The write-up says that Wandy Rodriguez didn’t have his best stuff last night, but I think that he DID have his best stuff last night. Unperturbed in appearance after 7 innings of solid work–Wandy’s fastball jumped from his hand, the usual 90 mile per hour straight shooters that somehow by dint of location and delivery seem to travel at a much quicker 94 miles per hour or so. The curveball that curves above the strike zone but never lands there.
I guess Wandy disagrees with me as Brad Mills reported that Wandy told him that his fastball told him that he was a little under the weather–and I’ll admit I wasn’t glued to every pitch as I’ve got a life to live here after all–but I was very satisfied with the work.
And the results! 21-23 feels alright with me. Now on to the Jose Altuve’s All-Star bid. The Pocket Jaguar must play in Kansas City! (Nice logo, BTW, All-Star game graphic designer….)
It’s a tired adage that slumping hitters just need a few easy ones to fall in to get their confidence back. But if the adage happens to true despite its fatigue, then J.D. Martinez had a confidence-boosting night. His triple in the fourth inning is a true scorecard-defier, as Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney and right fielder David Dejesus combined to completely horse up a catchable high short pop-up when Barney, like a retriever pursuing a tennis ball, bounded heedlessly into Dejesus’ ball-filled glove head first and knocked it free. There should be a special asterisk-esque symbol for hits that should have been outs if any other team besides the Cubs were in the field. The & is a decent visualization of the path that Barney took to the ball.
Good teams beat the teams that they should beat, and the Cubs are worse than the Astros so we should have beat them. I’m not saying we’re a great team, but we aren’t a lie-down team that succumbs to even the dregs of the league. Just not being the dregs of the league feels superb. You can have your two-out-of-three, Texas, honestly. You’re a great team, we aren’t gonna beat you. But Cubbies, we’ll sweep you good, because we have a good bullpen and youthful exuberance and a patch of talent where there was thought to be none.
I would do some research into how long J.A. Happ takes between pitches but I grew so old and decrepit waiting for him to decide on his middle of the inning throwaway pitch to the Cubs pitcher that I’ve run out of time on this mortal plane; my wick has run out and soon my candle will flicker and blink out. As I age, J.A. Happ’s start will continue, he will dilly dally between pitches for a kind of ageless eternity. Does he take so much time because he knows that as long as he is pitching he can never leave this mortal coil? That he can live on if only he never gets around to throwing the last pitch of the night?
At various points in the game tonight, a Cub player kissed a baseball, bit a bat, and flew through the air. Alfonso Soriano, Starlin Castro and Tony Campana, respectively, pursued a strange library of alternative routes to success. Soriano kissed cowhide after a diving catch in left field; Starlin chewed Louisville Slugger after striking out for the third time and Campana soared into third base over Matt Downs’ glove three feet off the ground after Wilton Lopez chucked away a pick-off throw. You thought it ended with Turk Wendell and Carlos Zambrano? These guys are full of quirk.
It’s nice to beat the Cubs, but it’s even more nicer to beat them despite their litany of rituals.
The Cubs are heavy on quirk and light on hope. Astros fans can at least enjoy some sense of rebuilding, and the long term strategy embedded in that language. The Cubs continue to languish in the middle area–a lot like the Houston Rockets actually–in that they aren’t terrible enough to reboot and they seem a thousand miles from solid baseball every day. Hard to pity a team with plenty of spending bread and a rabid fan base. It’s the formula for success as carried out by the Angels and the Rays, and at this point the Cubs seem well out from a turnaround.
Leading off the game, the Little Jaguar of Maracay, Jose Altuve, clinked a Travis Wood pitch–who really and truly actually looks ilke Jamie Moyer and kind of pitches like him too. Looking at the final numbers I’m amazed he only allowed two runs. He looked so much worse than that–off of the wall above the 404 sign; the homer travelled farther than I thought Altuve was capable, and his 3 home runs on the season are about, oh let’s say, two whole home runs more than I expected from him for the whole of the season.
