By Will Martin
If there’s an advantage to starting off the season on the heels of three straight 100 game losing seasons no one is really expecting much of anything from you until a radical change has formed. If one week is a microcosm for what a season may hold for the lovable bad boys of the A.L. West then the Houston Astros will have every chance to ride the train of gravy in 2014.
Opening night April 1st over 42,000 fans (a sellout) made the trek to Minute Maid Park to see the new #1 starter and former Ranger Scott Feldman do his magic, tossing 6 and 2/3 innings of shutout ball as the Astros ended a 15 game losing streak from 2013 with a 6-2 victory over CC Sabathia (0-1) and the Yankees. Powered by home runs from L.J. Hoes and newbie Jesus Guzman paved for an Opening day win for the Astros. It also marked the first time since 2000-2001 that Houston won back-to-back Opening Days in their history.
With the win Houston improved their overall record against New York to 3-13.
One mantra, one key phrase that second year skipper (and youngest at 41) Bo Porter has hammered across all spring is: ‘Playing with enthusiasm!’ That should come in abundance when you realize Houston has welcomed 17 new players into roster spots in the last two seasons. Eight new players made their Opening Night debuts to start a season this night: Kevin Chapman, Jarred Cosart, Jesse Crain, Scott Feldman, Chad Qualls, Jerome Williams, Jesus Guzman, Dexter Fowler, and Alex Presley.
Jarred Cosart would battle Hiroki Kuroda the next night as 23,000 saw a moving tribute given to Derek Jeter as he begins his retirement tour for 2014. Roger Clemens and Andy Pettite were present. The Astros inproved to 2-0 for the first time since 2003 when Jarred Cosart went five scoreless innings while Dexter Fowler and Matt Dominguez each went yard en route to a 3-1 victory. RHP Josh Fields pitched a scoreless ninth for the save
This is also something to keep in mind as Houston in 2013 lost 17 leads after 6 innings. If middle relief improves so much as a smidgen a 70 win season is more than possible. Some solid closing and perhaps .500 is the story of 2014.
Taking the series was more than good enough for Team Porter as New York took the finale of the series 4-2 behind the fine work of Ivan Nova. In the loss Jose Altuve picked up an RBI and Dexter Fowler became the second Astro to begin his career with three multi-hit games in his first three games since Ken Caminiti July 16th-18th 1987.
Next up for Houston was a four game set with one of the few teams the Astros had a winning record against in 2013 (10-9). The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim who were just swept out of their own home for the first time since 1992. The first of nineteen meetings for these two teams. Understandably, the halos had some venom to vent and were quick to take a lead on Friday on their way to an 11-1 victory.
Lucas Harrell was lit up for five runs in three innings with no excuses.
“I was leaving the ball over the plate, and with a lineup like that, with so many good hitters, you can’t do that,” Harrell said. “You have to be better than that. There’s just no letup [in their lineup]. You have to execute your pitches every time. I left the ball over the plate and they hit it hard.”
Despite a 6-17 record in 2013 and a 5.86 ERA Harrell insists this is an aberration and not the norm.
“On a whole my stuff was good,” Harrell said. “I just didn’t locate. I got myself in jams in the first two innings (including a 376-foot home run by Mike Trout) and worked my way out of it. I thought I made some pretty good pitches. It just caught up with me in the third inning. I didn’t make the pitches I needed to. They hit the back-to-back doubles (by Howie Kendrick and Chris Iannetta) and scored the three runs. That was pretty much the ball game.”
Anthony Bass came in and provided some quality relief in the blowout.
“To get out there for the first time, I got my feet wet, got the jitters put away,” Bass said. “You just go out there and get ahead of guys. Make them hit my pitch. I was more anxious to get out there than nervous. It’s tough to pitch when things are out of hand. You have to focus and treat it like a zero-zero ballgame.”
April 5th the Astros honored all time greats Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt. They were then handcuffed behind the one run, four hit effort of Angel rookie Tyler Skaggs and a 2-run bomb by Josh Hamilton in a 5-1 loss. Of the four Houston hits three never got out of the infield as Houston fell to 2-3.
“It was just one of those nights,” said L.J. Hoes, who delivered the only ball hit safely to the outfield by the Astros to lead off the fifth inning. He never made it past second base.”
With Dexter Fowler ill (stomach virus) and Jason Castro out (foot) the Astros were going nowhere fast for a second straight game.
Before the fifth inning Dallas Keuchel was matching zeroes with Skaggs before the Hambino greeted him rudely.
“It’s just frustrating when I punch out two of the game’s better hitters, then elevated a breaking ball,” Keuchel said. “Give credit to Josh. I felt good, lefty on lefty. Hamilton got me. It was a pitch I had great success against him last year. He’s a better player this year.”
Which takes us to April 6th, a 1:10 pm start, and a return to the top of the pitching rotation with Scott Feldman. Houston responded beautifully with a seven hit attack-five for home runs (Jason Castro, Jonathan Villar, Matt Dominguez, Jesus Guzman, and Alex Presley). The first five-homer game for the Astros since 8/26/13.
Scott Feldman held the Angels to one run on three hits over seven innings as Houston held off the Angels 7-4 as he improved to 2-0 with an ERA at 0.66. Just what the doctor ordered in snapping a three game skid.
“I didn’t have the greatest command of my pitches, but the curveball was there for me for the most part for most of the game, so that helped a lot,” Feldman said. “As the game went on, I didn’t have best command of my other stuff, so I needed to get strike one somehow. If I threw a knuckleball, I probably would have thrown that up there, too.”
“He didn’t do anything that we didn’t expect,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “He cut the fastball in to lefties and away to righties, back-doored it, threw some four-seamers arm-side, used his breaking ball and threw for strikes when he needed to. He just kind of mixes and matches his pitches and he pitched a good game for those guys.”
Give the loss to Jered Weaver who allowed five runs and five hits in 5 2/3 innings as Houston finished the week at .500 (3-3).
David Presley offered the following on Weaver.
“He tries to keep you off-balance with a bunch of different stuff and changes speeds,” Presley said. “You really have to be disciplined against him because he’ll take advantage. You just try to get a pitch you can handle and be aggressive on it, and we did a good job of that today.”
In 2013 Houston began the year 1-6 before getting back-to-back wins before finishing April 7-19. With another 1:10 pm start time on April 7th Team Porter has a chance to finish the first week of 2014 4-3. That’s .571 ball if you’re counting.
This is a team on the rise. They also take to the road for six games. Three in Toronto and then three in Arlington. Also the first of nineteen with an A.L. West rival and Nolan Ryan on their side.
4/7 vs Angels 1:10 P.M.
4/8 @ Blue Jays 6:07 P.M.
4/9 @ Blue Jays 6:00 P.M.
4/10 @ Blue Jays 6:07 P.M.
4/11 @ Rangers 7:05 P.M.
4/12 @ Rangers 7:05 P.M.
4/13 @ Rangers 2:05 P.M.