Archive for September, 2011

The Astrodome’s Pneumatic Tubes

These pneumatic tubes fired important messages (“The Judge needs more peanuts for the elephants in the Presidential Suite!”) from one end of the 8th Wonder to the other.

This and more Astrodome magic in this two-part documentary on the Astrodome, produced by Paul Peters in 1965: Part 1 & Part 2.

Once More With Meaning: Astros Down the Contending Cardinals

“Maybe I’ll look back in ten years and admire the guy, but for right now I can’t stand Tony LaRussa,” said Halfboot, my companion at the third-to-last game of the season at Minute Maid Park. The coaches and umpires were reconnoitered at home plate before the Astros-Cards game that was crucial for at least one of the teams involved. LaRussa’s barreled chest and mullet suggested the single-minded determination the manager seems to possess. Though rarely the darlings of baseball, betting against the Cardinals–and LaRussa–is rarely a wise idea.

That said, Halfboot and I were betting on spoilers last night, using the out-of-contention fan’s only remaining weapon against the teams still striving to extend their season: pettiness. If we can’t make it, neither should these chumps. Neither should this chump with the mullet.

As for the game itself, Matt Downs chipped a deep, high fly ball into the Crawford Boxes and Jason Bourgeious hooked a double down the left field line in support of Wandy Rodriguez.

Down four to two, a locked-in Lance Berkman hit the hardest fair ball of the night on Monday, in the 8th inning, from the right side of the plate. The traumatized remnants of Wesley Wright’s pitch clattered against the National League scoreboard as the two elite Cardinals sluggers to hit before Berkman, Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday, trotted home. The game was tied, and with the Braves having beaten the Phillies–as evidenced on the very scoreboard that Big Puma had just brutalized–the Cardinals had a chance to tie for the NL Wild Card title. If they won last night, they’d have stepped into a tie for first with just two games left to play.

Instead, the softest hit ball of the night dropped the red birds in the bottom of the tenth, when the game’s most inept hitter drove home Brian Bogusevic with a safety squeeze. Angel Sanchez had swung through just about every pitch sent his way by lefty sinker baller Jaime Garcia and any other pitcher he faced. Odd, then, that Brad Mills would leave him in the game against Octavio Dotel, when a sac fly from lefty Brett Wallace would have ended it. Not privy to the wisdom being delivered probably through every available media outlet from the TV broadcast to Twitter to Pony Express, Halfboot and I both entirely overlooked the squeeze option, so when Angel squared we grabbed each other like middle school girls getting a look at Justin Bieber from a hundred paces.

When Dotel–the old Astro–muffed the attempt to glove-scoop the squeeze bunt home, we whooped and cheered as though we were the team in the playoff hunt.

That Monday night game, against all odds, in front of more Cardinals fans than Astros, had actually meant something.

The Foregone Conclusion in a World of Doubt

I was a good inning into the Astros-Rockies game on the DVR, enjoying a peaceful Sunday baseball game a few hours after the fact, when the playback froze up and created the digital equivalent of a chewed up tape. I was frustrated, all set to dig into the game, but I let it go and moved on to other distractions. Thanks, crappy cable box. You saved me from a sorry drubbing at the hands of what should have been a punchless Rockeis team. In the words of David Coleman over at The Crawfish Boxes, “Whatever you do, stay away from the box score.”

So instead of digging into that hot mess any further, I will now consider the most joyful moment I’ve experienced in weeks as an Astros fan: Brett Wallace’s mammoth home run from Saturday night:

The Houston Astros’ on-again off-again first baseman Brett Wallace swung the bat on Saturday night, and hit the ball. Nobody moved. Fielders who should have been sprinting in pursuit of the long fly instead trotted aimlessly and craned their necks to watch its path. The mechanisms that should have sprung to life when the ball was put into play seemed like they had rusted out.

The game had not broken. There was not a gas leak at Minute Maid Park that dazed the Colorado Rockies outfielders (besides, the roof was open). What happened was that Brett Wallace established a conclusion foregone: he hit a no-doubt home run. Wallace hit the ball so hard that the outfielders felt no need to feign chasing the ball to the wall. Center fielder Dexter Fowler moved with the vigor of a 50-something weekender nearing the end of a 2-mile jog.

This Astros baseball season has squeezed questions and uncertainties against accumulating losses, endless new faces, and bureaucratic filibustering. Consistency has come only in the form of ineptitude and loss (losing ballgames and losing players). The period of time spanning the instant Wallace hit the ball to the instant it clattered far away into the deep right center field seats was among the few–and it may be the only–gathering of seconds during which it felt okay to be an Astros fan.

