Astros-Rangers rivalry growing with each intense series

Managers Jeff Banister and A.J. Hinch both have playoff aspirations for their respective teams again this season. Getty Images

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Football reigns in Texas, where communities build $60 million high school stadiums and worship 16-year-old quarterbacks.

In Texas, it's about Friday nights in places such as Stephenville and La Grange. It's about Saturdays in Austin and College Station, and it's about Sunday afternoons in Dallas and Houston.

But the start of NFL training camps no longer coincides with the unofficial end of baseball interest in Dallas and Houston. These days, baseball matters in September and October.

The Texas Rangers have the American League's best record and the second-best record in baseball. The Houston Astros have a roster filled with young players such as Carlos Correa, George Springer and Jose Altuve, who each figure to play in numerous All-Star games.

"I don't know that both clubs have been at this level ever before at the same time," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "When it matters to both teams, that's when it's really fun."

The Rangers and Astros have shared the AL West the past four seasons, but last year marked the first time both clubs could be considered contenders. The Rangers rallied from an eight-game deficit in August to win the division.

On Sunday, the teams will conclude a three-game series in Arlington. The Rangers have won the series' first two games, increasing their division lead over the Astros to 10½ games. The Astros are four games behind in the AL wild-card race.

"The heightened awareness that comes around September, the excitement that comes with it, the stress ... it's why we play," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said.

Texas has beaten Houston in 13 of 15 games this season and 21 of 25 dating back to last season, when the Rangers won the division. The Rangers have won six one-run games against the Astros and three others by two runs. The Astros entered this series with 10 wins in their past 12 games to pull within 8½ games. The Rangers bullied Houston in the series' first two games, scoring 22 runs and leading each game by at least eight runs.

"In these learning lessons that are going on now, in the heat of a pennant race in September when a lot of these guys are at the end of their gas tank, it's a growth opportunity for them," Hinch said. "But it's also important that we find a way to navigate through some of these troubles because we're going to need the younger guys to adapt."

This rivalry is still in its infancy -- even though the teams have played a number of interleague games over the years -- because the Astros played in the National League from 1962 to 2012.

For now, fans give the rivalry life because the cities have a natural rivalry. Dallas brags about the Cowboys' Super Bowl trophies, while Houston gloats about the Rockets' basketball titles.

A four-hour drive up or down I-45 or a one-hour flight is all that separates the cities, and visiting fans tend to regularly invade the home team's ballpark.

The rivalry's intensity should continue to increase because each franchise should be good for years. Texas has won at least 87 games six of the past seven years, and it has been to the playoffs four of the past six seasons, making consecutive World Series appearances in 2010 and 2011.

Houston, which made the playoffs in 2015, doesn't have that type of pedigree. Last season was the first time the Astros finished above .500 since 2008, but all those poor seasons positioned the Astros to draft a wave of stars. Those players are finally getting to the big leagues, and it has put the Astros in a position to be among the best teams in the AL for the next several years.

"It's alive," Texas manager Jeff Banister said of the rivalry. "It may mean a little more to me than some: I'm a Texas kid. Growing up in Houston and getting to manage the Texas Rangers, for me, you're asking a guy who probably has a little more invested in this than some.

"The players they have are young; it's an energetic, very talented group that loves to play the game. You see the similarities in their players and our players in ability and how much they love to play the game and the excitement they play with."

In 2015, both teams finished above .500 for the first time as members of the American League. That July, Texas' Rougned Odor and Houston's Hank Conger had a heated argument at the plate that resulted in both dugouts emptying and the managers screaming at each other.

Two months ago, the Double-A affiliates for each club were involved in a bench-clearing brawl that lasted 11 minutes and resulted in three ejections.

"We're still developing our rivalry," said Astros third base coach Gary Pettis, a coach with the Rangers for several seasons before joining the Astros last year.

"Right now, it's probably more about the cities than the teams, but as we continue to improve, it'll get more intense. It's a great opportunity for our players. You want to play games in September that mean something."