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Deep in the heart of Texas, Astros and Rangers set for Lone Star showdown for spot in World Series

ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Everything is certainly bigger deep in the heart of Texas this baseball postseason, with a Lone Star State showdown for a spot in the World Series.

Defending world champion Houston is no stranger to playing long into October, now getting ready for its seventh consecutive American League Championship Series. This time, the Astros play the up-and-coming Texas Rangers, who led them in the AL West standings for most of the season but again didn’t fare well in the head-to-head matchups.

Both benches and bullpens cleared the last time the two teams played in Houston, where the ALCS opener will be played Sunday night.

“There’s a lot of intensity. … I’d say we’re rivals,” first-year Rangers manager Bruce Bochy said Thursday. “That’s the way baseball should be, I guess. They’re your opponent, so I don’t think it should be a lovefest out there.”

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Especially with so much at stake when the instate rivals meet in the playoffs for the first time.

This will be only the 10th postseason series featuring teams from the same state in baseball’s divisional era (since 1969). It will be the first outside of California since the New York Mets and New York Yankees played in the 2000 World Series, which was a year before the Astros and Rangers had even met in a regular-season game.

Hall of Fame strikeout king Nolan Ryan pitched for both teams, finishing his career with the Rangers and later was part of the ownership group for their only World Series and ALCS appearances in 2010 and 2011. Their respective 40,000-seat retractable-roof stadiums are about 250 miles apart — Minute Maid Park in Houston opened in 2000, and Globe Life Field is in its fourth season.

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Houston’s Dusty Baker and Bochy are the winningest active managers, both with more than 2,000 wins in 26 seasons managing in the big leagues. Bochy won three World Series titles with the San Francisco Giants and Baker finally got his first championship last season.

“Now me and Bruce Bochy need to battle,” the 74-year-old Baker said. ”I know Bruce and he knows me.”

They have gone head-to-head 214 times. Their only playoff meeting was the 2012 NLDS that Bochy’s Giants won in five games over Baker’s Cincinnati Reds.

Houston has dominated the AL West since the Rangers won the division in 2016, their last winning season before this year. The Astros have since been to the World Series four times, winning two of them, and the only time without a division title was the abbreviated 60-game regular season during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, when as a wild-card team they lost a seven-game ALCS to Tampa Bay.

“They are the reigning champions, so you have to give them a respect for that,” Rangers catcher-designated hitter Mitch Garver said. “I’d say we have equally as good a chance to win as they did.”

Texas led the AL West for 148 of the first 149 days this season, and 159 overall. But when the Rangers lost at Seattle on the final day of the regular season, a day after clinching a playoff spot, and Houston won to match them at 90 wins, the Astros had another division title and a first-round playoff bye.

“A lot of people were wondering what it was gonna be like if the ’Stros didn’t win the division,” third baseman Alex Bregman said at the start of their champagne celebration after the regular-season finale. “I guess we’ll never know.”

The Rangers became a wild card and had to fly across the country — going over North Texas on the way — before sweeping the AL’s winningest teams from the regular season, Tampa Bay and Baltimore.

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Houston, which won its ALDS over Minnesota in four games, had the division tiebreaker because of its 9-4 record against the Rangers this year. The Astros had clinched the season series even before their obliterating three-game sweep with 16 homers and 39 runs in Arlington from Sept. 4-6. That is the only time they have played since the benches cleared July 26, after the Astros won the previous two nights to move within a game of the division lead.

Yordan Alvarez got hit by a pitch right after Bregman homered in the first inning of that series finale, and Texas second baseman Marcus Semien took a retaliatory plunk in the third. Semien hit a go-ahead, two-run homer in the fourth, and exchanged words with catcher Martin Maldonado. An inning later, Semien scored on a grand slam by Adolis García, who was face-to-face with the catcher when the benches cleared, though no punches were thrown.

“It’s a heated rivalry. I understand why there’s some animosity,” Rangers first baseman Nathaniel Lowe said.

Bochy was drafted by Houston and began his nine seasons as a big league catcher with the Astros from 1978-80, when they were still in the National League. Their first World Series came as National League champions in 2005.

Interleague play began in 1997 with NL and AL teams from corresponding divisions playing each other. Well, the Astros were in the NL Central and it wasn’t until 2001 that MLB changed things so they could play annually. They became division foes when Houston moved to the AL West in 2013.

“Sometimes it takes time to build that (rivalry). But you can see it developing here,” Bochy said. “You’re in the same state, so no, I’m not surprised how quickly it’s developing.”