Saturday, April 30, 2005

Jill's right - sometimes I get a little baseball-crazy. Wilco was in town Wednesday night for a concert, and I got there about an hour early and met with my crazy friend (but good taste in music) Ben "The Reverend" Helford. Don't ask me why he's The Reverend...if you met him, you'd understand. Anyway, we get in line, I scalp my two extra tickets for a small profit, and we go in. The opening act was so-so, and Wilco finally took the stage around 8:30 or so, I think. They play one song...and stop, because their was a malfunction with the amp on lead singer Jeff Tweedy's guitar, or something. It gets fixed (after a few minutes), and they play a lot of their new stuff from "A Ghost is Born". It's pretty awesome, I gotta say. Then they leave, but for the first encore they play "Spiders" (or jmaybe it's called "Kidsmoke", I don't remember) and it ROCKED. One of the best live songs I've ever heard. After that Jeff Tweedy throws (and I think breaks) his guitar, I think because there was more malfunctioning with his amp. Oh, and he also grabbed someone's video camera in the front row and took it away from them.

Anyway, good concert. The Orpheum is a cool venue - not crowded at all, no smoke, kinda cheap beer.

Oh yeah, the Astros game yesterday. Well, we lost 3-2 to the Cubs. Clemens pitched well, but once again our offense couldn't do much. Bagwell had a HR, but other than that we just can't seem to get it going. Berkman should be back soon; when he returns, my vote goes to sending Bruntlett down, ending the Burke-in-the-OF experiment, and making Burke the backup middle infielder, and giving Everett and Biggio an occasional day off. I just don't want Burke taking playing time away from Jason Lane in LF, who has certainly paid more dues than Burke is. Alternatively we could try and trade Burke, but I don't know what we need, unless someone is offering us a solid offensive catcher or shortstop, both of which are hard to come by. I guess a guy like Mike Cameron would work too, but Taveras has been surprisingly good.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Sorry for the long delay. Looks like I didn't miss much Astros action, though - they've been shutout in consecutive games by Oliver Perez and Kip Wells. It doesn't look like any one guy is to blame, but it's a shame we haven't been able to take advantage of our dominant starting pitching so far. Even when Berkman gets back, he'll essentially be replacing Luke Scott / Chris Burke, who have been bad, but not that bad. Not Brad Ausmus or Adam Everett or even Jeff Bagwell bad. So a lot of guys have to pick it up.

Baseball Prospecuts mentioned Everett favorably in their latest Power Rankings: He's improved his walk rate for 11.1 walks / 100 PA, which should make him a viable leadoff man once a few more singles start dropping in.

I was in Vegas this past weekend (well, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, actually) for a trip with the guys. It was great - good weather, cheap rooms, plenty of poker. I did all right (JT was the big winner, when he finished 3rd out of 120 players in a $40 buy-in tourney - he won $428, I think, and Todd won about $200 the first time he sat down at a poker table in Vegas), but you don't really go to win money - you go to break even. The combined 8 hour drive there-and-back wasn't that bad either (except for Hoover Dam...ugh.)

Anyway, I'm back, so look for a recap of tomorrow night's Clemens vs. Maddux matchup. Will the Astros score a run for The Rocket? Should be a good one - two Hall of Famers going against each other.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Brandon Duckworth gave up 8 runs in 4 innings against the Cards yesterday, but that's a little misleading - he gave up a few swinging bunt singles, and Willy Taveras misplayed a fly ball to CF which turned into a 2-run triple. He still didn't pitch well - 4 walks/0 K's in 4 innings - but it wasn't as terrible as you might think. The offense made a nice comeback after falling behind 8-1 - we took a lot of pitches, Adam Everett had a bases-loaded double, Raul Chavez had 3 hits, and Morgan Ensberg had a HR off Julian Tavarez. We couldn't catch up all the way, though. The bullpen also looked tough, with 4 innings of scoreless work.

Clemens vs. Mulder today. Bagwell gets a day off and Lamb (a lefty) bats 3rd instead of Lane. Looks like Garner is falling in love with the lineup-by-position - a 1B has to bat 3rd, regardless of who it is.

The Astros signed Tom Martin to a AAA deal with Round Rock. I like it - John Franco has been terrible, Mike Gallo isn't any better, and Martin has had some good years in the past. Now if we could replace Franco with Martin and Springer with Mike Burns I'd be happy.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Pretty solid 8-7 win for the Astros last night - the game wasn't that close until Brady Clark hit a 3-run bomb off Lidge in the 9th. Pettitte looked pretty good, getting tons of ground balls - I think Ensberg had 9 chances at 3rd, and he made some really nice plays. The bottom of the lineup did most of the damage - Lane, Ensberg, Burke, Ausmus, and Taveras all had good offensive performances. Chad Qualls looked good in the 8th, Franco hit the only batter he faced, Chad Harville came on and pitched pretty well but walked Jeff Cirillo with 2 outs, and Lidge came on, gave up the HR, but retired Junior Spivey.

Scott Barzilla has an awesome new article up at AstrosDaily about the Astros ideal lineup construction (link in the upper left of the AstrosDaily page). I won't spoil it for you - go read the article!

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Holy crap Oswalt is good. His line: Nine innings, four walks, seven punchouts, one run, zero walks. Money. If Clemens and Pettitte hold up and Backe continues to impress, there's no doubt in my mind that we'll contend. That rotation is simply too strong.

Everett finally snapped out of his early season funk, going 3-for-4 with a leadoff homer and a stolen base. He's still only batting .216, so he's got to keep up the hitting if he wants to stay in the leadoff spot. Otherwise I say we hand over the position to Lil' Willy, who has done everything in his power to earn it. He's 13-for-48 with five walks and five swipes so far (That's .286, .354, .429 in 50 PAs). I hope Garner values his OBP and speed over his inexperience. Unfortunately, I can definitely see Garner reinserting Biggio in the leadoff spot sometime soon. I say, So what if Taveras has little experience... he's good.

Speaking of speed, what's with all the stolen bases? The Stros had four more steals last night. And it's not just Willy T doing all the running. JASON LANE has FIVE!!! WHAT'S GOING ON?!? Oh yeah, and Lane leads the team in every single offensive category. He's batting .368 with 5 homers, 12 RBI and 8 runs. Looks like he and Brian Roberts will go 40-40 this season.

Nomar hurt his groin today. It looked painful. I can't say I'm not a little glad that the Cubs' playoff chances took a hit, but you never applaud an opponent's injury. Unless it's Sox-Yankees.

