Astros, MLB open crazy schedule

added 4/11/2004 by Willie B Lakey

As far as Opening Weeks go in the Astros’ annals, it’s tough to argue this wasn’t the biggest ever. And that’s saying something for the team despite its relatively short history in the bigs.

There was, of course, the very first Opening Week back in 1962. The Astros cranked everything up in Houston with a 3-game sweep over the Cubs, including shutouts in Games two and three. In 1965 came the opening of the Astrodome, with Mantle and the Yankees in town for exhibition games and the Phillies on hand that Monday night on April 12th when baseball played it’s first real contest under a roof.

By the late 1970s, the Astros were finally rounding into legitimate playoff contenders, and there was a lot of buzz when the club opened the 1980 campaign with a pitching staff that included JR Richard, Joe Niekro and newly-signed free agent Nolan Ryan. Houston kicked off the first postseason-bound year by taking five of six games against the Dodgers and Braves in the Astrodome, with Ryan swatting a homer in his Astros debut.

The end of the 1990s saw the Astros firmly entrenched as the team to beat in the NL Central. Coming off a disappointing and, sadly, familiar postseason swoon in 1998, Houston opened the 1999 season full of hopes and hoopla as the Astrodome was hosting its final season of MLB action.

In 2000 there was the opening of the new park in downtown Houston. Just as they had been on hand for the opening of the Astrodome 35 years earlier, the Phillies helped the Astros christen the new park once again. And, once again, the Phillies won the game. Completing the trilogy of once again’s, Houston stumbled through the 2000 campaign with a far-less-than-stellar record that was only slightly better than the 65 wins in 1965 when the Astrodome opened.

All of which brings us to this season and the team’s latest roster to beat all rosters. Record-setting crowds packed the now not-so-new downtown park that is operating under its third moniker. Signing homeboys Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte this past winter will continue to provide a spark to the turnstile count; whether or not this team really does go deeper into the baseball calendar than any Houston team in the past remains to be seen. On that front, I remain cautiously optimistic, as I’m guessing most seasoned Astros fans are.

But when it comes to Opening Weeks in MLB history, this year’s scheduling has to rate as the craziest ever. The Yankees and Devil Rays played a pair of games over in Japan nearly two weeks ago to get everything going in the majors. Then they came back to the good ol’ US of A and finished off their spring training slate. The games were broadcast on ESPN’s stepchild of a channel with first pitches coming a couple of hours or more before most roosters crow across the land of the free and homer of the Braves, Cardinals and Athletics. Our little house in the Hill Country doesn’t even get ESPN2, and I couldn’t help but chuckle at the idea there was no MLB action for me to enjoy on the tube that day, but I could catch a replay of the Manchester City-Fulham football match with my hot dog at lunch that day.

Once the MLB schedule finally got underway in earnest, it came to a grinding halt for a half-dozen teams across the majors (Detroit, Kansas City, Minnesota, Oakland, San Diego and San Francisco) with off days on Good Friday. Just can’t remember ever seeing teams without a game to play on the first Friday of the season. The Padres and Giants actually started their series in San Diego’s new park on Thursday, then had Friday off before resuming things on Saturday. With the first Sunday on the MLB agenda, or the second one if you start counting from the NYY-TB series in Japan, being Easter Sunday and the final round of The Master’s to boot, I could understand MLB not scheduling a few games on that date.

Shoot, give everyone in the majors a day off on Easter and stack a few day-night doubleheaders on Good Friday. Give fans with tickets to both games a free hot dog in between the contests and invite ‘em back to watch The Masters on the Jumbo Screens when you can sell ‘em the same franks for five and a quarter. Maybe that just makes too much sense.

There’s another little quirk in the schedule later this summer just after the All-Star Game comes to the Bayou City for a third time. Eight teams, including Houston, have a 4-day midseason holiday instead of the usual 3-day break. That’s another first as far as my memory goes with the overall MLB schedule.

For the past few seasons I’ve been quietly complaining about the willy-nilly manner in which the MLB schedule appears to be constructed. Ok, maybe I haven’t always been so quiet about my discontent with the system. But I’ve always prefaced my discussions with the notion it must be a real headache to arrange the entire regular season calendar.

No longer will I give the scheduler that benefit of the doubt as I gaze upon this year’s debacle of a timetable. A lot of jobs and tasks these days can be a real headache, but that doesn’t mean any pain is a valid excuse for poor results. In fact, my confidence is high that I could come up with a better schedule in six Advil or less.

The majors need to get rid of this “interleague rival” mess that will always prevent really fair and equitable scheduling. Who really cares any longer outside New York and Texas if the Mets-Yankees or Astros-Rangers series is held every year? The fact that some people inside New York and Texas don’t care that much should be the first clue for Bud and his fellow Lords of Baseball.

Prime spots on the calendar (i.e., the final two weekends of the season) should go to division rivals and/or those teams that finished 1-2 in the standings the previous season. Why in the heck are the Astros hosting the Rockies in the season’s final three games instead of Houston and Chicago scheduled for a real knockdown, drag-out home-&-home ending to the 2004 regular season?

Toss in a few doubleheaders at each park, especially on holidays, open the whole shebang within three times zones of the contestants’ hometowns, broadcast the games in more homes across America than English Premiership’s red, white and blue audience, and throw in a dollar hot dog game or 20.

