Monday, April 24, 2006

Sorry for the delay in my write-up of the Buchholz game on Saturday. I think I'm still stunned by it. Actually, I spent a lot of the weekend helping the parents pack for their move out to Flagstaff. I also didn't go to the Sunday afternoon game, mostly because I knew there was no way it could top Saturday's game.

My drive to The Woodlands was somewhat delayed by Friday night beer pong with some A&M friends. We'll just say I'm glad it was a night game. Barstool and I left the Wade house with plenty of time — a good thing since we hit traffic on I-45. Still got to The Juicebox an hour before first pitch (I had wanted to catch some of BP, but my hangover and my general tardiness prevented that). We walked around the stadium for a bit to soak up the atmosphere — it had been almost a year since I last visited Minute Maid. We saw all the new attractions: the '05 NL Pennant banner underneath the railroad tracks (it's black unlike all the brick red WC and NL Central banners), the new Coke sign under the scoreboard, the updated pictures of various Astros painted on random support columns (My favorite is Ensberg with his arms in the air, yelling with delight... you think he knows about these? and is he embarassed?). We got some ice cream to ward off the heat, and found our seats... row 5 of the upper deck directly behind home plate: we had a perfect view to tell if pitches were inside or outside (and lemme tell you, I was plenty of called strikes that seemed to be a foot outside). We missed the national anthem and barely sat down before the first pitch.

And then Buchholz went nuts.

Nine up, nine down to start the game. The first inning was actually kind of scary: Duffy smacked a ball hard to Everett, who had to make a good play spinning to his left to nab it. Jack Wilson then cracked a liner up the middle that Buchholz snared on one hop. It wasn't nearly the best comebacker caught by pitchers this week — there were plenty of them to go around — but it was a fine play by Buchholz to rob WIlson of a hit. And then Bay hit a bmob to center. I thought it was gone off the bat, but watched as Taveras twisted and turned his way backwards... running right, running left, finally catching the ball on Tal's Hill, a mere 420 feet away from home plate. Yikes.

But he settled down after that. Hit Duffy leading off the fourth, but induced Wilson into the double play. In the fifth, Burnitz hit a sharp single to right that Biggio really didn't have a play on. If he were for some reason at double-play depth, it would've been right to him... but oh well. Of course, no one thought at the time that it'd be the only hit Taylor would give up until the 9th inning!

Meanwhile, the offense took advantage of some sloppy defense in the first inning to get on the board. Biggio led off the Astros' first by popping out to center. I had already looked away, when Barstool elbowed me. "Wait! Oh! Ooooh!" The crowd was reacting the same way... lauhging and then cheering at Chris Duffy misplay of the easy pop fly. He had broken back initially, and it took him a few seconds to realize it was coming in shallow. Duffy's a fast litle guy, and just about had a chance to mae a diving play on it, but let it fall in at the last second. Yay.

Next, Willy T (who might be mistaken for Barstool next time out.. that's right, Barstool will soon own a Taveras jersey) slapped a ball between first and second. Castillo, who had been at double-play depth, ran back into right field and couldn't catch up to it. So two potential outs turned into two soft singles. And here comes Berkman!

And there goes Berkman. GIDP. Shit. But Ensberg comes through with a solid base knock to center with two strikes on him! 1-0 good guys! Snell was almost as good as Buchholz for the next three innings. Lane walked but was stranded. Berkman singled and Ensberg walked, but Preston struck out swinging. Thankfully, the crowd held its boos. His slump has been pretty bad over the past two weeks, but all ballplayers go through that. And I don't want to be put on the same level as Mets or Cubs fans, who boo their own players. That's not classy. Besides, with two outs, a punch out there is the exact same as if he were robbed of a home run. So the K wasn't so bad. And, for the most part, aren't bad in general.

In the fifth, Biggio hit his 611th career double, and it went where at least 90 percent of his doubles go: down the left-field line. I don't know if defenses ever put on a shift for a right-handed hitter, but Biggio almost always pulls the ball, and usually right down the line. In any case, Biggio is good. Swinging at everything, but still... he's going crazy right now. He adjusted the positioning of his hands after watching videos of at-bats in which he struggled. Since then, he's gone 16-for-26 with 4 doubles, three homers, seven RBI and eight runs. That boosted his OPS from .579 to 1.009. He's gotta be player of the week (if not for his teammate...). Willy T chopped one to third and beat out Randa's throw. First and third, one out (Buchholz K'd) and Berkman coming up!

And this time, he does his job... by crushing a ball to center. Like Bay's ball, I thought Berkman's was gone. But he just got uner it, and Duffy caught it on the warning track near the Astros' bullpen. Biggio trotted home for run number two.