Jed Lowrie followed with a ground rule double and man alive Jed Lowrie, this guy can hit! We thought he might be able to, but he’s now in the upper echelons of shortstop power hitters. And he wears the double flap helmets! Not since Otis Nixon has a double-flapper made such a splash.
Cubs left-handed relief pitcher James Russell could pass for a mandolin player in the Avett Brothers and let’s wonder together if he would play the mandolin left-handed and would he consider playing the national anthem at a minor league baseball game in Athens, GA. He struck out a fellow relief pitcher at one point, that being Wesley Wright whose swing, especially on this night, resembled Starlin Castro’s more than JA Happ’s.
This game was a close one, but somehow I felt we had it in the bag even when it was tied at 1-1. Maybe it was the faux-Moyer on the mound for the Cubs or maybe it’s the overripe banana aura of the Cubs as a whole, but I knew that we would get over the hump and keep them from scoring. J.D. Martinez, who was in danger of making an art form out of taking hittable fastballs right down the middle, finally poked a hit with two men on in the bottom of the sixth, which let in some light in the tie game.
The bullpen pitched solidly, with fine work from Wesley Wright who seems to have come into his own after years of pretty borderline work. The guy’s sporting 9.5 strike outs per 9! That’s well over what I would have guessed, but we’ll take it. Wilton Lopez overcame the bad pickoff throw that enabled Tony Campana to scampana to third base, where rather than employing the typical hook slide to avoid a tag he decided to fly over Matt Downs’ glove, but he got no farther. Brett Myers’ curveball–what I’ll call the Trade Value Special–looked in fine form.
The Astros are 20-23. That is impossible not to love out of this team that was cast aside like an old hubcap that maybe eventually somebody would find by the side of the road and fix up but even that would be years away. We are rolling on down the road, winning some good ball games and making sure we don’t sink too deep. That’s the reassuring thing about being a sub-par team in this league: there will always be the Cubs to look down on.
Jim Deshaies: Back in the dome when you’d get free beer if Mike Schmidt struck out. That’s the only one I’ ve ever heard targetted at an individual. Foamer night at the ballpark. Probably can’t bring that one back.
Bill Brown: Yeah that’s not too workable today, and that’s a hit into right field.
Bottom line: Foamer Night mention! Not this blog, of course, but the historical phenomenon, and that’s good enough for me. I hadn’t heard mention of the Foamer Night being tied to a particular player, that being Mike Schmidt as quoted by J.D. I was under the impression that a particular half-inning was assigned, or maybe a pitch or a batter. The idea that they might’ve picked out one player–and one as likely as Schmidt to take a mustache ride around the four bases–would take the whole affair to another level of 70s greatness.
And the kicker is that they were referring back to another conversation that they had a previous night about the sudsy tradition from the old Dome days!
It was a good night to reminisce, as there were myriad technical difficulties on the TV side, as Milo Hamilton must have kicked out a cord or twelve up in the media booth. In short, there were no commercials. Somewhere around the middle of this match-up between the Astros and the hapless Cubs I thought I sensed a change in the rhythm of the TV broadcast. Like the cut scenes to between innings were oddly long, and the two talking heads who normally arrive at the end of the game were talking to me in the middle. Shows how carefully I was listening to the audio when only at the end of the game did I learn that there were massive problems here and in St. Louis, and Mrs. Miggillicuddy in 14B couldn’t get her stories either. How’s she supposed to fold laundry without her stories?!
The game was a blowout, which the Astros have proved capable of every now and then. Jason Castro hit a three-run home run. “Castro homered!” said my wife to me, I being in the kitchen preparing some organic chicken. Dang, I thought, but heck he’s a good young hitter especially for a shortstop and hopefully I won’t take too big a hit on my fantasy team when Bud Norris gives up a few early runs. He’ll settle down. When I popped into the living room to see the play, I realized it was Jason! His first home run in twenty-seven years of organized baseball! No, it was actually his first home run of the season and his first since 2010.