The no-doubt home run is a tool of the bold and successful. Prince Fielder is this year’s Professor Emeritus of No Doubt Studies, with the swagger to match the mileage, and it’s not a coincidence that he’s on the Brewers, this year’s paradigm of a well-run franchise. Wallace’s shot was a momentary respite from the struggles of the season; a hint at the promise in his powerful build. Without checking, I’d say this was the only no-doubter of Wallace’s career. He took off out of the box like a shot and settled into a quick-paced shuffle around the bases. Nobody can know if he got into one in spite of himself or if it’s an indicator of some hitch that his time in the minors helped resolve. For a few seconds, it didn’t matter. Doubt was not a factor in that small equation.

Friday Night Fireworks: Astros Top the Rockies

The cynical reaction to last night’s big Astros victory over the Rockies would be to suggest that we came out on firmly top in a match-up of Triple-A teams.

The Rockies sent out a lineup of anonymous characters but for journeyman and former Astros Ty Wigginton and sole electric presence Dexter Fowler. For once, at least, the Astros didn’t field the least experienced three-hole hitter, last night’s honor for unknown heart of the order hitter going to Colorado 2B Jordan Pacheco.

JB Shuck, who is likely as foreign to non-Houston fans as Pacheco and company, embraced the leadoff role against ineffective young pitcher Drew Pomeranz, a soft-throwing lefty who must conjure unpleasant memories of Denny Neagle for Rockies fans. Shuck’s three hits and a walk helped Angel Sanchez, JD Martinez, El Caballo, and Matt Downs to a serving of RBIs piled as high as a party platter from Goode Co. barbeque. With a 5-run first inning, the game was in hand early on, with the Astros stacking a few more of the 1s and 2s on as the game carried on. The end result was a flip-flop of the normal Houston role as doormat for the more experienced teams.

Brett Myers continues to try to sway me into giving a lick about his pitching, and I continue to consider his pitching extraneous and dull. Give me a Henry Sosa start any day, with the highs and lows of development and promise. An inning of Jordan Lyles in relief (see below) is more interesting than most Myers starts. It’s a harsh stance, but these are tough times to be an Astros fan, and certain limits must be set. I’m all for watching our young players struggle on some nights and thrive on others, but I can’t spend much time thinking about a player like Myers. Good on him for pitching as well as he can, but I’ll keep the hitters in the forefront of my attention on his days on the bump.

Elsewhere, in Victoryville…

Watching the highlights of the Brewers’ crazy NL Central clinching party last night–from Prince Fielder’s big bomb to Ryan Braun’s late-inning ding dong to the Cards-Cubs scoreboard watching–I was struck with the amount of excitement and momentum that a mid-market team can build. Not so long ago, the Astros were enjoying such tidal waves of emotion, when the less heralded baseball cities stick it to the old stalwarts. Nowadays in Space City it requires imagination to envision a return to mattering in such a way, but it is far from out of question. The Brewers are a fine example of the life cycle of a rising franchise, building from within until the time was right to gamble on a few key veteran puzzle pieces.

With the first pick in next year’s draft, the future should feature at least one glimmering possibility.

Lyles Sighting

Jordan Lyles appeared as a relief pitcher, the first time I’ve seen him in the role (I missed his quick Cincinnati appearance). The results were sound; Lyles had the late life on his fastball that makes him effective, and which seemed to have faded as his big league innings accumulated.

Cincinnati Speedball

I “watched” yesterday’s surprise attack day game against the Cincy Red via the generic lefty and righty hitters and scrolling numbers of MLB’s Gameday. Gameday is the closest that we in the modern age will come to watching the score come scrolling in on ticker tape. I suppose it’s a deficiency in my imagination, then, that I wasn’t able to conjure grand images of Base Ball just by following the play by play. The valiant men of yesteryear would have made mind maps out of the basic information, visualizing Wandy Rodriguez’s pointless pinpoint fastballs and futile falling curveballs. The tragedies of Aeschylus were composed under such television-free circumstances, so I probably should’ve been able to turn the skeletons of this Chili City narrative into just such a tragic tale of lofty aspirations, skewed expectations, and thwarted goals.

