Saturday, June 30, 2007

How to enjoy a miserable baseball season (National League division)

Strange couple of days.

Tried to nail down a time period during which Biggio would hit number three thousand. Secured tickets for Friday, Saturday, and Monday, and was given tickets for Sunday by a friend and former student.

(Wonderful thing about being so open about my baseball fanaticism. When friends have extra tickets, they often think of me.)

I had no idea Biggio would go nuts, have the second 5-hit day of his career, get to 3K on Thursday, and put me in the doghouse with Astro-Girl. Or that Carlos Lee would end the game with an 11th-inning, two-out, walk-off Grand Slam in easily the most exciting Astro game of the year.

Partial remedy came last night.

As Tom Boswell once said, baseball is at once democratic and aristocratic: enjoyable for anyone wishing to spend an evening, but self-revelatory to anyone who pays serious attention. And so it was last night, in the bottom of the ninth of a wild Astros-Rockies game in which (up to that point) one lead or the other had either been reversed, erased or won back seven different times.

The situation: 8-7 Rockies. Closer Brian Fuentes on the mound.

Up first, the Golden Boy, your Rookie of the Half-Year, Hunter Pence (and, really, the only reason to watch the Astros besides Biggio's 3,000-hit chase), who grounded out (with hints that the first slump of his major-league career may be in the offing). Lance Berkman, trying to tie the game with one swing, struck out mightily, twice nearly spinning himself into the ground, as Reggie Jackson often did.

Two outs. Carlos Lee. Fuentes threw ball one.

"They're walking him," Astro-Girl said--correctly. One ball was in danger of beaning the batboy. Speedy Chris Burke comes in to run for Lee.

Now, Mark Loretta, the steadiest Astro thus far (the sort of thing that can be annoying to a team, when a player slotted for platoon/utility/pinch-hitting plays so well they simply have to play him every day, never mind their previous plans).

Tense shift.

So, okay, a .330 singles hitter comes up as the winning run. Burke is fast enough to score on a double, or on a single if on second.

So: a few considerations.

1. Does Rockies first baseman Helton play behind the runner and guard the line? No. Helped in part by the knowledge that Loretta is a right-handed hitter, and thus unlikely to hit the ball with power to the right side, Helton holds Burke at first.

2. Does Burke attempt a steal? No--and with good reason. Burke has first-to-third speed, or (almost pointless here) hit-and-run speed, but not enough straight-steal speed. With two outs, he is be off on contact--enough, Garner reasons, to hold him, especially early in the count.

3. The rest of the infield plays . . . Easy, this one. Third baseman Atkins, hugging the line, is deep. Short and second are just in from the outfield grass. Anything hit to hard them is an out. Anything dribbled to them is a hit, but with Burke proceeding no farther than second. Anything hit past them, no worse than a single, with Burke at third, especially because . . .

4. The outfield plays . . . Talk about a no-doubles outfield. Albert Pujols doesn't command this kind of respect. Centerfielder Willie Taveras is at the pre-Tal's Hill warning track, 403 feet deep. (Were this Yankee stadium, he'd be standing beyond the centerfield fence.) Left fielder Matt Halliday nearly has his back leaned against the left field out-of-town scoreboard, which measures a uniform 315 feet across and fronts the inviting Crawford Boxes.

Rockie manager Clint Hurdle's strategy is clear. Anything hit to an infielder is out number three. Anything hit up the left field line (and thus at Atkins), out number three. Anything hit to the outfield is a single, with Burke stopping at third.

On-deck is Mike Lamb, red-hot but a left-handed hitter, a reduced risk against the left-handed Fuentes. The rational is to pitch to Loretta. If he makes out, game over. A base hit, the Rockies would still lead.

A good strategy. Except that right-handed hitters in Minute Maid, if you pitch them inside . . .

Loretta turned on the second pitch and sent it into the Crawford Boxes.

9-8 Astros. Ballgame.

Every team (that is, all but the best, like the 1998 Yankees) will lose 58 games. Every team (all but the worst, like the 1962 Mets) will win 58 games. Success or failure lies in the other 58.

The other 58 in 2007 will not treat the Astros kindly (witness tonight, a dreary 5-0 loss). But within the 58 wins--one-third of the season--one finds a reason to watch.

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