How A Meaningless Game Mattered

added 12/12/2011 by Seth Bracken

(Editors Note: Recent Sam Houston St. graduate Seth Bracken reviewed an August game played at Minute Maid Park and submitted it to us a guest column. We welcome all contributions. If you'd like to submit a column, e-mail us at staff@astrosdaily.com.)

In a year where the Astros saw ownership change, the announcement of the Astros leaving the pure baseball National League for the over gimmicked and overhyped DH-riddled American League, and blockbuster trades that sent fan favorites Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn to other teams, it was rare to find a bright spot. Even now in an offseason that is a whirlwind of change cautious optimism seems to be the best anyone can muster. But there were a few moments during the season along the way to the team's worst record ever of 106 losses that should put a smile on even the weariest of Astros fan's lips. One particular bright spot shined in potential ace Jordan Lyles and potential star J.D. Martinez.

By August 3rd, Jordan Lyles had already set a team record for 11 straight starts without a win. Lyles was twenty years old at the time and the youngest pitcher in the majors. Lyles and fans alike were eager for him to get his first major league win, something that a pitcher with four pitches would have achieved long ago on an admittedly better team. He was scheduled to play the Reds at home in Houston against Dontrelle Willis (you may remember Willis as the Marlins‘ wunderkind who has since known both triumph and failure in his career).

It was to be righty vs. lefty. Future vs. Has-Been. A battle between division rivals in a game that ultimately didn't matter, as neither team was in playoff contention at the time, which is probably why this story didn't get much traction. This was to be Lyles' 12th start with the Astros but his first Houston start with teammate J.D. Martinez.

Martinez had been drafted in the 20th round, 611th overall pick of the 2009 draft and was a long shot to make it to the pros, rebuilding phase or not. He was seemingly intended to be a minor league player who filled out a roster and that was it. But due to a coach who believed in him and who fought for him to have the chance to play regularly, J.D. exploded in 2009 and played in AA the very next year in which he was named the 2010 Minor League Franchise Player of the year. In July the following season, Hunter Pence was traded to the Phillies and Martinez was called up from Corpus Christi to take his spot.

August 3rd was J.D.'s fourth ever big league game and his first one with Lyles pitching since arriving in Houston. It had been an eventful yet frustrating summer for Jordan, who had been determined and stoic about the losses and no-decisions. He later admitted to being a little nervous and emotional towards the end of the game. After all, there is a reason that 11 starts without a win was a team record. It's unusual and would normally cast doubt on a player's ability. But Lyles was to have a new teammate behind him this day - a teammate who believed in himself and Lyles wholeheartedly.

Before the game that didn't matter, Martinez had some words for Lyles; a promise to make that is as bold of a promise as maybe that of the Babe calling his shot. Rowan Kavner of MLB.com quoted Martinez as saying, "He was like, 'Man, I need to get a win. I need to get a win.'" Martinez said. "I'm like, 'You're going to get your win, and I'm going to hit my first home run. Watch.'"

In his first at-bat of the game, Martinez took Willis deep for his first major league home run, giving the Astros a two-run lead in the first. Lyles blanked Cincinnati for the first four innings but then the Reds came back with one run each in the fifth and sixth to tie the game.

In the top of the seventh and with Lyles still on the mound, it was starting to look like he might end up pitching another no-decision. Then, with the bottom of the order up in a 2-2 game, the unthinkable happened. Willis came to bat with no one on and belted a solo blast into the right field bleachers, thus putting Lyles in line for the loss.

Brian Bogusevic pinch hit for Lyles to lead off the bottom of the seventh and drew a walk against reliever Nick Masset. By removing Lyles from the game, the Astros would need to score in that turn at bat or Jordan would remain winless. Jason Bourgeois and Jose Altuve both rolled bunt singles to fill the bases.

Martinez saw a chance to fulfill his prophecy. He stroked a liner into left field for a two-run double, giving him four RBIs on the night and sealing the deal for Lyles. Humberto Quintero would add a solo homer in the eighth, which came in handy when Mark Melancon gave up a run in the top of the ninth before getting Miguel Cairo to fly out, ending the game at a final score of 5-4 Houston.

Thus Martinez kept his word and got his first career home run, while helping Lyles to his first career win in a game that meant absolutely nothing in the context of the season but everything to two young stars.

Yet it should mean something to Astros fans. This is no guarantee of success for Lyles and Martinez in the future, but it was still a magical moment. And it should serves as a reminder to all of us about why baseball is so special and why we love the game and the Astros to begin with.

It was a game so special as to give magical moments to the laughingstock of the league. Regardless of how the rest of baseball looked at the game, it was still a milestone that reminds us that, while winning and playoffs are important, it's not the only thing that makes baseball great or Astros baseball special. Baseball contains a drama that tugs at the heart of every fan.

Like Brad Pitt asked in the movie Moneyball, "How can you not get romantic about baseball?"