In the third game of the series and of the season, against the Colorado Rockies on a beautiful Sunday, not even 15,000 fans showed up to the ballpark. They missed a solidly played baseball game against legitimate competition. The second such showing in a row, with commendable starting pitching, professional hitting, and an overall sense of competence that has already surpassed what most Astros fans expected to see at any point during this foregone conclusion of season.
Here are some notes on the third game and on the young season:
* On Bud Norris. Norris–who I didn’t see pitch during the spring–appeared svelte on the mound, missing a layer or two of baby fat. His simple array of pitches was complemented by a heretofore unwittnessed pretty good change-up on Sunday, against a lineup whose meat featured two elite hitters in Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez and another grizzled element in the quiet but punchy Michael Cuddyer. The sharp fastball and the ducking slider that we are used to were present and accounted for. Norris worked away in the professional-grade portion of the strike zone, meaning the four-inch box hugging the strike and ball portions of the low and away corner.
My recall of Norris’ performances from last year include five excellent innings followed by shaky entries beyond. Decent, yes, but not elite. Would his improved fitness aid against that pattern?
In the 6th inning, after letting up only a run so far from a Wilin Rosario home run, Norris plunked Tulowitzki painfully on the thigh and walked Jason Giambi (who walked thrice on the day and seems programmed like a rusty android against swinging at anything before two strikes in the count). Norris threatened to repeat his pattern and flub the game after the 5th. A visit from the coach seemed to settle him. Cuddyer hit into a double play! A 2-1 lead was in tact.
*In the bottom of the 4th, Jose Altuve hit a triple. Brad Mills sat Altuve for the second game of the season. The decision was decent enough, as Jose’s replacement Bixler had a single and the Astros won the game with ease and put up 7 runs. Nonetheless I felt that sitting Altuve after just a game was a sure way to disjoint the Astros fan, who wants only to attach herself to these very young players. Altuve, who showed with his triple that he has fine bat speed and could blossom before us, is one of the central figures for admiration that this team has. He should play in every single one of the remaining 159 games. Do not bench Jose Altuve, sir.
In any event, he hit a triple to start the inning. JD Martinez failed miserably to score Jose–if JD is going to swing, he needs to swing, and end a spate of ugly half-swings that rob him of all of his power and suggest to the observer that he has no idea what he’s doing. Carlos Lee, however, hit a ringing double. An RBI! It wasn’t complicated. There was no scheme to it, no strategy. One hit followed another, and we had a run and announced that we had a game. Plain old baseball, folks, and it felt good.
When Altuve and JD Martinez each singled off of a hard-throwing reliever, Rex Brothers, there was a strange feeling in the air: a tremor of hope. Then El Caballo came to the plate and hit a solid top-spin forehand deep to the backhand of Colorado’s third baseman, who booted the throw under pressure, scoring the tying run.
Brian Bogusevic rapped another single, and we gained the lead. On Saturday, we put up 7 runs. Sunday, this. Whatever the hand of fate holds for the rest of 2012, this season has started out piping hot.
* On El Caballo. Carlos Lee has been an easy goat in this town for years. Now in the final year of his contract, and as the only proven hitter on the team, I have a funny feeling that he will experience a kind of renaissance. The Contract has always held Astros fans back from enjoying the positives that Caballo brings to the team and to the game. This season, the chains that bind the albatross of his contract to the team are slackening, and really he’s the only hitter with a history in the leagues that we can look to. Add to that the fact that he really is a likable fellow, he pals around and gestures and does other things that TV viewers can enjoy, and he’s a decent first bagger, and that’s a formula for a softening of the harsh criticism he has allowed to slide off of his back for years.
* On Brian Bogusevic. I have been skeptical of the kid for a while now. I sensed that his push to the majors was more a result of wishful thinking about a former first round pick than of outright merit. His deep bomb to left center the other night, and his very timely hit in this game are quickly chipping away at my cynicism. Anybody can hit a single. Not just anybody can launch a moon ball into the ether. In other words, he has a foundation to build on. The strength to be an MLB hitter is in place, the bat speed is there, and the rest is up to him. So far, so interesting.
So, 15,000 Astros fans, good on you. You saw a fine baseball game in an Astros era when that is a rare and valuable commodity. I’ve often thought that our starting pitching was an asset, and Wandy, Bud Norris and Lucas (!) Harrell have thus far proved out. At a time when the franchise is looking backwards to history, the immediate present presents some hope for a chance.