The swing was solid, and it was nice to see him turn and get his big body into a pitch and pull it into the left field seats were a Cubs fan in a cowboy hat missed it and fell back first into the unforgiving–and empty–seat behind him. Matt Garza gave up the home run employing his theme of the night, the elevated change-up. Jed Lowrie homered, as did Chris Johnson when he boomed a shot over some quick skinny guy playing center field for the Padukah Cubs.
When Castro hit the ball, he knew it was gone. He was so geeked that he initiated Game Winning Home Run sequence and began to raise his fists into the air in triumph. Before he could reach full extension, though, he realized that nobody besides his girlfriend, mother, and Greg Lucas was tracking his home run drought so closely and that they might find it odd to see him celebrating so.
We won handily 8-4, riding Bud “The Ace” Norris to a victory that was even larger than it seems. Bud also happens to be the starting pitcher version of Brad Lidge. Fastball, Fastball, Fastball, Slider-That-You-Can’t-See. Like Lidge, Norris’ slider, thrown at the bottom of the strike zone, evaporates just after the batter decides to swing at it. I didn’t see Bud throw a pitch that wasn’t a fastball or a slider, though admittedly I was pretty darn concerned about the fate of my chicken around those middle innings. (It turned out great, by the by, thank you for asking, and no you may not have the recipe.
On a night of Astro home runs, other notables include Chris Johnson’s mammoth home run to just right of Tal’s Hill. Off the bat C.J. knew it would leave the thickest part of the park and he watched it fly like it was a par 3. Johnson is a Daily Pass guy, wherein we all kind of know he’s like a sort of crappy player, but he is capable of earning that Daily Pass, with a massive home run for example, and it’s like ‘okay you’ve earned another pass, I guess we’ll keep you around tomorrow. But his whole career will be like that! Anyway, he earned his pass tonight.
Brian Lahair of the Cubs, whose name I will not even take the time to look up for spelling purposes, is the baseball style love-child of Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez. Thome’s build and his socks, and Manny’s relaxed, coiled danger holding of the bat.
I was thrilled to win the game, and I was thrilled to hear the Foamer Night mention, if only to confirm that I am not insane. There are no two other broadcasters I’d rather have during a weird TV outage/camera situation than JD and Brownie (Vin Scully is only ONE guy so I get Vin on a technicality).
It’s been a few days since I’ve watched the Astros play. A confluence of summer activities kept me away from the Rangers series. On one hand I wanted to see the Rangers given that they are THE dynamic team in the Major Leagues and they are our rivals, no?, and our soon-to-be division mates. On the other hand, having handed them several easy losses. On the third hand, there was the win on Saturday night–which I missed on account of a giant mound of crawfish on a paper plate I was consumed with consuming while a Zydeco band urged me on–sure does look like a fun one. I don’t hate the guy, but I’m glad to beat the young Brian Wilson protege Derek Holland, who has crafted himself something of the easy target for non-Ranger fans. As I think it was Tom Scharpling said about I don’t know who, guys like Holland are funny…for athletes. It’s not like they can carry any kind of segment, as Holland proved in his painful appearance on a local weather report at some point during the offseason. His approach was to quickly revert to his (middling) Harry Caray impression at the first sign of comedic trouble.
For Lucas Harrell to hold Josh Hamilton hitless is the kind of miraculous accomplishment that I don’t even want to have seen, because the reality would surely pale in comparison to the holy shining light that glows on the achievement in my imagination.
J.D. Martinez. started the year hitting like a professional hitter ready to take hold of the number three spot in the order and let Mr. Luhnow build up around him like a heavy stone column. I was prepared–the overexcited fan of professional-grade hitters that I am–to grant him that position as a given and move on to more exciting projects like finding the vegetarian food booth at Minute Maid Park or counting the giant oranges in the MMP Express when all of a sudden J.D. started swinging the bat like he had always just gotten his pupils dilated at the eye doctor. The pitcher winds and throws…the pitch is called a ball…and Martinez swings and misses. J.D. brushing them with a piece of hay as they passed. J.D. was possessed to distraction by the refrain of an LMFAO song or he couldn’t find the vegetarian food stand either. Who in the name of Purpura knows what went wrong but the head and the hands and the heart were utterly out of sync. In the games I watched against Milwaukee he could have maybe dented a He-Man lunch box with the cuts he took. I’m glad to read that he had a knock in Saturday’s game, and to his credit, he still supports an on-base average about double anything Jason Michaels’ in the last few years, so the potential to regain his Professional Hitter label is there. There are occasions in baseball when it’s so obvious that the mental side of the game has swallowed up the physical side for a particular player, and for J.D. it really is a case of the hitting yips. Not bad luck, not poor performance, but an honest breakdown of the focus/non-focus Zen state that it takes to be good on a consistent basis.
