HOUSTON — Rivalries have never made much sense to me. I could not understand why in my college days rocks were thrown at my back when I wore a rust-colored Longhorns cap in College Station. I could understand why people in other states hate Texans, but not why Texans hate Texans.
I don’t know why teams and fans from Dallas and Houston, separated by four hours of Interstate 45, can foam up at the sight of each other.
But Drayton McLane understood it very well. When he owned the Houston Astros, in the 1990s (and beyond) he saw the business potential of intrastate animosity. He was constantly urging realignment that would land his team in the same division as the Texas Rangers. There would be a lengthy Lone Star Series every year, 18-19 intrastate games.
It would be like Sparta vs. Athens for control of Greece, a much smaller country, it goes without saying, than the Republic of Texas. (I know, better to let it go without saying, which is one reason they hate us). Anyway, McLane’s vision of baseball in Texas may be coming true.
The Rangers and Astros will enter the symbolic second half of the season dueling for first place in the American League West. That’s how it was last season, with Texas finishing first, 88-74, two victories better than Houston, but both in the playoffs, if briefly.
Phil Garner, former Astros player and manager who earned the nickname Scrap Iron, said the Lone Star Series would not be a true rivalry “until they have a few fights.”
That requirement was met almost a year ago, to the day, when the Astros and Rangers engaged in a bench-clearing brawl at Minute Maid Park.
But another element of a good rivalry is that both teams must show up on a regular basis.
The Rangers have won nine of their ten games against Houston this season. As recently as June 18, the Rangers led the Astros by 11 games.
But then the Astros won 16 of 21, while the Rangers played .500 ball, entering the break off a 15-5 debacle against Minnesota. The Astros have closed to within 5 ½ games, and as their manager A.J. Hinch likes to point out, “We play them nine times in the second half.”
So far, the Rangers’ advantage has been the starting rotations. Cole Hamels, Colby Lewis and Martin Perez are a combined 22-8, with each pitcher producing 12 quality starts. Staff ace Yu Darvish has been touch-and-go with Tommy John but is about to try his second comeback of the half-season.
The Astros have only one starter who’s consistent and durable, and there’s less to the 6-foot-8 Doug Fister than meets the eye. His heat tops out at 88, and his stats are hardly scintillating. He’s 8-6 with a 3.55 ERA.
For a couple of months someone else must have been wearing Dallas Keuchel’s uniform and black beard. This could not have been the reigning Cy Young. But there’s reason to think the 28-year-old lefty has regained his identity. He’s 3-0 with a 2.78 ERA in his past five starts, all of them Houston wins.
I keep thinking any day there will be a breakout from Lance McCullers, 22, who hasn’t yet figured out what to do with one of the game’s strongest right arms. He has struck out 72 in 57 innings but has walked 34. He gets most of his strikeouts – and most of his walks – on his power curve.
Mike Fiers is an OK No. 4, but it may be time to curtail the concussion risk for Collin McHugh, who has been exposed to 119 hits in 102 innings and has a 4.50 ERA.
For his own good, and everybody’s, McUgh should be replaced by Scott Feldman, who’s been effective in relief and spot-starting: 5-3, 2.56.
The off-season trade of Vince Velasquez and other prospects for would-be closer Ken Giles was costly. Velasquez is 8-2, with 93 strikeouts in 79 innings for Philadelphia, while Giles is Houston’s No. 4 reliever, behind All-Star Will Harris, Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek.
The jittery Giles notwithstanding, the bullpen is Houston’s main strength this season, though more is needed from the lone lefthander, Tony Sipp. He’s been strafed for 32 hits in 23 innings. Perhaps NASA can design a special protective helmet for him and McUgh.
Statistically, the Astros are mid-pack, while the Rangers not only have the splashier pitching metrics, they’re third in the American League in run-scoring, behind Boston and Toronto.
What the Astros have are the treasured intangibles of confidence and steadiness. Jose Altuve may be the most inspring player in baseball, 5-feet-6 and slugging .542. Since the beginning of May the Astros have never lost more than two games in a row. The Rangers are far more volatile, having yielded 85 runs in their past 12 games.
These are two severely flawed teams. Houston can’t hit lefties or get them out. Both teams lack a multidimensional catcher. The Astros lack a center fielder who can hit; the Rangers lack a Fielder who can hit, Prince managing .216 and 8 home runs so far. The Rangers’ bullpen has a 5.10 ERA, worst in the AL.
The Astros are more youthful, more likely to improve. They have three of the sport’s most promising millennials in McCullers, shortstop Carlos Correa and well-armed right fielder George Springer. And also the most advanced Triple A apprentice Alex Bregman, who singled, doubled and tripled in the Future’s Game that was part of All-Star San Diego.
Bregman’s future looked brighter than that of his country, which was routed 11-3 by the world.
Bregman’s ideal position, given that Correa is a shortstop, is third base, which Luis Valbuena is holding down with more grip and grit than usual. Valbuena, 30, has 12 homers and a career-best BA of .269 (.838 OPS). He bats left and might thrive in a platoon with the right-handed bat of Bregman.
Another possibility being discussed is Valbuena shifting to first base, which has been a void since Jeff Bagwell retired.
The race in the AL West may depend on upgrades before the non-waiver trade deadline at the end of the month. The Rangers are said to be infatuated with Milwaukee’s All-Star catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who’s not overpaid at $4.3 million per year. Lucroy is 30 and under contract through the 2017 season. Texas could get his best year and a half while taking no risk on his longevity.
Baseball scouts are flocking to the Rangers’ minor-league ballparks, hoping to pluck someone who’s underdeveloped or overlooked.
Meanwhile the Astros and Rangers look forward to their nine remaining meetings, six of them in Houston. Feelings will be hard, tempers on edge, Houston vs. Dallas. They just don’t like each other, and they don’t need reasons.
Alan Truex covered the Houston Astros and Major League Baeball for the Houston Chronicle in the 1980s and ’90s.