Alas, I could barely keep one eye on the game, pulled away as I was by the more mundane demands of modern life. By the time my attention returned the to Gameday box, Bronson Arroyo was–miraculously, but for this Astros offense–closing out the game. Arroyo’s last pitch, an 89-mph fastball, was also his hardest thrown. The Arroyo style is utterly lost on the Gameday format, as Gameday is ill-equipped to translate the looping lobs that follow Bronson’s gymnastic leg kick. As much as I enjoy the success of a strange cat like Arroyo, nobody wants the soft-throwers to beat their own team. Sadly, the Astros make kings out of lesser pitchers this year, and on Wednesday afternoon, Bronson Arroyo occupied the throne.

101

There’s something nicely symmetrical about 101. Tack it to a pitcher’s fastball and it’s the stuff of elite closers, in Billy Wagner territory. On the map it’s a stretch of near-coastal Western highway that is, in my mind, the gateway to some of the most sublime driving in the country. In Willard Scott’s hands, 101 is a miracle of human endurance.

In Astroville, 101 is a pop out to a left fielder, a ground out to third, and new heights of mediocrity. 101 losses rattles around like an empty soda can in the bed of an old pick-up truck. A loss like last night’s wasn’t without merit. JD Martinez hit a home run to right field, and Chris Johnson hit one to left. Every bit of confidence is an asset for these young players. Bud Norris pitched okay, then left the game with a threatening injury, and his season is likely over.

Francisco Cordero, pitching himself in the twilight of a big contract, shut down the young Astros easily, and the game set like the sun over the water.

As the Astros prepare to play this afternoon–another set against the Reds under cloudy skies–they look at their last game on the road this year. They’ll make the trip home, then make their own trips home, each of them, to study the map this off-season, searching for a choicer route.

Astros Continue to Beat Up on Former Astro Contenders

The first inning of this game was as encouraging as any I can recall in weeks, with the Astros pelting stud Phillies ace Cole Hamels with singles and doubles, plating a run and loading the bases before the duds at the end of the lineup wrapped things up. J.D. Martinez spun on a Hamels change-up in his trademark style like the uncoiling of a dangerous spring; Clint Barmes rang a double; El Caballo nipped Hamels for a single. It was just one inning, there wasn’t a home run, only a run scored and it was very early yet. Nevertheless, there was a kind of clockwork motion of the lineup with baserunners ticking forward from base to base like a tuned up baseball machine.

From last night’s win over a healthy Roy Oswalt, to tonight’s win over bonafide ace (albeit a third fiddle one) Cole Hamels, this series against the Phillies has blown through as refreshing as a fall breeze. Now all we need is an actual fall breeze and we’re gold.

Hunter Pence continued his post-Houston tear with a home run off of a balustrade below the railroad tracks. Clint Barmes hit a homer of his own as a part of his fine night at the plate. Jason Bourgeois hit and ran the memory of Jordan Schafer away, for the evening at least.

Jay-Ayy Happ pitched well again, and again I don’t know how.

Cole’s Clues

Hamels starts off plenty of at bats with his change-up. Has a more quiet version of the low-90s fastball than Oswalt shows. Every Phillies starter seems to have the same 92 mph fastball, and they’re all pretty arrow straight, piercing their target with truth and clarity. But Cole will throw his change-up aggressively, an affront that befits his boarding school sneer.

Like all of the great pitchers, Hamels’ pitches work off of one another like an endless Escher drawing of confusion, so that after an 0-0 change-up, a straight low 90s fastball has grown thorns. Speed is one issue but not the only issue, but also there is the undetectable alchemy of pitching, in which one pitcher over another learns how to manipulate the illusion of speed and angle, with the wrist and arms. Of JA Happ I’ve said that it’s hard to tell the difference between his good days and his bad days, and that’s a way of saying that his pitches are not very dynamic. A pitcher like Hamels, on the other hand, passes electricity through his fingertips and into the pitch, so that it’s undeniable to witness how remarkable his “stuff” is. Stuff is a way of saying electricity.

The Hamels breaking pitch, a swirly curveball, is an afterthought, like the after dinner mint in the dish on the way out the door.

The Astros, for their part, spent the first four innings zip-lining Hamels’ pitches back into the outfield for singles, doubles, and even some more. The current ran both ways. Some great hits against an elite pitcher, and some stolen bases off of his meandering motion home, and five runs later they’re up by four runs in the fourth.

Hamels was run out of the game after five innings, which is about like killing off Bruce Willis’ character halfway through the latest Die Hard movie.

