, ended up getting the job done. And then Abreu busted it open.”

The Astros have 16 home runs this postseason — and 10 have come from Abreu and Álvarez. And Abreu’s fourth-inning blast proved to be the dagger. Abreu walked to open the seventh, then Chas McCormick hit a two-run home run. In the eighth, Álvarez drove in Altuve. And the Astros cruised to a victory behind their sluggers.

“I’m a big believer that the past is the past,” Abreu said. “I can’t fix anything that’s happened in the past so I need to focus on the present and I know I need to be the best Jose Abreu that I know I can be to be able to contribute to this team, to this great organization.”

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