VERO BEACH, FLORIDA - Move over Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees; step aside LA Dodgers-San Francisco Giants; slide down Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals.
Make room for the newest rivalry in MLB: the Houston Astros versus the Texas Rangers.
Yes siree, pod’nah, Houston’s battle with Dallas for baseball bragging rights in The Lone Star State is a now a bona fide big league rivalry.
“It’s HUGE,” stated Astros skipper A.J. Hinch. “What I have learned having moved to Texas (two-and-a-half seasons ago) is that there’s a rivalry between Houston and Dallas in general. It could be in football, basketball, baseball or anything.”
“I think it’s similar to those other rivalries but maybe not so deep-rooted,” offered Hinch. “But since the Astros moved to the American League (and the ‘Stros and Rangers became AL West rivals), it’s building into something really great.
“It’s a fun rivalry.”
Added Houston DH slugger Evan Gattis: “There’s more excitement whenever we play Texas.
“The crowds are great; there’s always lots of noise, especially in Minute Maid Park (humid Houston’s retractable-domed ballpark where noise stays inside and reverberates rather than escaping.)
“There are a lot of Astros fans in Dallas and lots of Ranger fans in Houston, so it really gets loud,” continued Evan. “That transfers to you as a player.”
They say both teams must be good to have a real rivalry. That is certainly the current situation between these two ballclubs.
Houston captured an AL wild-card spot in 2015, while the Rangers were winning the West title.
Then, last season Texas repeated as divisional champs.
The Rangers were aided greatly in ’16 by the Astros’ horrible 7-17 start. Houston then rallied to make a run at another second straight wild card slot but fell just short.
“The Rangers had our number last season,” noted Hinch. “If you flip-flop our records against each other (Texas took the “Silver Boot Series,” 15-4) we’d probably be talking playoffs again.”
This season, that 2016 pattern has been reversed.
This time, the Astros have gotten off to a roaring start that has seen them compile an MLB-best 35-16 log, including a 3-1 mark against the Rangers.
Texas, meanwhile, stumbled out of the gate and after the first five weeks was six games under .500. A recent 10-game Rangers winning streak enabled them to rise above level but they have recently fallen under again at 25-27.
Though Texas now trails torrid Houston by 11 games, the Rangers remain a dangerous ballclub that can make a big move at any time.
These are, indeed, heady times in Houston. Three consecutive years of Astros playoff contention under Hinch’s leadership is something the team’s fans had not seen for quite some time.
Prior to capturing their ’15 WC berth, the Astros had missed the postseason nine straight years and had suffered six consecutive losing campaigns.
Houston fans may have even become a bit spoiled. There was a sense of disappointment a year ago after the ‘Stros strong but non-playoff finish.
MAS asked Hinch if he had created a monster that the skipper now had to continue to feed.
“Yeah, we’ve raised standards a little bit,” Hinch acknowledged with a chuckle. “Like, 84 wins last season wasn’t good enough — that’s the mentality now for our players and fans.
“But we sign up for these jobs to absorb the pressure and expectations, to embrace what could be a very special season.”
What has helped make 2017 special so far was this past winter’s addition of veterans like catcher Brian McCann and outfielders Carlos Beltran, Norichika Aoki and Josh Reddick.
“We lost too many close games early last season,” Hinch gave as a reason for their acquisitions.
“These guys are good hitters and will help there.
“But it was mostly how they could blend in with our young core players who had raced to the big leagues.”
The vets’ been there, done that experience has not been lost on that group of rapidly developing youngsters, including All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa, outfielder George Springer and third sacker Alex Bregman.
“I feel the veterans are obviously leading the young guys in the right way,” the 22-year old Correa told MAS. “We have more good hitters now and I feel our team can make it all the way to the World Series.”
The slick-fielding Correa, AL Rookie of the Year in 2015, hopes to build on outstanding back-to-back offensive seasons that saw him bat .279 and .274 and clout 22, then 20 home runs.
“I think I’m a better hitter than last year and I hope to show that this season,” Carlos stated.
Hard-hitting Bregman has already established himself an early ’17 ROY candidate. The 23-year-old is unfazed by the high expectations for both himself and his team,
“I take it as a compliment,” Bregman told MAS. “It makes you want to work at it so people keep up those expectations.”
Bregman, though, has a certain swagger that some see as cockiness.
“I’ve learned from the veterans,” he explained, “that when you prepare, you SHOULD feel confident.”
Suffice to say, the Astros are currently brimming with confidence But they realize there’s that team from upstate that must be dealt with before anything big can happen.
That presents Houston with a two-pronged challenge — archrival Texas AND the rest of the AL West.
But taking their season series with Texas and winning the division would also be doubly satisfying.
“You have two really good young teams, we’ve had some fierce battles,” Hinch concluded.
“They’ve earned bragging rights in the state of Texas.
“Hopefully, we can chase ̓em down.”
“We want to make the fans happy,” stated Gattis. “But even more importantly, we want to beat the Rangers for ourselves, so we can get where we want to be.
“There’s never been a World Series winner from the state of Texas,” noted Gattis. “We want to be the first one.”
Take that, Big D!
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