I figure once he connects with a few line drives in a row it will knock loose the dried sap that’s closed off his chakras, and he’ll be back to form at some point.
Can we say the same for the Astros? They’re sneaking away from the .500 plateau that did for a little while feel realistic. They’ve won three out of their last five and that’s pretty good against the best team in baseball and a division opponent.
In the meantime, the visions of retro splendor on Friday nights should be plenty to sustain. Bud Norris will pitch against Matt Garza and the Cubs tonight, May 21, and oh hey look see the Cubs are worse than we are! I was frankly shocked to learn that Alfonso Soriano was still a starter on that team. I’ll take El Caballo’s contract over the deal CHC made with that guy any time.
Ahead of Pudge Rodriguez, Mike Mussina, Mo Vaughn, Tino Martinez, Bernie Williams, Chipper Jones, Kenny Lofton, Jim Thome, and Jeff Bagwell.
Marlins Ballpark–much like its occupant franchise during this offseason–had a lot going on Friday night. Fish lurked in a purple aquarium to the left of the batter’s box, carnival-style dancers swiveled behind the left field wall, the orgiastic home run feature waits in center field like a Master’s thesis in potential energy. The outfield walls a shade of neon lime a weather man could work in front of, and a wall full of ads rotates behind the hitter.
Overall, the effect is that a stadium from the 1970s was kept in shrink wrap in a broom closet for a few decades, only to be finally unwrapped this year.
The gusto is welcome in Florida, and one feels like the franchise is making up for time lost as a sleepy, teal-tinged, heat-stroked forgotten team north of the city.
Oh, by the way, J.D. Martinez is the first player ever to hit a home run in Marlins Ballpark. It takes a shot to leave that yard, and that is what J.D. delivered–still it only just cleared the twenty foot wall separating the revellers of the Clevelander club from noted evangelical, left fielder Chris Coghlan. Pity the home run didn’t qualify to activate the home run feature.
The home run tied the game up in the top of the 8th inning.
* On Jed Lowrie’s debut. The reputation preceding Lowrie was of a sweet swing. A finely squared-up single set the table for the Martinez mash, doing nothing to tarnish the reputation. What a luxury to play a shortstop who can hit! I can’t think of an Astros shortstop who could be considered even moderately competent at the plate. Lowrie walked in a crucial ninth inning at bat, and made a spinning dervish play in the field on a ground ball to his left. I’m already enjoying the kid.
*On Chris Johnson’s defense. Two terrible throws to first base that each of them threatened Carlos Lee’s safety, a costly hesitation late in the game on a ball that deflected off of the pitcher. Johnson has the time to make these plays, and his work with the glove is passable, but time seems to be the enemy of accuracy. He’s had his time in the big leagues; he should be better than this.
In the bottom of the ninth, Heath Bell lost touch with the strike zone and walked the bases full, but Caballo’s RBI touch of the first few games of the season abandoned him and, with two outs, he check swung his way to an easy out to end the threat and send the game into extra innings.
We lost on a double by Gaby Sanchez, but I don’t care. The Astros played good baseball, picked each other up, took some walks, stole some bases, and pitched out of jams. In short, they didn’t need a fish tank or sequined go-go boots to entertain in Miami.
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.
Over at Pitchers & Poets, I recently interviewed the pleasantly ubiquitous Alyson Footer on her role as a social media mogul for Astros fans and the nature of storytelling and baseball.