The New Rivalries: Five matchups that are becoming must-watch baseball

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Tuesday June 6th, 2017

The Yankees and the Red Sox sit in first and second place, respectively, in the AL East, but even as the two teams kick off a three-game series in the Bronx this week, the rivalry is at a low ebb. With Boston's David Ortiz and New York's Alex Rodriguez having joined Derek Jeter in retirement, the current casts of these two teams don't have a deep history of storied battles. That's not to say that the rivalry is obsolete; like Dodgers vs. Giants or Cubs vs. Cardinals, it will never really go out of style. Still, it's something of a relief that the 19 Boston-New York pairings per season won't consume all of the oxygen in the sport. It's been 13 years since the two teams last faced each other in the postseason, allowing other rivalries to step into the spotlight, especially in the last few seasons.  

What follows here is a look at five rivalries that have emerged over the past few years thanks to some high-intensity matchups and even some bad blood. While they don’t have the history or intensity of the aforementioned pairings, they've shown signs of becoming appointment viewing. 

1. Texas Rangers vs. Houston Astros

Prior to the sale of the Astros from Drayton McLane to Jim Crane in late 2011, the American League had 14 teams, including a four-team AL West, and the National League had 16 teams, including a six-team NL Central. MLB was so eager to balance the leagues and divisions that it granted Crain a $70 million discount on the $680 million purchase price of the franchise, with McLane and the League each splitting the cost. Thus the Astros, who were founded as the Houston Colt .45s in 1962, moved to the AL in 2013, becoming just the second team to switch leagues since the founding of the AL in 1901 (the Brewers, who moved from the AL to the NL in 1998, were the first).

Initially, Houston's long-term rebuilding effort put a damper on the rivalry; in 2013, the Astros went 2-17 against the Rangers en route to a franchise record 111 losses. The next year—after Texas CEO Nolan Ryan (who played for both teams during his Hall of Fame career) stepped down to accept a special assistant role under Crane—the Astros won 11 of the 19 matchups and overtook the Rangers, who had won at least 90 games in each of the previous four seasons, in the standings. In 2015, Houston reemerged as a competitive force, leading the AL West from mid-April to mid-September, when a four-game sweep by the Rangers in Arlington put Texas in the driver's seat. It took until the season's final day for the Rangers to clinch the division title, with the Astros claiming a wild card spot. What's more, a July bench-clearing incident that began with Texas second baseman Rougned Odor and Houston catcher Hank Conger arguing at home plate found Rangers manager Jeff Banister sticking his finger in the chest of Astros counterpart A.J. Hinch. 

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Texas won the AL West again in 2016, with its 15-4 advantage over Houston accounting for the entire 11-game gap between the two teams in the final standings. This year, the two teams have reignited their feud  on May 1 when the benches cleared after Astros righty Lance McCullers threw behind the Rangers' Mike Napoli, who had homered off him in the previous plate appearance. Houston is running away with the AL West while Texas has slipped below .500 thanks to a 2-10 skid capped by a three-game sweep by the Astros Arlington, but the geography and frequency of this rivalry means that it only figures to become more significant.

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2. Texas Rangers vs. Toronto Blue Jays

While the Ranger-Astros rivalry is geographically driven, Texas has developed another feud, one that owes its origins to a postseason clash and has spilled over into the regular season. In 2015, the Rangers and Blue Jays played a hard-fought Division Series that culminated in a wild seventh inning in Game 5 in Toronto. In the top of the inning, Odor scored the go-ahead run when the throw from Jays catcher Russell Martin back to the mound ricocheted off Shin-Soo Choo's bat; irate Rogers Centre fans littered the field with garbage while the umpires sorted things out, ratcheting up the tension even higher. Thanks to a spate of errors by Texas, the Blue Jays rallied in the bottom of the seventh, tying the game before Jose Bautista clubbed a three-run homer off Sam Dyson and punctuated it with what might be the most famous bat flip in baseball history. Dyson took issue and benches cleared. Ultimately, Toronto advanced. 

Then, on May 15 of last season, the simmering tension boiled over. Rangers reliever Matt Bush plunked Bautista in the elbow, seemingly with intent. Later that inning, when Bautista advanced on a groundball, he slid late into Odor, who shoved Bautista, then clocked him in the face with a hard right cross. Both dugouts emptied, mayhem ensued, and ultimately, suspensions and fines were handed down, with 14 players, Toronto manager John Gibbons and one of his coaches all disciplined. Odor drew the harshest discipline with an eight-game suspension (reduced to seven on appeal). 

Inevitably, the two teams met again in the Division Series. Again the Blue Jays got the upper hand, sweeping the series against the AL's winningest team. Bautista hit a home run in Game 1, but this time his bat drop was far more polite. Much less was at stake when the two teams met over Memorial Day weekend this year with both clubs under .500, but Bautista did homer in the middle game of the series after the Rangers' Yu Darvish hit two of his teammates. 

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3. Baltimore Orioles vs. Boston Red Sox

These two teams have been rivals in the AL East since the division was formed in 1969, and while they've both had their share of success—nine division titles for the Orioles, eight for the Red Sox—nothing in the rivalry generated a level of heat on par with their first two series of this season, which brought out some of the worst of what baseball has to offer. 

