Richard Justice

Rangers vs. Astros: Let the rivalry begin

Rangers vs. Astros: Let the rivalry begin

For three decades, the Texas Rangers and the Houston Astros would play a few games against one another every year in Spring Training. These games meant virtually nothing, and no one on either side pretended otherwise.

To try and spice things up, they started awarding something called the "Silver Boot" to the team that owns the spring series. If you were the poor baseball writer who had to ask one of the players what winning the Silver Boot meant, you'd get a quote along the lines of: "What's the Silver Boot?"

As rivalries go, it wasn't exactly Texas-Oklahoma. One year, a team executive from the Rangers forgot he'd left the Silver Boot in the back of his rental car. No one seemed to want it.

Finally, in 2001, as part of Interleague Play, the Rangers and the Astros began playing six regular-season games a year against one another. Only it didn't mean all that much, since one team or the other was almost always lousy.

It has been 11 years since the Astros and Rangers both had winning records in the same season (2004) and 16 years since both made the postseason (1999). Neither club made it past the Division Series that year, so any dreams of a Texas-Houston World Series were quickly dashed.

For a few seasons, they kept awarding the Silver Boot to the team that won the Interleague series. One year, the thing was shattered by the time the Rangers received it. Were the Astros that bitter about losing?

"I dropped it," an Astros official said.

Again, no one seemed to care. Even fans in both Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth -- two areas with healthy civic rivalries -- had trouble getting invested in the rivalry.

And that's what makes Monday night special in the Lone Star State. For the first time in the 44 seasons that Texas has had two Major League Baseball teams, the two clubs will be playing huge, important September games against each other.

The first-place Astros, who've been atop the American League West for 138 days, will be in Arlington for the start of a four-game series against the second-place Rangers that could go a long way toward deciding a division championship.

The Astros (77-66) lead the Rangers (75-67) by 1 1/2 games, with the third-place Angels (72-70) 4 1/2 games out.

The Rangers and the Astros will play seven times over the next 14 days. Houston also has three home games remaining against the Halos, and Texas finishes the regular season with four games against the Angels in Arlington.

This is exactly the kind of thing some looked forward to when the Astros switched from the NL Central to the AL West in 2013. If the Astros and the Rangers were ever both competitive in the same season, there would be the possibility of a September series that might get the attention of the entire state.

The Astros and the Rangers have both had fascinating seasons. Houston has been baseball's most surprising team, vaulting into contention after averaging 104 losses over the past four seasons.

The Astros have done it with pitching, defense and home runs. They've got baseball's second-lowest payroll, as general manager Jeff Luhnow cobbled a roster together with bargain-basement acquisitions and an infusion of talent from one of baseball's best farm systems.

Lately, things have gotten difficult. Houston is 19-20 since Aug. 1 and 4-7 this month. The Astros have lost 24 of 33 on the road. But they've held onto first place because of tremendous work from their starting rotation and the kind of resilience and resolve every championship club has.

For instance, Houston was one out away from a third straight loss to the Angels in Anaheim on Sunday when something amazing happened. If the Astros win the AL West by a single game, this might be the victory -- a 5-3 decision -- they remember as having gotten them there. Down 3-0 with two outs in the top of the ninth inning, they rallied for five runs. Pinch-hitter Jed Lowrie completed the rally by looping a three-run home run inside the right-field foul pole, just over the glove of Halos right fielder Kole Calhoun.

That inning included one ball, an infield single by Carlos Correa, getting stuck in the webbing of Angels second baseman Taylor Featherston's glove. Outfielder Preston Tucker, who wasn't in the starting lineup, also homered.

Tucker's solo homer to right

As the inning unfolded, the Astros' dugout had the look and feel of a wild street party, calling again on the energy and enthusiasm that has carried them to this place.

The Rangers have done some remarkable things of their own. Hit hard by injuries, they were eight games under .500 (8-16) and 9 1/2 games behind the Astros on May 3.

Texas was still eight games out on Aug. 2 and didn't clear .500 for good until Aug. 15 (58-57). But the Rangers were transformed quickly with the acquisition of Cole Hamels from the Phillies and with Derek Holland and Martin Perez returning from the disabled list. They're 20-10 since Aug. 13 and have methodically gotten within striking distance of the Astros. At the moment, offense -- 3.9 runs per game this month -- is more of a concern than pitching.

Adding a bit of intrigue to the series is that Hamels was reportedly approached earlier this summer about a trade to the Astros, a club that was on his 20-team no-trade list, and he said he would not waive the clause in his contract and approve a trade to Houston. Of course, the Rangers were on Hamels' preapproved list of clubs to which he would accept a trade, so there were no obstacles when the Rangers swung a deal for the lefty.

None of this stuff will matter if the Rangers end up back in the postseason for the first time since 2012. As for the Astros, they haven't made the playoffs since 2005, when they won the National League pennant.

Both clubs are close enough now to understand what they're close to accomplishing. Now a real rivalry between the two clubs may begin to take shape.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.