El Caballo Rides Again

Sometimes baseball is really simple. In essence, for a hitter, there is the one idea: hit the worst pitch you see as hard as you can. Carlos Lee, El Caballo Viejo or Gordo or whichever unflattering adjective you’d like to append, is the most glaring example of a player who has lost the ability to complete that simple task with any regularity.

To that end, the most resounding image of El Caballo this year is the helpless chip of a meatball pitch–whether it be a hanging slider or an easy fastball right down the middle–that clearly should have been hit a long ways, especially by the big, expensive slugger in the middle of the lineup. Lee simply lacks whatever fast twitch muscle response or explosion of exertion that a hitter needs to punish the opposing pitcher’s weakest efforts. The effects of age are not obvious but subtle. Only over time does the millisecond of delay in Carlos Lee’s swings from last year to this year, and the year before to last, become a trend rather than an aberration. While 95 percent of this Astros team tries to calm the nerves of youth and bring order to the chaos of the young hitter’s overall presentation, Carlos Lee is among the few in the Houston stable attempting to patch together the fraying tapestry if his career’s worn through years.

The Monday evening game against the Philadelphia Philles–the gleaming pride of National League baseball with their fireman’s calendar of starting pitchers so strong and consistent that they’ve been able to weather any faltering in the lineup–is among those farcical late season match-ups that is the baseball equivalent of an MMA match between Ivan Drago and McLovin. An Astros victory will add up to little more than a feeble 2012 confidence booster, and a loss is just another affirmation of the pecking order in the league at the moment. That said, I’ll take the win, if only to recall that satisfying sense of order that follows a win even in a lost season.

Two of the runs that added up to the five-to-one victory came off of the bat of the aforementioned Carlos Lee. El Caballo rattled a hanging curveball from the still effective and very relaxed-seeming Roy Oswalt and tagged a few seats in the Crawford Boxes. For just a moment, when Lee jumped on that rare bad pitch, shades of the old Astros–those veteran teams of bad ball punishers and home run launchers and doubles demons–flickered across my mind’s eye. El Caballo rode the 360-foot track from home to home, astride a younger version of himself as he rode the game’s best graceful circuit.

Flicker and Pop: Astros Beat the Pirates in the Rain

Another rainy night in Pittsburgh: pitchers wore their sleeves and rain drops popped against the microphones for the second dreary night of baseball in a row. As foul balls fell into the nearly empty stands, this game between the Astros and the Pirates achieved a quietude that could be construed as either calmly Zen or deeply depressing, depending on your metaphysical tendencies. With so few fans in the stands even the mildest meditation met with interruption when the strange barks from the desperate Pittsburgh few were isolated and enhanced enough to jolt the peaceful Astro fan from a meditation on the nature of wins and losses.

In the middle of such a losing season, every pitch and every swing is self-contained; it exists within the controlled confines of the inconsequential, constrained by the boundaries of the mathematically impossible. The balance of the game, then, is not between wins and losses, but between the player and the audience. Because the results of the game are meaningless, only the witnessing of the event brings it to life. The baseball game only exists if I see it; its impact is momentary and fleeting, like the flicker of a late summer firefly in a dark field.

There’s beauty in the flicker, of course. Jimmy Paredes and his scrambles around the basepaths (see below), Jose Altuve cloaking a grin after flipping the ball across his body deep in the hole, Mark Melancon closing out a game with little incident like a pro. These are the micro-moments that flash and vaporize for those of us training our eyes on the empty evening meadow.

I’m not including Brett Myers on this list of friendly flickers because, frankly, I have no interest in what he does. An aberration in the plan and an unremarkable stylist, I’d rather watch the hitters he faces than focus on he himself. My Brett Myers show was over before it began, and he has done nothing to convince me to put it back on the air.

Tonight’s was a good win, against a division opponent in adverse and even tedious circumstances. To win a game with J.B. Shuck in the three-hole is itself a minor miracle. As night falls on the long day of this season, we could do worse than a quiet win to breathe the promise of the new dawn around the bend.

The Art of the Dart

Brett Myers could make an argument, but really Jimmy Paredes owned this 4 to 1 win. Three hits in four at bats, two runs scored, an RBI. Let’s take a look, step-by-step, at the art of the Dominican Dart.

Top 2: Paredes sprints hard to beat out the last half of what should have been an easy double play ball. The Dart then darted from 1st to home on a double by Humberto Quintero.

Top 4: Paredes beats out an infield single.

Top 7: After a long at bat full of foul balls, Paredes strikes a low fastball to right center for a single. Only a weird, wild, remarkable scoop, flip, and tag by Pirates pitcher Lincoln to catcher Doumit keeps the Dart from scoring on a safety squeeze by Brett Myers.

