Back in the Saddle

added 5/20/2001 by Darrell Pittman

For once, I'm doing an "At the Game" article for a home game!

What a great game!  The gods of baseball smiled on Houston tonight, as the faithful at Enron Field were treated to a gem of a 6-3 victory over the Cincinnati Reds.  As a bonus, the Astros moved up a notch to tie the St. Louis Cardinals for first place in the NL Central Division.

This was Astros baseball at it's best; the way it should be and that we all know it can be.  The Good Guys were firing on all cylinders this night.  There was aggressive, hit-it-if-you-can pitching (and, admittedly, the Reds did hit it a couple of times).  There was power at the plate. There was savvy, heads-up base-running.  The score was close.  There was hard-charging defense (including a critical 8th-inning 5-4-3 double play that may well have saved the game).  While keeping their own mistakes to a minimum, the 'Stros capitalized on every Cincinnati gaff.

The Reds didn't score on starter Wade Miller until the 7th.  Reliever Mike Jackson overcame a shaky beginning in the 8th (with a huge assist from the Astros' infield) to hand the lead over to the capable hands of closer Billy Wagner in the 9th.  On the offensive side, Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman combined for back-to-back solo homers in the 6th, which ultimately proved to be the fatal blow to the Reds.  Everything after that point was insurance.

The Redlegs' offensive production was all from solo homers. Pokey Reese and Kelly Stinnett both took Whammy yard in the 7th, then pinch-hitter Michael Tucker sent a Jackson fastball into the Crawford Boxes in the 8th.  All they could manage against Wags was a weak grounder to third by pinch-hitter Jason LaRue to end the game.

There was a play in the bottom of the 7th which hopefully resulted in only minor injury to two of the Reds.  It was one of those pop-up 'tweeners.  Astros pinch-hitter Orlando Merced popped up to shallow left field.  Shortstop Donnie Sadler and left-fielder Dmitri Young both went for the ball.  Sadler arrived first, stopped, and set up for the catch with his back to the third base line, seemingly underneath the ball, but apparently it drifted behind him and he leaned backward to try to correct, stationary and vulnerable.  Young arrived just about that time, with the predictable result.  The collision left both players rolling on the ground while the ball scampered toward deep left field and Merced scampered to second base.  Play was halted for several minutes while the two players were checked out by their coaches and trainers (and some of the Astros' trainers). At one point, a stretcher cart was even sent out.  In an act of true class, Merced trotted over to the area immediately after time was called to check on Sadler and Young, or perhaps to see what he could do to help.  Eventually, both walked off the field, under their own power, back to the Reds' dugout, each receiving a hearty round of applause from the Houston fans.  It was later reported that Young had suffered a bruised left knee, and Sadler had mild dizziness.  One is glad that they weren't hurt any worse than they were, and hopes that both recover quickly.  The error was charged to Young.

Wade Miller's performance was simply stellar.  His fastball reached 98 mph, his "off-speed" stuff rang in at 88, his curve at 80.  In his first six innings, he yielded no runs and only three hits, and was almost untouchable.  He was lit up for the two homers in the 7th, apparently beginning to tire out, even though his pitch count was (by my count) only 74.  Still, the kid had a truly great outing, requiring the bullpen to work only two innings.

What can one say about Billy Wagner that hasn't already been said?  His tremendous fastball merely serves to make his changeup all the more effective.  Here's how his 9th inning went:

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Batter     Pitch      Speed   Result
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Larson     fastball      98   strike looking
           fastball      98   strike looking
           changeup      86   strike swinging - 1 out
Stinnett   fastball      98   strike looking
           fastball      98   strike swinging
           changeup      88   strike swinging - 2 outs
LaRue      off-speed     87   ball
           fastball      97   foul
           fastball      97   ground to 3rd   - 3 outs
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Nine pitches, game over, 11 saves, 'nuff said.