I also saw that Berkman took batting practice with the team before Wednesday night's game. That's good news: we need him back, and soon. After our series with Milwaukee, eight of our next 10 series are against contending teams (Two against Chicago and one each against St. Louis, Atlanta, Florida, San Fran, Zona and Texas). Our only easy series come against Pittsburgh.

I've been thinking about the Chris Burke situation for some time now. I really don't think it's all that bad that he's not getting playing time. Unless we trade him, he's not going anywhere. Look at Lane: He's been riding pine for years, and he's crushing the ball now. So maybe warming the bench and getting 200 ABs isn't a travesty.

But then I though, Why have Burke sit when Adam Everett's out there putting up an 0-fer every night? Burke used to be a shortstop in college! Put him in! At least see what he can do there. Then we can platoon Scott, Biggio, Everett and Burke between LF, 2B and SS. get 450 ABs for each of them.

I went to the Sox-Twins game on Monday. The renovations to The Cell are pretty nice, although they're obviously copying Wrigley with the new ivy in center. Saw Carl Everett crush a pair of homers and point to the sky about five time each time he rounded the bases. I met Everett five years ago in Anaheim — The BoSox were staying at the same Marriot as our newspaper class was during a Journalism convention. He was a really nice guy; at least he stopped and talked with us for 15 minutes or so. He said he enjoyed his time as an Astro but he didn't feel slighted that he got traded.

I'm going to get tickets to a BoSox-Cubs game in June at Wrigley. I don't know how (or how much!), but I'll get them. The Wades are all coming to Chicago for graduation and a memorial service for our grandmother, Toni Cobb. She'll be missed, but she led an incredibly full life. And even in her final days she was able to bring friends and family together.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Nice peformance by Brandon Backe tonight: 7 IP, 7 H, 1 BB, 8 K. That walk-to-strikeout ratio is nice to see. Some of you might be wondering why I'm always harping on that ratio - the main idea is that pitchers have surprisingly little control over what happens once their pitch is put into play. Some pitcher have higher hit rates than others, but generally speaking, at the major league level the difference is smaller than almost anyone would guess. What a pitcher DOES have control over is the balls that aren't put in play - walks, strikeouts, and HR's. In other words, 'free outs' like strikeouts are great, 'non-outs' like walks and HR's are bad. The 'possible outs' usually even themselves out over the long haul.

The offense still wasn't great, but did enough to win. Adam Everett drew another walk - based on my previous statement that hits will even out, he might be a decent leadoff hitter yet. Luke Scott had a rough night; he's batting under .200 now, with 1 extra-base hit, but Brad Ausmus had 2 hits and Willy Taveras had a HR (!!!!), a walk, and a SB. Russ Springer got out of a huge jam created by Wheeler and Franco (who CANNOT get righties out - don't even bother bringing him in to turn a switch hitter around - lefties ONLY) by getting Brian Jordan to GIDP to Ensberg to Biggio to Bagwell. Nice job, Springer. Then Lidge comes in and does his thing, striking out two. Woohoo. Brewers next.

Last thing - "Explosions in the Sky" is the best band I've heard in a long time. Check them out.
The Astros offense sank to a new low last night when they failed to score in a 12-inning 1-0 loss, which included leadoff doubles in the 9th and 10th innings, and a bases loaded-0 out situation in the 10th when a single run wins the game. Roger Clemens has now allowed 0 runs in his last 14 innings over 2 starts and has 0 wins to show for it. There's a lot of blame to go around - Biggio and Bagwell were a combined 0-for-10, and Luke Scott and Willy Taveras both looked awful at the plate. I think everyone knew we'd struggle to score runs before Berkman came back, but even when he does come back, he won't be replacing Everett, Taveras, or Ausmus.

Peter Gammons believes the Astros will end up trading Roger Clemens to the Yankees around the All-Star Break. I think it's pretty darn likely, too - I don't think we'll still be in the race, and the Yankees sure look like they need pitching and Steinbrenner is one owner who won't balk at Clemens' 18.5 million dollar salary. What should we try and get in return? Well, looking at our current team and minor league prospects, we should have Lane, Berkman, and Scott on the OF corners, Ensberg at 3B, Biggio / Burke / Conrad at 2B, Bagwell / Self at 1B, and Quintero at C. Our biggest weaknesses on offense are at CF, SS, C, and perhaps 1B if Self never hits for power. At pitching, we've got a pretty good young group (Oswalt / Backe / Astacio / Nieve / Rodriguez / Albers / Patton, but you can never have too many pitching prospects.

I'm not sure who the Yankees best prospects are, but I can guarantee there aren't many - they've traded all the good ones (Navarro, Duncan, Nick Johnson) away in past years. So I think we might want to get a 3rd team involved somehow. A team like the Phillies, with Ryan Howard, Marlon Byrd, Placido Polanco, etc., would be a good fit. I would rank our offensive weaknesses in the following order: CF (worst - I just don't see Taveras as anything other than a pinch runner/5th OF) SS (see above comment, only not quite as strong, since SS is a slightly weaker offensive position, C (although Quintero looks pretty good now), and 1B (Self may never be a decent MLB regular).

Our intramural softball team is shaping up pretty nicely - yours truly is a David Wells (minus 50 pounds or so) on the mound - very hittable, but no walks. We've got a few former baseball players, and a few beginners who we'll stick at C and RF. All in all, should be....well, fun.
The Astros offense sank to a new low last night when they failed to score in a 12-inning 1-0 loss, which included leadoff doubles in the 9th and 10th innings, and a bases loaded-0 out situation in the 10th when a single run wins the game. Roger Clemens has now allowed 0 runs in his last 14 innings over 2 starts and has 0 wins to show for it. There's a lot of blame to go around - Biggio and Bagwell were a combined 0-for-10, and Luke Scott and Willy Taveras both looked awful at the plate. I think everyone knew we'd struggle to score runs before Berkman came back, but even when he does come back, he won't be replacing Everett, Taveras, or Ausmus.

Peter Gammons believes the Astros will end up trading Roger Clemens to the Yankees around the All-Star Break. I think it's pretty darn likely, too - I don't think we'll still be in the race, and the Yankees sure look like they need pitching and Steinbrenner is one owner who won't balk at Clemens' 18.5 million dollar salary. What should we try and get in return? Well, looking at our current team and minor league prospects, we should have Lane, Berkman, and Scott on the OF corners, Ensberg at 3B, Biggio / Burke / Conrad at 2B, Bagwell / Self at 1B, and Quintero at C. Our biggest weaknesses on offense are at CF, SS, C, and perhaps 1B if Self never hits for power. At pitching, we've got a pretty good young group (Oswalt / Backe / Astacio / Nieve / Rodriguez / Albers / Patton, but you can never have too many pitching prospects.

