Alex Claudio had faced seven Astros, and up stood Jose Altuve.
Cole Hamels had thrown a dominant seven, but it wasn’t Jose Leclerc’s night and Claudio was needed to preserve what had been a 6–0 lead. Altuve was the go-ahead run.
And then Claudio uncharacteristically did what Leclerc had done twice himself an inning earlier: He got ahead in the count, 0–2, only to throw three straight out of the zone afterwards, failing to get the hitter to offer at any of them, and the count filled.
Full count, two outs, the tying run and the runner he trailed both off with the pitch, Claudio’s sixth to baseball’s best hitter.
There wouldn’t be a seventh.
After a dizzying array of Claudio changeups in the eighth and ninth that were mostly chase pitches — diving down and out of the zone, away — this one was of the front-door variety, bearing in at Altuve and fading back into the zone. Altuve, completely fooled by the pitch, sprung as far away from the zone as Claudio’s change sprung toward it.
Claudio’s role-7 change.
It rung Altuve up, and ended the ballgame.
Houston’s now lost a season-worst four straight (all to teams with losing records), and 10 of 13, which dates back to July 29, two days before Astros GM Jeff Luhnow did nothing other than add Francisco Liriano (who has permitted hits, walks, and runs in each of three of his appearances, none of which lasted an inning) to his middle relief group, which has viscerally and outwardly riled up his clubhouse, and if you don’t think Altuve was barking at home plate umpire Bill Welke after the final pitch only because Luhnow wasn’t in sight, well, OK.
As Altuve barked, Claudio did something a little more intense, and from the side the “T” on his cap looked like a “7,” as if in tribute to his Puerto Rican countryman being honored this weekend.
The schadenfreude was strong last night, perhaps obscuring the Rangers’ effort to stay in the race like an Alex Claudio change sneaking back over the plate. It shouldn’t. The schedule is favorable, and the league is not strong. The Rangers have the players to do it.
There are seven teams ahead of them in the Wild Card race.
But five of the seven have the same number of losses as Texas, or one fewer.
Tonight is all about Number Seven, which will formally be retired forever in honor of the franchise’s most dynamic, transcendent player ever, a man who briefly wore the Astros uniform between stints with the Rangers.
There were plenty of seven’s in play last night, too, the most important of which was Alex Claudio preserving Cole Hamels’s seventh win, which on the surface had the awesome feel of handing it to a great baseball team in momentary disarray (if not dysfunction), but which underneath counts as another small step for this team, Pudge’s team, creeping back into the zone and, not inconceivably, catching a handful of frontrunners completely off guard.