Yeah, I know, I’m a dreamer! But dreams are always nicer than nightmares, and a nightmare is precisely how I would describe this year’s MLB scheduling.

FOR THE WEEK: The Astros went 3-3 in the first week, dropping two of three to the Giants in Houston and taking two of three against the Brewers in Milwaukee. In the season opener, Barry Bonds proved to be the only real thorn in Roy Oswalt’s side, and the Giants rallied for a 5-4 win. Bonds swatted a pair of doubles and then a 3 run-homer off Roy O that tied the contest in the eighth. Houston missed several chances to score more runs early in the game, and came out on the dirty end of the stick with two interference calls from home plate umpire Joe West. San Francisco pushed the winning run across the plate in the top of the ninth with a hit batter, sac bunt, wild pitch and sac fly.

Houston fell to 0-2 on the season the next night with a 7-5 loss to San Francisco. Neifi Perez went 4-4 with 4 RBI for the Giants, including a 3-run double off Pettitte in the fourth that, for all intents and purposes, decided the game. The Astros managed 15 hits, all singles, and accepted five free passes form SF hurlers, but stranded 16 runners on the evening. David Aardsma, who was helping pitch the Rice Owls to a National Championship last season, came out of the bullpen for the Giants and picked up the win in his major league debut.

The Astros finally got in the win column on Wednesday with a convincing 10-1 win. Clemens was masterful in his Houston debut, scattering three walks and a hit while whiffing nine over seven innings. Richard Hidalgo continued his hot start with a pair of hits and his second homer of the season. Jeff’s Bagwell and Kent also went deep and combined to drive in 70% of Houston’s runs.

Good Friday was indeed a good Friday for the Astros who opened a 3-game set in Milwaukee with a 13-7 win. Wade Miller continued his mastery over the Brewers in their own Miller Park with a 6-IP, 4-Hit, 7-K effort, and the Astros ripped open a 2-2 contest with a 9-run sixth inning. Bagwell and Hidalgo accounted for 9 RBI between them.

Houston’s bats were 10 sheets in the wind in a 6-1 loss on Saturday, with Milwaukee’s Ben Sheets setting a new career high with 10 strikeouts during his 6 IP of action. Tim Redding worked out of jams early to keep the game 0-0 through four innings, but a Wes Helms 3-run tater in the fifth gave Sheets and the Brewers all the runs they would need in this one.

Lance Berkman clubbed a bases-juiced clout and Oswalt tossed six tough innings despite never looking comfortable on the Miller Park mound as the Astros took the Brewers series on Sunday 7-4. Berkman’s slam in the third came after Oswalt led off the frame with a single on an oh-two count and Adam Everett doubled to left. Roy O pitched around 7 hits, 3 walks and a pair of errors, using a half-dozen K’s in key spots. Brad Lidge got a double play in each of his two innings of relief, and Brandon Backe made his Houston debut with a somewhat shaky ninth inning.

INJURY REPORT: Pettitte’s “strained elbow” struck Astros fans in their not-so-funny bone, no doubt. The tired cliché, “It’s not as bad as it could be,” comes to mind since there was no major damage in Andy’s left wing. It’s also not as bad simply because the rotation is so deep this season, so missing just a couple of starts right now shouldn’t really be more than a little speed bump in the race for the postseason.

STAR OF THE WEEK: Always good to have several candidates for your top player of the week as we did with the Astros in the season’s first six games. My nod goes to Richard Hidalgo who batted .500 to start the season (12-for-24) with 2 HR, 9 RBI and 6 runs scored. Honorable mention to Jeff Bagwell (.455, 2 HR, 8 BRI, 7 runs) and Roger Clemens (Win #311, 7 IP, 1 hit, 9 K’s to give him 4,108 for his career).

WRANGLER RETURNS: How great was it to hear Larry Dierker’s voice again on an Astros broadcast? If it was up to me, he’d have never left Houston’s dugout, but that’s another story. It was still very nice to hear Dierker on the air. His keen insights, trivia tidbits and familiar delivery have long been underrated among broadcasters. If I heard Gene Elston’s voice as well, I’d swear it was 1980 all over again with this pitching staff.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU: If any of you are searching for reasons to celebrate something next week with your favorite cold-and-crispy beverage, here are a few Astros past and present that will tack on another tally in the life column of their stats page. The middle of April looks like a good time to try and plan the birth of your kid if you want ‘em to grow up and be an Astros catcher.

Mon (Apr 12): Jerry Goff, C (born 1964, San Rafael, CA, with Houston 1995-96) Wed (Apr 14): Bobby Sprowl, LHP (born 1956, Sandusky, OH, with Houston 1979-81) *** Brad Ausmus, C (born 1969, New Haven CT, with Houston 1997-98, 2001-present) *** Gregg Zaun, C (born 1971, Glendale, CA, with Houston 2002-03) Thu (Apr 15): J.C. Hartman, INF (born 1934, Cottonton, AL, with Houston 1962-63) Fri (Apr 16): Bruce Bochy, C (born 1955, Landes de Brussac, France, with Houston 1978-80) Sat (Apr 17): Denny Walling, INF-OF (born 1954, Neptune, NJ, with Houston 1977-88, 1992)

NEXT VICTIMS: The Astros continue their first roadtrip of the season with a 3-game swing through St. Louis (Mon-Wed). The club then returns to Houston for a 7-game homestand against the Brewers (Apr 15-18) and Cardinals (Apr 20-22).

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