I'm not sure who the Yankees best prospects are, but I can guarantee there aren't many - they've traded all the good ones (Navarro, Duncan, Nick Johnson) away in past years. So I think we might want to get a 3rd team involved somehow. A team like the Phillies, with Ryan Howard, Marlon Byrd, Placido Polanco, etc., would be a good fit. I would rank our offensive weaknesses in the following order: CF (worst - I just don't see Taveras as anything other than a pinch runner/5th OF) SS (see above comment, only not quite as strong, since SS is a slightly weaker offensive position, C (although Quintero looks pretty good now), and 1B (Self may never be a decent MLB regular).

Our intramural softball team is shaping up pretty nicely - yours truly is a David Wells (minus 50 pounds or so) on the mound - very hittable, but no walks. We've got a few former baseball players, and a few beginners who we'll stick at C and RF. All in all, should be....well, fun.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Trade Chris Burke.

Let's look at what happened this offseason:

Astros do not offer Jeff Kent arbitration.
Craig Biggio, a still-productive but aging franchise icon, makes noise about wanting to move back to 2nd.
Chris Burke, the consensus top prospect in the Astros minor league system, has a huge year at 2B in AAA, then has an excellent spring training.
Craig Biggio is named starting 2B, and has started every game but 1 this year, and is still playing well. He collected his 2,654th hit yesterday.
Chris Burke is struggling to get playing time.

I think it's fairly obvious that the organization intends to start Biggio until he doesn't want to play anymore; specifically, I think the organization and the fans want to see Biggio get to 3,000 hits. Just because I disagree with the strategy doesn't necessarily make it wrong; but if it's true (and it certainly seems like it is), we need to trade Chris Burke now. He probably had a career year last in AAA - he's 25, and looks ready to start in the majors. His trade value is likely at its highest. In order for Craig Biggio to get to 3K hits, he'll need to play for at least the rest of this year and all of '06. I also think the organization would like to have Biggio and Bagwell retire at the same time: think of the stories (Farewell year for the Greatest Astros in History!) they could produce.

Do we really want to see Chris Burke on the bench for the next 2 years? In addition, we have a prospect in Brooks Conrad that may well be better than Burke in 2 years. He should be good to go in '07.

Trade Chris Burke.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Tough loss today. I thought Duckworth actually threw the ball pretty well; he just made bad pitches at the wrong time, especially to Wily Mo Pena with 2 runners on, which Ol' Wily Mo deposited 498 feet away. Our offense was hit-and-miss - an early 2 run bomb by Lane, a nice rally led by Jose Vizcaino and Raul Chavez, of all people, but then we squandered a leadoff double in the 9th by Jason Lane. I normally hate bunting, too, but you have to at least consider having Luke Scott lay one down there. The announcers say you have to "play for the win", but you HAVE to go for the tie, too. So Scott flew out weakly to CF, Chavez lined out to LF, Everett walked on 4 pitches (again, at least he's showing a good eye - strangely, Everett has 7 walks, and Jason Lane has 0.), and Chris Burke flew out to RF to end the game. Burke has a somewhat odd stance - it doesn't look like he gets much power, but he is patient. However, both he and Morgan Ensberg have a strange and troubling habit of letting perfect pitches go by with 2 strikes. If it's close, you really have to try and protect the plate.

I liked our lineup alright - Everett, Ausmus, and Biggio needed a day off - but I think we were lucky that no line drives were hit in Mike Lamb's area. Heck, Duckworth did a hell of a job keeping the ball on the ground, except for two pitches to Joe Randa and Wily Mo.

The announcers were talking about the hot start that some of the Astros minor league affiliates were off to. Here are some of our minor-league prospects that are leading the way:

Triple-AAA (Round Rock):

Humberto Quintero, C, AAA: .394 / .429 / .667, 5 XBH, 2 BB, 33 AB. Not much patience, but good average and some pop. He's better than anything else we have at catcher in the entire organization. By a lot.

Todd Self, 1B, AAA: .368 / .458 / .474, 2 XBH, 4 BB, 19 AB. Pretty much the opposite of Quintero - Self is a Mark Grace / Wally Joyner / John Olerud - type: good average, good eye, little power. It's not what you expect from a 1B, to be sure, but if you plug him in he'll be league average with a solid OBP and you can spend money elsewhere.

Ezequiel Astacio, RHP, AAA: 12.2 IP, 8 H, 2 BB, 9 K, 2 HR, 3.55 ERA. The walk-to-strikeout ratio looks good, and remember Round Rock is a hitter's park. I like him as our 5th starter, but not until August / September at the earliest, so he doesn't lose a year of free agent eligibility.

Wilfredo Rodriguez, LHP, AAA: 11.0 IP, 4 BB, 13 K, 0 HR, 2.45 ERA. Pretty impressive strikeout total, and he's a lefty.

Mike Burns, RHP (reliever): 4.1 IP, 2 H, 1 BB, 9 K, 0 HR, 0.00 ERA. Brad Lidge Lite. He's not young, so I'm not entirely sure why Burns is in AAA when Russ Springer is pitching in the big leagues. A 'pen of Lidge / Qualls / Wheeler / Harville / Burns / generic LHP isn't too bad.

Double-AA (Corpus Christi)

Fernando Nieve, RHP: 12.0 IP, 4 H, 3 BB, 17 K, 1 HR, 0.75 ERA. Whoa. Look at that line again. 17 K / 12.0 IP = good. He's moving up fast.

Single-A (Salem)

Matt Albers, LHP: 10.0 IP, 8 H, 4 BB, 14 K, 2.70 ERA. Everything looks fine here.

So that's it. Some pretty solid pitching prospects, all in all. Astacio should be ready later this year, Nieve the year after that, and Albers the year after that. I'd like to see Burns in the 'pen right now, and Quintero and Self (and hopefully Brooks Conrad, though he's off to a slow start) should all be ready for The Show next year. Quintero should finally make Ausmus expendable, and Self would make a great occasional platoon partner with Bagwell so Bags can rest his rapidly degenerating shoulder whenever he needs to.
Starting lineups for the Sunday 4/17 game (very interesting today):


Burke (2B)
Viz (SS)
Lamb (LF)
Lane (CF)
Scott (RF)


Griffey Jr.

