As the Astros prepare to face another opponent from the Eastern seaboard, here’s a look back at the last couple of games from the Pirates series, which featured some good baseball against what is now, remarkably, a worthy opponent. The Pirates left the series in a breathless first place and the Astros broke a 5-game losing streak before starting a new one, to maintain their kung fu grip on the last rung of the ladder.
Sunday Funday vs. Pittsburgh
At no point was this game a foregone conclusion, and that’s saying something.
Jeff Keppinger refuses to play the laughing stock of a third-hole hitter that I expect him to be, pulling another home run over the Crawfish Boxes. You’ve never seen a more vanilla home run swing, but the runs still count, and Keppinger’s work gave Houston the lead early, and started a tie-building rally in the 8th inning.
Sadly, though, this weekend-ender couldn’t end in a tie.
The last definitive moment of this well-contested came in the top of the 11th inning, and it featured some poolroom English and textbook Carlos Lee bumbling, when Xavier Paul bounced a fair ball that first passed between his legs, which Mark Melancon promptly booted before Carlos Lee took a poke at it but failed, instead plopping down onto his rump like Winnie the Pooh at the end of a honey binge. I can’t recall a play with more oddities packed into it, each of which was as subtle as a bee alighting on a flower.
Later, in a rather pitiful 11th inning, Lee’s inexperience at first base left him floating perilously in front of Andrew McCutchen, who was inconveniently sprinting full bore down the first base line. Lee, instead of leaping from the side to attempt to pull in a high throw, jumped from right in the middle of the base line. El Caballo had the wind knocked out of him, and McCutchen, whose health frankly I was more concerned with even as an Astros fan, seemed fine. By the time the last notes from the organ grinder faded, the Pirates were three runs up. Even an Humberto Quintero home run in the bottom half couldn’t erase the awkward.
Wandy Rodriguez’s curveball is both big and sharp, which suggests that the sucker has a lot of break on it. It has the looping break of a curve, but gets the results of a slider. I’m late to this game, obviously, but I just wanted to note the pleasure that I’ve elicited in the last few weeks watching the NL’s best kept secret confound really good hitters.
Saturday Special, Astros Overcome a Bad Bud Inning By Just Hitting Against the Pirates
Houston showed that scoring runs is not as complicated as they make it seem. You get a hit here and another one there, put the ball in play to induce errors and move runners over, and you hit a single with runners in scoring position. In the 8th, down by a run, the Astros performed that modest yet crucial feat, and they took the lead, and they gave the bored Mark Melancon something to do.
Bud Norris threw some good innings, and as I haven’t watched him pitch much in this his breakout year, I was happy to enjoy his sharp, short-armed fastball and his magician’s slider, which appears to be a particular sort of straight pitch for about 58 feet before changing attitudes and abandoning its apparent path to the strike zone. Norris–and Wandy Rodriguez for that matter–illustrate nicely that fastballs of the same velocity are not all equal. Some fastballs have different life on them, to different effect. I suspect that there are secrets of delivery angle, deceptiveness of the pitching motion, and other deeply mysterious factors that distinguish one from the next. Norris, to our good fortune, possesses a fastball with some personality distinguishable from that of the average reliever with 91 or 92 mph of velocity.
Norris, of course, wavered from his strong start, with the burgeoning Astro killer Neil Walker yanking a hard home run off of him in the middle of the game, then finishing off a three-run 6th (albeit his hit came off of Norris’ replacement, Wilton Lopez, though it’s Bud’s run) with a single, adding to the home run tallies of Brandon Wood and Lyle Overbay.
(Norris’ Pirates counterpart, for the record, Paul Maholm, has a soft-throwing, short-arm style of his own, with a crooked-winged curveball that would’ve fit nicely in one of the 1990s Atlanta Braves starting rotations.)
The typical Astro response to losing a lead is, of course, a failure to respond, so it was with some optimism that I watched Hunter Pence reach on a walk, then move to second on a Caballo fielder’s choice. Pence then, remarkably, stole third! His jump was not great, and it was a dubious strategy when he was already in scoring position late in a one-run game, but he slid in without incident when the catcher, McKenry, failed to grip and throw the ball at all. With less than two outs, all that Brett Wallace had to do was hit a fly ball to the outfield. He met the bare minimum of requirement instead, grounding to the shortstop and forcing Pence to sprint home, where he just beat the throw, if he beat it at all, but in either event the call went his way and the run scored to tie the game.
In a recent post, I called out the Astros for their lack of swagger. Hunter Pence has swagger, in that he plays well and forces the other team to play as well as he, whether by pushing through a steal of third, or charging home on a close play. The margin of error is slim, but the deciding weight often falls on the side with more confidence, more swagger.
An error would extend the inning, allowing Humberto Quintero to single home Wallace’s running substitute Brian Bogusevic, and Michael Bourn to single home another run. A rally, that’s what that is! A late game rally that has an actual impact on the winning of a baseball game! Multiple exclamation points are not justified in many circumstances, but this rally to re-enter the night’s fray is worthy of a giddy, irrationally pleasure-filled gesture.
Mark Melancon dusted off his closer’s mentality and induced several non-descript results and the game was over. Walks, errors, base hits: these are the things that baseball teams do to score more runs than their opponents. That’s what the Astros did on Saturday.
I’m starting to doubt Carlos Lee’s basic physical coordination. On several occasions, whether in the field or on the bases, he’s simply toppled over when called upon to display basic balance. On Saturday alone, he fell over getting up from a slide into home, and he fell down catching a throw at first base