Two innings later, Biggio hits a sharp line drive off lefty reliever John Grabow. It's going right toward Bay in left. "Get over his head," I shout. Bay had backpedaled, but soon turned around to play it off the scoreboard. "Alright!" I thought. "Another double for Bidge!" But I was way off... the ball snuck into the first row of the Crawford boxes for a homer! Biggio scores his third run of the game, the Astros' only ones. Wily T and Berkman hit solid singles immediately after, and Ensberg walked against reliever Salomon Torres, who's actually pretty good. Bases loaded, one out for Preston! I lean over to Barstool: "Man, this would be the perfect way to break out of his slump. Just an easy single. Or even a deep fly ball. Anything to get him started." Of course, it's a situation where a K is awful. But Preston didn't K — he grounded into the easy double play. The struggles continue (and he did draw a few boos). Personally, I was just glad he made contact.

Oh yeah, did I mention Buchholz was cruising? Duffy got on in the fourth via HBP but was erased on Wilson's GIDP. After Burnitz's single in the fifth, Buchholz was perfect! No baserunners! Nada! Craig Wilson came up in the eighth. By this time, fans were starting to realize what the kid had going. They were really cheering him on. And when Wilson smacked a liner into left, you could hear the crowd draw a collective breath... before Wilson layed out and snagged it! A great play... one of several he's made this year that Berkman (and probably Burke) couldn't have made. Great defensive play, and the crowd really appreciated the effort.

Here's where the game got intense. Keep in mind, the Astros' lead was a slim one, 3-0. Buchholz quickly gets Freddy Sanchez to ground out to Everett, who, charging, somehow manages to juggle it over his head a few times before firing it to first just in time. For a relatively easy play, Everett sure made it look tough! Next up, Nate McLouth, who strikes out on a full count!. I don't think I've ever been so nervous for a pitcher the way I was for Buchholz. I mean, I'm pretty much always nervous for Lidge, and I've seen a few gems in my day (including Julian Tavarez taking a no-hitter into the seventh... for the Cubs), but never something like this. The stadium was shaking. everyone was on their feet, willing Buchholz to get one more out

A grounder to second! Bruntlett's got it! He..... fires! ..... wait..... WHAT?!? ..... he dropped it! ...... now he's got it! ...... he fires it! ...... Berkman's got it! ....... NOOOO!!! Ump said safe!! Berkman hops off the bag in a rage! The crowd, which had been cheering like crazy, turns its ire onto the ump. Or Bruntlett, who must've felt two feet small. Booms echo through the stadium! The fireworks are going off! And not just one or two, but an entire display. It must've lasted 30 seconds! Personally, I couldn't help but laugh. I mean, either way, this is something Buchholz will remember forever (as well as most of the fans), and it really makes you realize that baseball is really a game, and sometimes crazy stuff like this happens, and it's all fun.

So shake it off, big guy! Let's just get Wilson here... the one-hitter's still inta---- Nope. Wilson singles to left. Up walks Jason Bay! This game suddenly went from a once-in-a-lifetime event to a possible extra-inning affair in a matter of seconds. Out walks Garner. He doesn't even hesitate when he points his right hand to the bullpen. Lidge.

Lidge said after the game he didn't want to pitch. It sounded weird hearing him say that... but I know what he meant. He wanted Buchholz to go all the way. But despite the crowd's boos, I think it was a smart move. Wilson's single was sharp, and you don't go for sentimentality when a game hangs in the balance. Lidge comes in and immediately gets behind Bay, something he's done quite a bit of late. The old throw-it-two-feet outside routine. But Lidge comes back to a full count and gets Bay looking to end it! Booyah.

Eight and two-thirds of two-hit ball by the youngster! That's something you don't see everyday. I had a hard time seeing his pitches from my angle, but on the replays, his curve looked unhittable. He made Bay and a few others look silly trying to put feeble swings on that curve after they already knew it was too late. And i saw a few 94 mph heaters from the big guy.

After the game, Barstool and I headed down to the dugout to see Buchholz's interview. He came hopping out of the dugout to sit on the field level like he was still walking on air. There were probably 100 or 200 people who hung around to applaud him, and we let him have it when he first came out. He was only a few feet away, and boy did he look scrawny! He's listed at 6'4" and 220 pounds, but that's rather generous. I think I'm taller (6'2") and weigh more (180). He talked for a good five minutes, interspersed with interrupting applause and chants from the crowd.

It was a great day for Buchholz, and a great day to be an Astros fan.

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