So Duckworth's reward for his 1st start this year is to have one of our worst possible defenses behind him. Viz at SS is pretty rough, but what's really strange is that Duckworth is more of a flyball pitcher, and he gets Lamb / Lane / Scott in the outfield? Yech. I feel sorry for the guy. Sure hope we can get some offense going.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

I'm going to try something new today - I'll post the starting pitchers and lineups, and post comments on the game. If you're reading this, post a comment!
Big win for the ‘Stros last night, as the offense, led by Jason Lane, who had 2 HR’s and 5 RBI’s, finally scored more than 5 runs in a game, and won 11-2. Roy Oswalt pitched great: 7 IP, 5 H, 1 BB, 9 K. Pretty much how games are supposed to go. Morgan Ensberg had a big game, too, going 3-for-5 with 2 doubles and 3 RBI’s. It’s good to see guys like Ensberg and Lane pick up the offense, because we can’t rely on Biggio and Bagwell anymore. And one bright spot that I’ve failed to mention from Adam Everett, who’s hitting .167 in the leadoff spot, is that he’s also drawn 6 walks already. If Everett can keep his walk rate up, he can still hit .260 or .270, which would put his OBP right around .330 or .340. Not great, but if Garner stays obsessed with batting our 2nd worst hitter leadoff, it’s decent news.

``He's [Oswalt} taken years off my life -- not days, years,'' Dunn said. ``He throws every pitch the same. He's got great control. He'll throw a 95 mph fastball one pitch, the next one's a 69 mph curve. He's just good.''
Man, I like to hear that. When as good a hitter as Adam Dunn says “you’re just good”, that’s pretty high praise.

Russ Springer and Brad Lidge came in and combined for 2 innings of perfect relief, with 4 K’s.

Today it’s Andy Pettitte vs. Eric Milton. I’m hoping Chris Burke sees some playing time again; probably at LF, although Garner did say he intends to sit both Biggio and Bagwell for one game each this series, which is a good idea. We did some damage against Milton last time, and our lineup is full of guys (Biggio , Bagwell, Lane, Ensberg, even Everett) who have traditionally hit very well against lefties, so look for some offense. It would also be nice if Brad Ausmus could improve on his .083 / .185 / .083 line. Man, his hot spring training seems a long time ago.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

So far it's been another painful, painful game. Through the top of the 6th the Astros led 3-1, but had left 17 men on base, with Lane, Taveras, and Ausmus all failing with multiple runners on. Backe starts the bottom of the 6th, gives up a single, gets a K, gives up a double. Franco comes in, gets a groundball out, then gives up a swinging bunt single to Reyes and starts laughing. It's pretty funny, blowing another lead, huh? Wheeler comes in and gets Cairo to ground to 3rd, but it takes a bad hop and Lamb can't handle it. 4-3 Mets, and once again the Mets score the go-ahead runs without ever hitting the ball hard. Defense, bad luck, and horrible offense have been the theme of the series.

On the bright side, Luke Scott has reached base all 4 times today - he's 3-for-3 with 3 singles and a walk. Backe pitched well, although he still struggles with lefties - he's lucky Cliff Floyd, Kaz Matsui, and Eric Valent weren't in the lineup. Oh, and why isn't Chris Burke starting at 2B? Would it really kill Biggio to sit for one game with a huge bruise on his forearm? It's a little early in the year to start gutting it out for the team - take a seat and let the top prospect in the organiazation play.
Couple of things before the game today. One, according to the Houston Chronicle, Biggio's going to miss a few games with a badly bruised forearm. This is a good chance to get Burke some playing time, and hopefully he'll play well, so that Biggio can get more rest in the first half of the year and not decline in the 2nd half. I only hope that I don't see Jose Vizcaino's name penciled in as the 2nd baseman today. However, I would like to see Mike Lamb get the start. 1st, Victor Zambrano, the opposing pitcher, is much tougher on righties than on lefties (3 year splits: 729 OPS for righties, 792 OPS for lefties, in a pretty large sample size). 2nd, Backe is our most extreme flyball pitcher, so it should minimize Lamb's defensive liabilities.

The Astros have scored 23 runs in 7 games, or 3.28 runs / game. Should we expect more of the same? Well....probably. We can't expect any offensive improvement from last year at any position except maybe 3rd (Ensberg, although Lamb might regress a bit), and we had BIG offensive losses in Beltran, Kent, possibly Berkman (unless he comes back at 100%), and possibly Bagwell / Biggio / Ausmus (they're all a year closer to 40 than 30). We did have a pretty rough pitching staff for much of last year, with a horrific mix of Redding / Duckworth / Darren Oliver / Pete Munro at 4th and 5th starter, so we should expect some improvement, but not nearly enough to offset the loss of so much offense. The longer we think we're going to contend this year, the more it's going to hurt our chances to be a strong team in the next few years.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

I missed the first half of today's Astros-Mets game - I just started watching in the bottom of the 8th, with the score 0-0. Roger Clemens has put up the following incredible line:
7 IP
2 H
0 BB
9 K

Now Chad Qualls is in and struck out Victor Diaz. Then Marlon Anderon hits a routine ground ball to 2nd, and Biggio bobbles it and bounces the throw to 1st, so Anderson beats it out. Biggio already has one error this game according to the box score. Then they pick Anderson off, even though Bagwell didn't tag him. Reyes grounds out. Nice pitching by Qualls: a K and 2 routine ground balls.

Looking at the Astros' offense, we haven't done much either. Biggio and Bagwell each have 1 hit, and Ensberg, Burke, and Taveras each have 1 walk of Kaz Ishii. Adam Everett and Brad Ausmus continue to be offensive sinkholes, batting .148 and .095 respectively. Still think Ausmus is 'swinging the bat well', Garner?

Monday, April 11, 2005

Agonizing loss today. I watched from the 4th inning on, and the Astros led 1-0 on a Biggio walk and Ensberg RBI double. Pettitte was pitching GREAT, mixing in a high 80's fastball and some nasty breaking pitches. In the 6th, Glavine got 2 quick outs, then walked Pettitte, and allowed singles to Everett and Biggio to load the bases. He went to 3-2 to Bagwell, then threw a pitch that crossed the plate a good six inches inside. Strike three, according to Mark Wegener, and Bagwell nearly got thrown out of the game arguing the call. In the top of the 6th, Pettitte didn't allow a single hard-hit ball. Instead, he allowed a broken-bat single, a bloop single to right, a sac bunt, another bloop single to right, and a bloop single to center, and he was done, down 3-1. Don't be fooled by his overall line (5.1 IP, 9 H, 2 BB, 5 K), I don't think I've seen Pettitte this good in a long time.