Top 9: Paredes drills a hard line drive towards the gap in left center field. Andrew McCutchen accelerated towards the ball improbably, then actually overran it and took the ball off of the heel of his hand. As it was, the Dart earned a pretty well-deserved double to elevate his status as the game’s only interesting player. Q drove the Dart home again. 4-1 lead, and that is your ballgame.

Rain Ball in Pittsburgh

A Dream of Rain

In Texas, with the state’s widespread news of raging wild fires and long-term drought conditions, a good old-fashioned steady drizzle hovers perpetually in the distance like a mirage. Cold, dry gusts dropped the temperature at my house and across central Texas on Monday but spread aggressive fires in the Hill Country.

The sort of rain that fills the daydreams of Texans these days soaked the Steel Belt and horsed up the afternoon game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Houston Astros. After a gray delay, the game plodded along to the pops of fat rain drops on the FSN microphones as Jim Deshaies and Bill Brown talked about the effects of a delay on the hitters versus the pitchers. Deshaies concluded that a starting pitcher can get pumped no matter what, because it’s his big day no matter what, whereas the doldrums are more likely to lull the work-a-day position players into a drowsed state, like a little kid with heavy eyelids staring out the window wishing the rain would let up so he and his friends could play wiffle ball.

The unverifiable Deshaies theory seemed to describe the Astros hitters more deftly than those of the Pirates. In the bottom of the 2nd, starter Henry Sosa allowed a walk to Neil Walker and a double to the intermittent but still powerful Ryan Doumit. Only a fine spinning peg to home from third baseman Jimmy Paredes to get Walker saved a run.

Altuve’s Surprise

The sole exception to the Astros hitting doldrums was a triple from Jose Altuve in the top of the third. Against the ever-present right-hander James McDonald–who seems to my untrained eye to be the only starter the Pirates have, and whose middle name is Zell!–Altuve was able to power a deep fly ball towards Jose Tabata in right. Tabata, playing in against the small infielder, broke back towards the wall as if surprised at the sneak attack. In the scramble, he misjudged where the outfield wall was and bunny-hopped as the ball arrived, throwing himself off just enough to lose track of the ball and boot. I would imagine that Jose Altuve has shocked many an outfielder over the years with the aggressive trajectory of his hits in spite of the conservative measure of his stature.

Sosa, like his counterpart McDonald, enjoyed the usual mid-90s life on his fastball. The Sosa question, as ever (or at least for his six career starts), concerns the presence or absence of the dreaded “big inning.” Any pitcher must answer the same question, as any inning that isn’t a shutout inning could be considered big in some way. But some pitchers, with the smooth but wild Sosa among them, exude the sense that their good will be great and their bad will be putrid. Sosa pitches quite well most of the time. His WHIP is a respectable 1.2. In times of success, he allows the natural qualities of his fastball to dictate its use, allowing the gravity of its sink and break to carry it to the edges of the strike zone and up under the hands of right handed hitters. A pretty good breaking ball supports the very good fastball.

During the bad innings, like Sosa’s disproportionately damaging two-run fourth inning, the fastball flattens out and sails to the middle of the zone, where big league hitters hit it hard the other direction. A single by Andrew McCutchen (my favorite Pirate!) and a plunked Derrek Lee set the stage for Ryan Doumit and Josh Harrison to drive them home with solid line drives through the rain.

Only a bases loaded grounder back to the pitcher to start a shaky 1-2-3 double play would hold off a further Pirate advance in the inning. But the Astros hitters, in full application of the Deshaies theory, were unable to surmount the daunting one-run lead. A fine opposite field home run from Derrek Lee clattered into a damp and empty right field bleacher to increase the lead to two runs late.

Down three runs to one in the top of the ninth, the Astros threatened against closer Joel Hanrahan, whose mangy goatee dripped with precipitation. Carlos Lee walked and Jimmy Paredes singled. Matt Downs came through as a pinch hitter once more, dropping a single into shallow right field. Paredes, however, such an impressive young player in many regards, committed a youthful sin when he rounded second base aggressively despite the fact that the encumbered Caballo ahead of him had already slowed to an unsteady halt like an eighteen wheeler easing down a 6 percent grade. Paredes was cooked, and his out at second base was the second of the inning, and the threat ended with a J.B. Shuck flyball to left field.

Four straight losses in September don’t bode well for the fall conclusion to this 2011 season.