One of my favorite pastimes when I find myself in conversations with a British person over a drink is to discuss the difference between American and European sports. I found myself in just such a whiskey-warmed scenario this past weekend–explaining, perhaps, my glossing over of the Dodgers series, despite my newfound love of LA–talking to a visitor from England who had just gone to an Astros game. He noted first that baseball fans were a distracted bunch, socializing pleasantly when our English counterparts might have been chanting two-hundred-year-old epithets and pressing each other against chain link fences. The other observation my new English friend offered was that baseball stadiums feature no home-and-away crowds and the requisite sense of rivalry that such arrangements engendered. I reminded him that there are not thirty-six teams per metro area as in England, therefore each schoolchild isn’t rooting for a different team. He was shocked that a visiting fan could come to a place like Houston wearing the colors of the visiting team and face no retribution, assault, or lambasting whatsoever.
The Cubs offer a fine example of this cultural divide. Every time the Cubs play in Houston, they flock to Minute Maid Park to support the team they grew to know by watching cable TV. The Cubs, for all of their futility, infuriate fans of middle range teams like the Astros wherever they travel when their fans tip the color palette strongly to primary blues and reds in away stadiums. If any volume of Astros fans do a thing about their quiet ire, I’ve never seen it. If a Yankees fan ventures down Yawkey Way bedecked in pinstripes, or a Dodgers fan flaunts his wares in San Francisco, a scuffle seems possible, but it’s hard to imagine an Astros fan working up the kind of deep-rooted, block-to-block, ingrained distaste for a visiting fan to make it into a thing.
That said, the Cubs are hardly big boys on the block these days. Their fans in blue and ours in–as far as I can tell and myself included–mostly retro stars and Hs are cheering to drown out the sound of pity from across the MLB. Henry Sosa faced Rodrigo Lopez.
Sosa, for his part, will continue to learn that fat pitches to good hitters will lead to hits. Aramis Ramirez, still a fine slugger even if attention paid him has diminished, was more than happy to teach Sosa that lesson early on in the match against the Cubs by ripping a quick single on a pitch right down the middle. Carlos Pena played teacher’s assistant by leaving a divot in Tal’s Hill just out of reach of the climbing, diving Jason Bourgeois. Those fat fastballs gave the Chicago Cubs a two-run lead over the Houston Astros before the home towners had a turn at the plate. Should Sosa learn to throw his pitches a few inches one way or the other of the middle of the plate, he will have marked success. The natural break on his slider already takes it away from the worst danger. The fastball tends more heavily to Main Street, but when it finds the alleyways and back streets, it’ll shine.
The Astros finally struck when Matt Downs dropped a single to right in the fourth inning and challenged the lean right fielder Tyler Colvin to make a throw to second. That throw bounced away from Darwin Barney, and J.D. Martinez, who had singled, scored easily. The aggression that led to the run led to Downs poorly deciding to attempt third on a fly ball tag-up to center field. He was thrown out immediately, committing one of baseball’s cardinal sins.
As he did in his first major league start, Sosa settled in after a tough first inning, veering away from the aforementioned danger, in the end holding the Cubs to only a few runs for a while. Then, a tough 6th inning put the pressure on the Astros to score more than their typical one or two runs.
In the bottom of the 6th, J.D. Martinez (see more on the many of his successes below) was involved in an at bat that defined a rally when he worked the count to full after hitting some effective foul balls, and a near double down the line, only to take a walk from Rodrigo Lopez before Matt Downs–who my wife said looks like Toby from The Office–did his Morgan Ensberg impression–my choice for his body double–when he drove a ball to left center field to drive in Martinez and Jose Altuve and bring the Astros within a run.
Astros relievers were able to escape catastrophe in the 7th when Fernando Rodriguez busted in on Reed Johnson with two outs and the bases loaded in the top of the 7th, inducing a pop out. The score held at 4 to 3 in the Cubs favor.
No more runs would score for the either side, and that includes the trailying Astros, whose hitters failed to stick it to Jeff Samardzija in the 7th inning; in the 8th inning, J.D. Martinez led off the inning with a strikeout against Sean Marshall’s evasive curveball, El Caballo dinked an out up the middle, and Downs failed to repeat the power stroke of the earlier rally, sending the game to the ninth with the Astros needing a run to tie the game.
In the crucual bottom of the ninth, down by a run, Michaels, Paredes, and Quintero couldn’t cool the Kerry Wood burn, and the game ended. This was a good loss. The game was well-played. We hit the ball, they hit the ball. We pitched well, they pitched well. In the end, the math was in their favor.
Starlin Castro has a trebuchet of an arm, propelling the ball across the diamond on a trajectory that could dent a brick wall. Castro seemed to field the lion’s share of plays through the first three innings, each throw of which beat the runner to the base by parts of a second. Castro showed his youth, though, when he booted a very simple ground ball hit to him easily by Jose Altuve. Castro
The J.D. Way
JD Martinez hit a single in the first, a fine line drive up the middle, and another in the fourth. I’ve coronated the young man already, but many hoped that Chris Johnson would’ve proven himself sufficiently in the second half of last year to last at the major league level. Now he’s creaming Triple-A pitchers. Martinez does not hit as though he is a fluke. He hits balls to the opposite field, and he takes a walk. His success isn’t dependent on only home runs or only infield singles, but on a varied palette of flourishes.
Making his Mark
A closer’s stuff is often judged by his fastball, and the velocity therein. The odd great closer earns his paycheck with an offspeed pitch. Those that come to mind are Trevor Hoffman and his change up, Brad Lidge and his slider, and probably twenty more. Tonight, even in a game the Astros trailed by one during his appearance, Mark Melancon showed a big game curveball, with a hard drop close enough to 90 degrees to justify a protractor. Combine the Uncle Charlie with his unnerving cut fastball, and Melancon may well possess the two-pitch arsenal that a closer needs to succeed.