Dan Wheeler came in and got out of the inning. An Orlando Palmeiro triple (good hustle play) and an Everett single got it to 3-2 , but Wheeler looked solid in the bottom of the 7th. In the top of the 8th, Ensberg works the count to 3-2 and rips a double to the LF gap. Lane hits a sinking liner to RF that Diaz misplays into a triple. 3-3, Astros. Vizcaino crushes a double over Cliff Floyd on the 1st pitch. 4-3, Astros. Brad Ausmus comes up needing to get Viz over to 3rd so a sac fly can drive him out. He fails to get a bunt down in his first 2 pitches, then K's looking on the 3rd pitch. An absolutely terrible at-bat when an insurance run would have been huge. Taveras and Palmeiro don't get anything done, although Palmeiro lines out hard to 1B.

Then...the bottom of the 8th. Russ Springer relieves, and gets Minky to fly out to RF. Then he walks Diaz on 4 pitches nowere near the zone. Then he gets ahead of Marlon Anderson 0-2 and inexplicably leaves a hittable breaking pitch over the middle of plate. Anderson pulls it though the right side, on a play that Chris Burke might have been able to make. This brings up Jose Reyes. Again, Springer gets ahead 0-2, and again leaves a hittable pitch out...but this time, Reyes grounds right back to Springer. At this point Springer HAS to get Diaz in a rundown off 3rd - he was halfway down the line. Instead he tries to get the impossible double play (Reyes is uber-fast), and Everett throws it away trying to rush the throw. 4-4. Matsui comes up and singles up the middle on a hanging breaking ball. 5-4, Mets. We intentionally walk Beltran, bringing up Ramon Castro. He pops out weakly to RF, except Biggio forgets he's not an OF anymore and it's Lane's play - they collide, ball falls in. 6-4 Mets. Garner brings in Franco to face Cliff Floyd. Single up the middle. 8-4 Mets, and that's the final. It was an excruciating inning to watch. Springer didn't pitch terribly, except for the 4-pitch walk to Diaz, but he has to finish guys off after getting up 0-2. I'm sure people were calling for Qualls and Lidge to come in, but they've both pitched a lot already - I like leaving Springer in, particularly facing Minky / Diaz / Anderson - that's not really a dangerous part of the lineup. It just didn't work out today. It's a shame, wasting a great start by Pettitte and a big day by Morgan Ensberg.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Once again, I made a long post, and my home computer obliterated it instantly.
Here's the scoop:

I'm pumped that the Astros signed Brooks Kieschnick. At first I thought Andy was just rubbing it in, but they really did. Do you think it's possible that someone from the Astros organization actually reads this blog? ...Nah. It's more likely that we've seen Kieschnick often with the Brewers, both as a pitcher and a hitter, thought he was decent, and picked him up as a project. Still, a neat coincidence.

As I wrote a few days ago, Kieschnick is a useful player. He's not dominant either as a hitter or a pitcher, but he's decent at both, so his real usefulness comes from his versatility. Why carry both Russ Springer and Orlando Palmeiro when you could carry Kiescnick, who fills both roles (middle reliever and 5th OF) and carry an extra pitcher (Astacio?) or catcher (Quintero?) instead. So you could carry two mediocrities...or one mediocrity and a good prospect. I like it.

In other news, Phil Garner is not the smartest man alive.

"The season is still very young, but Garner likes Ausmus hitting seventh and Taveras eighth. Garner realizes the No. 8 hitter doesn't see a lot of good pitches because he's hitting in front of the pitcher, but he feels Taveras has the instincts to handle the job.
"He has a pretty good eye," Garner said. "If they're pitching around him, he's got a good eye and he stays on the ball good. To me, that's a real plus."
Garner also likes having Taveras hitting closer to leadoff man Adam Everett and No. 2 hitter Craig Biggio.
"If (Taveras) gets a stolen base, the pitcher bunts him up, and now Everett's on base and you've got Biggio," Garner said.
"You've got three rabbits right there in a row. If you're going to do something, you've got to get them in a row. If I've got Ausmus in between, you lose your rabbit flow. If we get to a point where Brad's not driving in runs or not hitting the ball well, then we may have to make an adjustment."

Wow....where to begin?

1. Taveras has a good eye, huh? Well, Adam Everett had all of 17 walks in 385 AB's last year. Maybe Taveras should hit leadoff?

2. If Taveras gets on base, he needs to at least get an opportunity to steal, instead of the pitcher bunting him over ON THE FIRST PITCH, as in the first 2 games.

3. "and now Everett's on base and you've got Biggio?" Wouldn't it be great if Everett was just on base? Unfortunately, he's usually not.

4. Well, actually you don't have three rabbits in a row - the pitcher still separates them. And as I hope Garner realizes, Biggio is NOT a 'rabbit' anymore - he's not nearly as quick as he used to be, and I hope he doesn't steal too often, particularly with the big bats coming up.

5. Wow, he actually said "rabbit flow".

6. "If we get to a point where Brad's not driving in runs or hitting the ball well.." Like all of 2003 and 2004? If Garner expects anything out of Brad Ausmus offensively, he's going to be disappointed.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Jack, you got your wish: we signed Brooks Kieschnick to a minor deal. Whoop dee doo.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Game 2: Astros 4, Cardinals 1

Now THAT'S how a baseball game is supposed to go.

Andy Pettitte: 6 IP, 4 H, 1 ER (on Reggie Sanders' solo HR), 0 BB, 3 K
Chad Qualls: 2 perfect innings, making it look easy

In the 3rd inning, Craig Biggio doubled (good hustle play into 2nd) and Jeff Bagwell singled him in in a nice AB (got up 3-0, took 2 tough pitches, stayed with a breaking ball and hit a liner)
In the 6th, Ensberg singled, Scott K'd (tough start for him, he's 0-for-6), Lane singled, and Ausmus GIDP'd on the 1st pitch.
However, in the 8th, Garner learned from the past, as once again, Ensberg singled, Burke pinch-hit and popped out on a tough pitch to bunt, Lane singled, and Garner pinch-hit with Mike Lamb, who triped to RF, driving in 2, and Taveras hit a hard grounder up the middle for the final 4-1 score.
Lidge closed out the 9th, although not without a little scare.