The bad blood began on April 21 at Camden Yards, when Baltimore's Manny Machado slid into second base late, spiking Boston second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who missed the Red Sox' next three games due to swelling in his surgically repaired left knee. Things escalated when Boston reliever Matt Barnes threw a pitch way too close to Machado's head the next day. Barnes was ejected, while Pedroia registered his disapproval of his teammate's actions by calling across the field to Machado and saying, "That's not me … If it was me, we would have hit you the first day." Barnes drew a four-game suspension from the league. 

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The fallout from the Machado-Pedroia incident lingered, with Red Sox ace Chris Sale throwing behind Machado (but escaping discipline) when the teams met again at Fenway Park in early May. In the wake of that, Machado launched a postgame tirade during which he declared his lack of respect for the Sox and openly suggested he could wield his bat as a weapon, an uncomfortable callback to his 2014 bat-tossing incident against the A's. To make matters worse, on May 2 Orioles centerfielder Adam Jones was subjected to racist taunts while playing the outfield at Fenway Park, which drew swift apologies from Red Sox team president Sam Kennedy, Boston mayor Marty Walsh, Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker; Red Sox fans responded by giving Jones a standing ovation the next night. The two teams kept things under control during last weekend's series in Baltimore, and they have just six games remaining on their schedule, none before Aug. 25 in Boston, but you can bet those will be worth watching. 

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

4. Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Arizona Diamondbacks

Obviously, this doesn’t have the depth of the Dodgers-Giants rivalry, which goes all the way back to the two teams' founding in New York City in the 19th century, but since 2005, when former L.A. senior vice president Derrick Hall joined Arizona's front office, the link between the two franchises has been unmistakeable. Hall became the D-backs team president in 2006 and added the title of CEO in 2009. 

In 2007, former Dodgers World Series hero (and 1988 NL MVP) Kirk Gibson joined Arizona’s as bench coach, and in mid-2010, he took over as manager. The following year, he piloted the Diamondbacks to the NL West flag, making them the last team besides Los Angeles  to win the division. On the penultimate day of the season, Arizona's Ryan Roberts hit a walk-off grand slam against Los Angeles, then mimicked Gibson’s famous fist pump from his pinch-hit home run off Oakland closer Dennis Eckersley in the 1988 World Series.

In 2013, the Dodgers and Diamondbacks engaged in a massive brawl following an escalating beanball war that culminated with Arizona righthander Ian Kennedy plunking L.A. counterpart Zack Grienke. A month later, both Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero and former star Luis Gonzalez (who finished his career with the Dodgers), called out rookie Yasiel Puig for his demeanor. Later that year, Los Angeles exacted revenge by taking a dip in the Chase Field pool after clinching the division title in Arizona.

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In late  2014, Diamondbacks baseball czar Tony La Russa axed Gibson and hired former Dodgers pitcher Dave Stewart as the team’s general manager, with former Dodgers assistant GM De Jon Watson joining as senior vice president of baseball operations. The disastrous regime could not reverse Arizona’s sagging fortunes even after scoring a free agent coup in December 2015, when Greinke left the Dodgers for the Diamondbacks via a six-year, $206.5 million deal. Stewart and Watson were dismissed last September, but Greinke, who pitched to a 4.37 ERA last year, has been at the forefront of a rotation resurgence that has powered the Diamondbacks back into contention. Even so, the jilted Dodgers have pounded their former co-ace for a 6.35 ERA in four turns since his defection. 

5. New York Mets vs. Washington Nationals 

It’s not yet the equal of their longstanding rivalry with the Braves, which was at its peak from 1995—when MLB’s realignment put the two teams in the same division for the first time—to 2000, but the Mets and the Nationals have built a good rivalry in recent years, as both teams climbed out of the doldrums of mediocrity. In mid-2011, Davey Johnson, who managed New York to its most recent world championship in 1986, returned to the dugout for the first time in 11 years as Washington's skipper, and the following season, he led the Nats to 98 wins and their first NL East flag.

With the Braves, Phillies and Marlins all in various states of disarray, things really heated up in 2015, when the Mets outdistanced the Nationals to win their first division title since 2006, then went on to win the NL pennant. After the season, New York second baseman Daniel Murphy, who had emerged as a postseason hero by homering in a record six consecutive games, signed a four-year deal with the Nationals, though the team’s pursuit of Yoenis Cespedes fell short, as he returned to New York.  

In 2016, Murphy merging as one of the NL’s top hitters, batting .347/.390/595 with career highs of 25 homers and 104 RBIs. He was even better against his old team, hitting .413/.444/.773 with seven homers and 21 RBIs in 19 games against the Mets, with three of those homers and six of those ribbies providing go-ahead runs. His binge was a big reason why Washington went 12-7 against New York, accounting for the bulk of their eight-game advantage in the final standings. After the season, the Nationals again tried to woo Cespedes, who had exercised his opt-out clause, but again he re-upped with the Mets. With New York scuffling right now due to injuries, it doesn’t appear as though they’ll be battling for a playoff spot, but you can bet the two teams have their upcoming engagements circled on the calendar. 

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