BOTTOM OF THE FIRST: ASTROS 7 (0) – 0 ATHLETICS
The Oakland A’s have their forest green tops, bright yellow shirt seams. Three matching stripes on the socks, a horizontal burst of gold. And the Houston Astros with their recent redesign, bright orange tops and a navy helmet throwing back to the Colt ‘45s.
Packers against the Broncos. Oregon against Boise State. Norwich City F.C. against… Montpellier F.C. And I’m out of references, sinking on a quick decline into sports obscurity.
Colors, lots of them, in this (somewhat) reconfigured AL West, a rainbow of team hats that sweeps—but for the Mariners/Royals—the entire the AL Central lineup.
On the mound in green and gold is Jesse Hahn, starting for Oakland, and George Springer at the plate for Houston—newly moved up to the lead-off spot, hitting .432 since.
It’s a sunny, lazy afternoon in Houston, the rooftop closed at Minute Maid Park, a half-filled stadium still filling with the aisles crowded, the concessions opening, and the great George Springer at the bat.
— Houston Astros (@astros) June 3, 2016
He’s hitting .432 since switched to the lead-off spot two weeks prior, and he ups that a tick with a 0-2 single to right-center. Seven-game hitting streak continued.
Jesse Hahn’s on the mound, looking sweaty, anxious, with the heart of a red-hot Astros order coming up—and he lets Jose Altuve walk to first, on a five-pitch sequence of misplaced curveballs.
Carlos Correa next, with Stephen Vogt jogging out to the mound, a pow-wow of sorts with a script I can’t imagine going any other way than this:
“Yeah, I’m good.”
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
“Okay, buddo! Let’s go team!”
And he jogs back to the plate. Correa whiffs on a loping curveball down the middle—an ugly strikeout and an apparent testament to the enduring value of the mound chat.
“He’s just begging to get abused,” says one of the Houston TV guys about Correa, a phrase I can’t quite figure out.
And up now from the on-deck circle comes Colby Rasmus, looking to break a slump, who’s got the surfer-chic hair of the villains from Point Break, in a neck-in-neck tie with Brandon Crawford for best major-league flow. A drooping mane of wet, dark-brown pro-grade locks.
A fan in the outfield sees who’s up, and takes out his prized possession. An homage to Mr. Rasmus—a yellow and white foam triangle with a head-shaped depression on the bottom, fitted snugly over his cap, the words “colby jack” on the side, a Texan spinoff of the Green Bay cheese-heads meme. And I can’t decide where this fits on the scale of creepy to cool.
— Matt Jones (@jonesy_18) May 23, 2016
And at this point, I can’t quite work out the kinks on an “Erasmus of Rotterdam” joke I’ve been tinkering with (Rasmus of…Houston?), so that one’s on its way to the trash. Shouts out to all Dutch Renaissance trivia buffs.
So Colby steps into the box, gets set, and on the first pitch hits a single up the middle. Astros lead. Springer sprints home to score, Evan Gattis with a stoked high-five after the pop-up from a head-first slide. No throw. Altuve rounds second and the cutoff from Billy Burns sneaks in behind him. Slides back safely into second.
It’s a 1-0 game, first inning, two men on and Evan Gattis striding up to the plate—resident lumberjack of the Houston Astros.
He check-swings on the first-pitch, a deflection that rockets off behind him and into the practice-swinging knuckles of Luis Valbuena in the on-deck circle. What are the odds? Valbuena jumps up like a snake bit him, shakes his wrist like a Polaroid picture, does a little dance and steps back into the circle.
Evan Gattis’ foul ball wings #Astros teammate Luis Valbuena in on-deck circle.
— John Hickey (@JHickey3) June 4, 2016
Wild pitch on the next pitch from Hahn, a curveball whipped down into the dirt. Altuve to third, Rasmus to second. And Gattis rips the next one on a lined bouncer to second base. Out at first, the runners advance.
So it’s two outs, the score just 1-0, and Luis Valbuena strides up to the plate. Hahn delivers, and he’s almost hit again, by the first pitch, trailing well inside. Valbuena jumps back with an irritated grimace, glaring (I think) at the ball and not the pitcher: Me? Again??
On the Astros’ broadcast: “Valbuena’s probably starting to feel like a dart board right about now…”
Four pitches later, Valbuena walks. Tosses his bat, tosses his gloves, tosses his shinguard. Jogs to first. Bases loaded, and another mound visit from Vogt.
Houston rookie Tyler White up next. Slow rolling ground ball slapped up the middle, past a diving Marcus Semien. Rasmus jogs home to score. Valbuena charges over to third. 3-0 Astros.
The big inning now creeping into view, on the brink of blossoming into full-bore blowout, the highest-scoring frame all year for the ‘Stros.
And with the next batter, the next swing, we’ve got our moment. A lead flipped from 3-0 to 5-0, a nice start into an insurmountable Houston lead. And Tony Kemp charging into third base with an emphatic, house-rousing slide.
Deep line drive. Right-center field, soaring over the bright green outfield grass, to the wall—and it’s a strange bounce off the clumsy glove of Chris Coghlan. A second bounce, onto the green padding of the home-team bullpen fence. Another bounce. And it bounce-bounce-skips-hops its way away from Coghlan, as if over stepping stones, a trick shot dancing in front of the celebrating Houston bullpen—and a big aluminum “H” sign propped up by a fan in the stands above.
5-0 Astros, and the fans at Minute Maid all rise in fervent mid-day applause. A shout-out on the TV, as if I’ve been called by name: “That’s got the makeup of a big inning, folks!”
The Tyler White RBI single, Tony Kemp RBI triple and Jake Marisnick’s RBI single were all on this baseball. pic.twitter.com/bXHwtw9KId
— Mike Acosta (@AstrosTalk) June 4, 2016
Not yet thirty minutes into the ballgame, the inning continues.
Jake Marisnick hits the first pitch he sees, slapped into left field. 6-0 Houston.
Hahn, at this point, looks like a sad, overstuffed compilation of frown faces. Somebody put this guy out of his misery…
The Astros bat around, Springer comes up again, and we just that—another hit, a visit from the manager, a transfer of the baseball, and a slow, sulking, self-defeated shame-walk back to the dugout. A thirty minute day cut short at the office, ten steps closer to AAA-relegation.
Springer’s hit takes one bounce to the left-field wall, and it’s the capstone to a first-inning blowout. 7-0 ‘Stros. A kid in the stands going wild with a hand-made sign, with a red target drawn in the middle: “Springer dinger here! Go Astros, it’s my birthday!”
The Astros, at two-plus months, are on a slow-moving escalator out of the muck, rising each week back to AL West contention. Big inning by occasional big inning. And just four games under .500, an early-season mess all but swept up into the short-memory joy of a Minute Maid Park in awe of the best baseball they’ve seen all year.
They’re going nowhere but up.