Overall thoughts:

Adam Everett better start taking some pitches if he wants to stay in the leadoff spot. Prime example: Pettitte has a great 9-pitch AB in the 3rd before striking out...and then Everett pops up to SS on the 1st pitch. Um...bad? Everett needs to take the Taveras route and hit hard ground balls and line drives, because he is NOT a power hitter, and he needs to get on base. A lot.

Craig Biggio, 39 year old legs and all, is off to a hot start, just like last year. Before I start whining about how Burke needs to play, how about a compromise: if Burke gets the occasional (weekly?) start and plenty of pinch-hit AB's, this should keep Biggio a little fresher, so he might not collapse in the 2nd half. A silver lining, if you will.

Luke Scott is pressing.

Andy Pettitte looked good, throwing a lot of strikes, and getting his usual ground balls. Again, I think Burke should start when Pettitte does, because he's such an extreme groundballer and even the most rabid Biggio fan can't say Biggio is better defensively.

Chad Qualls is SOLID. 6 up, 6 down, including striking out Jim Edmonds on a Maddux-like pitch: starts inside to lefties, curls back over the middle of the plate. Man, what a sweet pitch.

My main worries so far are Everett leading off, Taveras hitting 8th (AFTER Ausmus, which completely wastes his speed if the pitcher is just going to bunt him over - by hitting before Ausmus, maybe Taveras can steal a few bases when he gets on to avoid the inevitable Ausmus GIDP.) Regardless, a four-in-a-row of Taveras / Ausmus / P / Everett is going to make for a LOT of late-game maneuvering or offensive suckiness.

But a win's a win, especially over the Cardinals.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Game 1: Cardinals 7, Astros 3.

Post-game thoughts:

Roy Oswalt pitched pretty well (6 IP, 7 H, 1 BB, 2 K), but once again struggled to finish off hitters once he got ahead in the count. He also seems to get frustrated on the mound when he doesn't have close calls go his way. He needs to be able to control his emotions better.

Adam Everett is not a good leadoff hitter. He's in there for his speed and his defense. But he went 0-for-4 (with a walk, at least), and never really hit the ball hard. With the bases loaded and 2 outs, down 4 runs, Everett swung at the 1st pitch he saw and grounded out to SS.

Craig Biggio is going to get off to a hot start just like last year, which is more bad than good, because Chris Burke is a superior player and Biggio is going to decline in the 2nd half, just like he has the last 3 years.

Morgan Ensberg is not a cleanup hitter. Sometime he's TOO patient, which might sound strange coming for an OBP freak like myself. With 2 on, 2 out, and a 3-2 count, Ensberg took a fastball from Tavares that looked low but was close, and got called out on strikes. I'm all for patience, but in that situation, you can't let a close pitch go by.

Jose Vizcaino and Orlando Palmeiro are going to see more pinch-hit AB's than Chris Burke. Which makes me want to cry.

Man, I hate Jim Edmonds.
Opening Day Updates:

Top 1: Walker ground-ball single up the middle, Rolen reaches on a bad throw by Everett, Edmonds reaches out and hits a dinky 3-run HR. 3-0, Cards, and Roy's terrible luck continues.

Bottom 1: Everett pops up (BAD). Biggio singles to LF. Bagwell GIDP's on 1st pitch (ugly swing).

Top 2: Oswalt settles down, looks good, but has trouble putting Molina away after getting up 0-2. Gotta have quick outs. 1-2-3 inning though.

Bottom 2: Ensberg with a sharp grounder to 3B that Rolen makes a great play on. Scott gets down 0-2, battles to 2-2, and K's. Lane doubles to LF on the 1st pitch (hanging breaking ball), and Ausmus grounds out weakly to 3B.

Top 3: Oswalt gets no close calls, and Eckstein singles to RF on a 2-2 pitch. A nice inside fastball gets Walker to pop to SS. Pujols grounds to 3B but Ensberg for some strange reason tries to go to 2B and everyone is safe. Oswalt gets Rolen to GIDP. Roy has thrown 50 pitches through 3 - he needs some quick outs, and some plays turned behind him.
I took the day off of school and headed down with a friend to Phoenix to watch the Diamondbacks-Cubs game. I'd been to two games at the Bank One Ballpark before, but my friend had been to a lot more, so he knew where to get free parking, what the best food deals were, etc., so it was pretty awesome...until the game started. Well, unless you were a Cubs fan.

Javier Vazquez started for the Diamondbacks. Here's how his first inning and two-thirds went:

Wild Pitch
Line out
Ground out (1-0 Cubs)
Single (2-0 Cubs)

Double (by Zambrano)
Single (3-0 Cubs)
Single (4-0 Cubs)
Double (6-0 Cubs)
Double (7-0 Cubs)

and he was done. OUCH. Oh, I have him in both my fantasy leagues. *Shudder*.

The Cubs pretty much coasted from there, although Zambrano had control issues and was relieved after only 4 and 2/3 innings (no win for Big Z) and made gestures that the umpire needed glasses and was subsequently tossed. Then mop-up time consisted of a bunch of Diamondbacks singles and Ramirez and Lee HR's for the Cubs. So not the greatest game, but it was fun anyway.

Then we listened to the Illinois - UNC game on the drive home. HOLY CRAP. If the game was half as good to watch as it was to listen to, it was a damn good game. The announcers were going crazy the entire 2nd half! Man, what a game. Good for Roy Williams. Too bad his whole team is leaving, practically.

So Astros Opening Day is tonight at 4:05 pm (here), 6:05 pm Central. I'll be watching the game on MLB.TV, which is AWESOME - I watched all the 'highlight reels' from all of yesterday's games (Young's 3 HRs, Adam Dunn destroying the ball, Richie Sexson, Pedro's 12 K's, etc.) in about an hour. Unfortunately for you, Andy, I don't think you can sign on in two different places, so the Astros game is MINE. ALL MINE. Bwahahahahaha!

So the batting order, as expected, is:

SS Adam Everett
2B Craig Biggio
1B Jeff Bagwell
3B Morgan Ensberg
LF Luke Scott
RF Jason Lane
C Brad Ausmus
CF Willy Taveras
P Roy Oswalt

I guess the only issue I have with this lineup is that Adam Everett has a career .315 OBP. Last year, supposedly his 'breakthrough year', he had a .317 OBP, with only 17 walks in 384 AB's. He is 25-for-28 in SB's, lifetime, an excellent rate, but he just doesn't get on base enough to be hitting in the top part of the order.