It was great having my sons Barrett and Matthew come to the game with me.  Last year, I taught them how to keep score (or, at least, my approximation of it).   I had fixed them up with their own looseleaf scorebooks, just like mine.  Now they always want to keep score on their own, as they should.  At the game tonight, all sitting together, we must have looked like a bunch of 11th-century scribes, busily and carefully recording all the details of the game.

The gentleman sitting next to us provided us with some really good laughs.  I had been cat-calling for the Reds to bring out Deion Sanders at center, recalling that when we were in Cincy the guy couldn't stop a ball from going to the outfield wall.  Well, Deion came up in the 7th to pinch-hit for starter Chris Reitsma.  Our neighbor leaned over and said, "Well, looks like you got your wish."  Oh, great... I suddenly recall that despite his defensive shortcomings, he can actually hit!  (He got a homer the first game after the Reds called him up.)  Gulp!  I'm going to look like a major chump if he gets a hit, my fiancee Susan is kind enough to point out to me, especially if he knocks one out.  (Gee thanks, Susan.)  Deion waved in futility at his first fastball from Whammy.  Our neighbor leaned over and said to Susan, "He's the only guy on the field with his shoes polished!".  We cracked up over that one.  After Sanders struck out, watching a 97 mph fastball go by him, and was walking back to the dugout, our neighbor yelled out, "Go on back to the dugout and wipe the dust off your shoes!"  He had half our section in stitches.

I see where Chris Truby hit a grand-slam today for New Orleans.  Also, I heard that when Lance Berkman came back to Houston for the birth of his daughter, it was his buddy Chris who picked him up at the airport and took him to the hospital.  While I think that the Astros made the right move vis-a-vis Vinny Castilla, I do like Truby.  I think he's a great kid who played his heart out for the Astros.  I'm convinced that he will be back in the major leagues shortly; if not for the Astros, then for some other ballclub that needs him and can further develop his skills.  Hang in there, Tru.  We all hope for the best for you.

I looked for, but didn't see, the "Honor J.R." banner at the ballpark tonight.  It was becoming a familiar fixture that I always look for.

After the game ended, they played "Celebrate" by Kool and the Gang as the crowd filed out.  Susan and my son Matthew got up and started doing the Bump.  I sat and watched them for several minutes as the song played out.  It was a nice time for me, watching the two of them.  Matthew (unlike his father) is really quite a dancer, as is my bride-to-be.  I guess I'd better sign up for dancing lessons to help keep this lady happy.  You know, guys, they have a technical term for a lady that can keep score... it's "keeper"!

On Friday night, after our loss to the Reds, I was waiting in an upscale downtown bar to meet my well-traveled fiancee as she returned from IAH after yet another business trip.  Not five minutes after Susan arrived, guess who walked in?  None other than Astros owner Drayton McLane.

He is a genuinely nice person.  Seeing my Astros cap, he walked over to shake my hand before meeting his party.  He agreed to autograph my copy of "The Greatest Game Ever Played" by Jerry Izenberg, a book about the 16-inning 1986 NLCS Mets-Astros Game 6.  He wrote "To Darrell:  Go Astros!  Drayton McLane".   While not exactly King Lear, I thought it was pretty nice that he would take the time to do that when he was there to see friends.  For a simple fan like me, that's pretty big stuff.

I met Mr. McLane once before in Kissimmee this spring, shortly after the Astros' March 3 loss to the Florida Marlins.  I saw him standing outside the grandstand talking with an ordinary-looking gentleman. I approached and asked him to autograph my game program, to which he graciously agreed.   As he was doing so, he pointed out that his companion was Marlins owner John Henry, and wouldn't I like his autograph as well?  Well of course, I said I'd be honored, which I was.

I think that he doesn't expect to be recognized by ordinary fans like me, and is flattered when we do.  Like I said, he's a really nice, down-to-earth guy.

This night ends with a great victory for the Astros, and great family memories for me.

Go 'Stros!!!

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