"Part of our game will be we'll have to run a little bit," Garner said. "We'll hit and run a little bit, but we do have some power potential, too. We do have a chance to be a complete offensive team -- not one dimensional or even two dimensional. We have a chance to be a multi-dimensional offensive team. How it's going to play out? I don't know yet."

This quote makes me a little nervous. If Garner runs with Everett (13 SB / 2 CS last year) and Taveras (55 / 11), that's fine. If he runs with pretty much anyone else (Biggio: 7/2, Ensberg: 6/4, Berkman: 9/7, Bagwell: 6/4, Ausmus: 2/2, even Chris Burke is only 37/14), he's just running us into outs. Generally speaking, your break-even rate for SB% is right around 60/70%, so only Everett and Taveras should be running often.

Garner said Biggio's game is "see it, whack it," so it would make sense for Garner to try to have someone on base already when Biggio comes to the plate.

Unfortunately, this is now true. Biggio has gone from 88 walks in '99 down to 40 walks in '04. That's a hell of a drop, and he's not really likely to improve in that department this late in his career, and you generally want your "see it, whack it" guys lower in the batting order, where Biggio's 71 extra-base hits might do a little more damage.

Ok, I gotta run, but I'll be watching the game tonight. Go 'Stros!

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Some interesting players have been released in the last few days:

C Bobby Estalella
RP Gabe White
P/OF Brooks Kieschnick

No, you didn't misread that last position - Kieschnik is both an outfielder and LH hitter (.248 / .315 / .444 in 306 career AB's) and a RH pitcher (96.0 IP, 110 H, 11 HR, 26 BB, 67 K, 4.59 ERA career) For his career, that's a 93 OPS+ (100 is league average) and 93 ERA+ (100 is league average, again). How cool is that? So a 33 year old who's a slightly below average hitter and a slightly below average pitcher? Why the heck would you want someone like that?
VARIETY. Why carry both a 5th OF and a 6th or 7th reliever when you could just carry Kieschnick? Put another way, we could sign Kiescnick, release John Franco and Jose Vizcaino, and bring up Brooks Conrad, or Ezequiel Astacio and be a MUCH better team for it. Kieschnick's decency at both hitting and pitching allow you to carry one extra hitter or pitcher, essentially. I think he'd be an intersting pickup, and he's a local guy (went to the University of Texas). What's to lose?

Estalella is 30 and has bounced around for a few years now, mostly because of his career .216 BA. But his career line is .216 / .315 / .440, good for a 755 OPS. The last time Brad Ausmus put up a 755 OPS was 1999, and his highest SLG% for any year is .415. Again, what do you have to lose? Sign him to a minor league deal, and let him compete with Quintero next year.

Gabe White was awful last year (6.94 combined ERA with NY and CIN) but he had put up a 2.98 ERA and a 4.05 ERA the 2 previous years, is 'only' 32 (Franco is 44), throws strikes (30 BB in his last 160.2 IP), and has put up a 3 year line of .248 / .277 / .419 against lefties (696 OPS). John Franco, by comparison, has a 3 year OPS of 637 allowed against lefties. Ok, Franco's better, but he's a lot older and probably more expensive and White can occasionaly get a righty out, so it might be worth looking into.

Also, the White Sox are already looking to trade A.J. Pierzynski. Man, that guy must be a total asshole. Nevertheless, he'd be a solid upgrade over Brad Ausmus at C, or heck, he'd make a decent backup catcher over slower-than-molasses Raul Chavez. He'd probably piss the entire clubhouse off, which would be fun to watch. Remember Mitch Meluskey? Well, imagine the fireworks with this guy.

Ok, that's all. None of these moves are likely, but they'd all be cheap, and if just one of them worked out, it would probably be worth it. I like the Kieschnick move the best - you can't underestimate versatility, particularly in the National League.
The Astros finalized their 25-man roster today - the final 3 cuts were Mike Gallo, Ezequiel Astacio, and Humberto Quintero. Thus, I present to you your 2005 Opening Day Houston Astros roster:

Pitchers (11): Oswalt, Pettitte, Clemens, Backe, Duckworth, Lidge, Qualls, Wheeler, Harville, Springer, Franco

Catchers (2): Ausmus, Chavez

Infielders (8): Bagwell, Biggio, Everett, Ensberg, Burke, Bruntlett, Vizcaino, Lamb

Outfielders (4): Scott, Taveras, Lane, Palmeiro

DL (15-day): Berkman

I know the 'official' roster has Biggio listed as an OF, but I think it's clear he's going to start at 2B by now, and our 5th OF (though I hope this never happens) would probably be a mix of Biggio / Bruntlett / Burke / Lamb...yow. That's some bad defense.

Don't get too worked up about Astacio being sent down (by the way, I watched the 2nd half of the game last night, and while the Astros bats were shut out, I saw Astacio for the first time, and he looked GOOD - nice, easy motion, good fastball, good off-speed stuff.), because the Astros won't need a 5th starter until April 19, I believe, so that should give Astacio time for a few starts at AAA, and Duckworth can work in a middle relief / spot starter role, and winner takes all when we need a 5th starter. I'm hoping Astacio does well but stays in AAA until a late call-up in August / September for a few starts; that way, he doesn't lose a year of eligibility towards free agency and he's set up well for next year.

So I can't really argue with any of the roster moves. I'm glad that Burke / Taveras / Scott all made the team, and I hope they all get plenty of playing time before Berkman gets back. If you had told me at the start of this offseason that this would be our roster, I would have been ok with it EXCEPT for the back of our bullpen. Russ Springer and John Franco????? Yeah, those Turk Wendell and Dave Burba signings worked out really well, huh? Man, I can't believe we coudln't sign one more solid reliever. Chris Hammond / Osuna / Steve Reed / Jeff Nelson....gah. I hope Springer and Franco make me eat my words, but one more solid reliever really would have helped.

One thing we have plenty of is depth. Bruntlett has played every position but C, Viz can handle all 4 infield spots, Burke can play 2B / SS / OF, and Lamb can play 3B / 1B / OF. That doesn't mean those guys are GOOD at every position, but they can play there. And Burke / Lamb / Palmeiro / Viz / Bruntlett is actually a pretty good group of pinch-hitters - Burke and Lamb could both be regulars, Palmeiro posts a respectable OBP, Viz can switch hit and GIDP, and Bruntlett has a little power. The deep bench is important, particularly for a team that looks like it's going to start Everett, Taveras, Ausmus, and a pitcher in the batting lineup. This means a LOT of pressure is going to be on Biggio / Bagwell / Lane / Ensberg / Scott, particularly without Berkman. Those 5 guys need to get off to a hot offensive start, or we could find ourselves out of contention before the month is up.

The only question left is: who goes down when Berkman comes back? Well, it probably comes down to Taveras, Scott, and Burke. In my opinion it absolutely CANNOT be Chris Burke - the guy tore up AAA last year, and needs to play. Hopefully one of Taveras / Scott is clearly better than the other, so it's not a tough decision, but if Taveras gets sent down, that makes our OF Scott / Lane / Berkman, which sounds pretty damn bad defensively, so I think Scott needs to outplay Taveras by a pretty good margin, because Taveras would BY FAR the best fit in CF.

Since we've got our roster, we can pretty safely predict our OD lineup as:

Adam Everett
Craig Biggio
Jeff Bagwell
Morgan Ensberg
Jason Lane
Luke Scott
Willy Taveras
Brad Ausmus
Roy Oswalt

That's...not a lot of offense. With that same roster, I would probably go for

(that might be the worst 6-9 ever)

but it really doesn't matter much over the long run. What DOES matter is we have 4 guys in that lineup who will almost certainly not have a .350 OBP: Everett, Biggio, Taveras, Ausmus. We need Berkman back, and fast, and we need 2003 Ensberg and a big year from Lane.

Well, that's about it. My overall thoughts on the offseason are we blew it with the Beltran 'deadline' (should have set it a month earlier so it didn't cost up every other good FA), a soft market for relievers, but the deals to Clemens / Oswalt / Berkman were solid.

Friday, April 01, 2005

I'd like to talk about baseball today. I really would. But I can't. Here's why:

About 5pm last night, I decided to play a 50-dollar entry fee poker tournament at Party Poker. I didn't have much planned for the night, and I need a break from 'limit' games. So I sign up, along with 419 other people, and start playing with 800 chips. I'm doing decently well when I get a call from the math lab that I work at. They need me to come in to proctor a make-up test for one of my students. DAMN! I give JT a call, hoping he can play the tournament for me, but he's not there. So I figure, what the heck, I'll just go all-in next hand, 'cause I have to go. So I go all in with Q10 of diamonds. Two guys call. One has AK. One has JJ. A queen comes on the flop. I triple up. I can't make this stuff up, I swear. Only then do I realize I can click on 'away' and it will just post my blinds for me, so I'll stay in the tourney. I finally reach JT as I'm driving to the lab, and he agrees to play for me until I get back (basically sacrificing a fantasy baseball draft to do so.) At this point I have about 1400 chips.

While I'm in the lab my roommate Mike calls, and basically orders me to go sake-bombing with him. I try and argue, but to no avail. JT calls me every 10 mins or so for an update - he doubles up with 99 vs. 68, then takes a bad beat after having the nut straight with AK (the board pairs on the river, giving an all-in guy a full house), then doubles up again, I think.

Finally I get home, and take over with about 4100 in chips. The 2nd hand I play I have 99, and double up when the flop comes 743 and some guy with AK pushes all-in. Then I don't get any decent hands for about 30 mins to an hour, putting me down to around 5600 in chips. Todd's also started watching me and giving me occasional advice (along with JT) on IM. Then I win a few hands, and I'm at right around 17000 or so with the blinds getting pretty rough (maybe 800/1600 or 1000 /2000) when the following hand happens. I have 77 UTG (this means I'm the first to act - the blinds are to my right). I raise to about 5000, I think, and everyone folds....until the small blind, one of the chip leaders, raises to 20,000, easily enough to put me all-in. I think...and think...and think. JT is unsure - Todd says call. I think it's probably a coin flip situation, meaning he has two overcards: AK, AQ, AJ, KQ, etc. But if he has a higher pair, I'm a huge underdog. I finally decide to call based on Todd's advice and the fact that I've already put in about 1/3 of my stack. My opponent flips over AK, and my 77 holds up. I double up to about 35K!

Then I play pretty tight for a while again, as it's getting close to the final table (maybe 20 guys left or so). Then I have 88 in middle position, raise to around 10000 or so (I think the blinds were 1500/3000, maybe 2000/4000 at this point), get called by the guy immediately to my left, then the big blind(a very loose and aggressive player) raises to 17000. I call, thinking of pot odds, and so does the guy on my left. The flop comes 227, with 2 diamonds. In other words, the perfect flop for me, since I've almost surely got the best hand, unless someone has a pocket pair higher than 88 (unlikely), or a 2 (even more unlikely) or 77 (no WAY). So I go all in for the rest of my chips. The guy on my left RAISES to around 50K. The big blind folds, and the raiser flips over A6 of diamonds! So he went all-in on just a draw, although a pretty good draw. But no ace and no diamonds come, and I double up to around 80,000! Huge pot for me.

Then I play pretty tight, and eventually (it takes a long time) we get down to the final table, the last 10 players. I'm either the chip leader or close to it - I can't exactly remember. I don't get many good hands for a long time, but a few other guys get knocked out, and it gets down to 5 players or so. Then I knock a guy out when I go all-in with AQ and he calls with A5. See ya. Then it gets down to 3, and the more dangerous opponent gets knocked out by a tight but not-aggressive player on a KK (dangerous player) vs. AA (tight player) hand. Remember this.

So now it's heads up, me vs. a guy that I'm pretty sure I can beat, although he has me outchipped around 280,000 to 140,000. We battle back and forth a bit, and then I'm dealt AA in the big blind. He minimum raises to 16,000 (blinds are 4K / 8K at this point). I raise to 50,000. He goes all-in!! I take a little while, savoring the moment, and then call. He flips over KK!! Tough luck for him, but no K comes, and I double up, and am now in a commanding chip lead, around 350,000 to 60,000. We go back-and-forth a bit, then I put him all-in with AJ, he calls with K6, and he hits a straight on the river - but I hit a flush on the river! So, in summary:

50+5 dollar entry fee
420 entrants
1st place pays $5250.

So I went from trying to leave this tournament to winning the whole thing, and making a cool $5200 in the process. After paying JT (after all, he did play for me for a while) and Todd (for the advice, especially on the 77 hand), I shouldn't have to worry about rent for a little while.

Anyway, I was pretty happy, and I still can't completely believe it. Gotta go teach - thanks again to everyone that helped out. Later.