It's official: Baseball season is upon us.
The rents and I drove down to Minute Maid today to watch Vanderbilt play in the Houston College Classic and to check out the Astros Fan Fest going on around the park.
Vandy beat ASU on the most ridiculous game-ending play I have ever seen. It was an exciting, well-coached and well-played game throughout. The Sun Devils started hot, just like they did against Texas A&M on Friday. It was 3-0 before we even found our seats (which were incredible: 12 rows behind the home dugout). After a few futile innings against ASU's crafty lefty, Vandy scored a couple in the 3rd and 4th. I missed a few of the middle innings because I was listening to Drayton, Phil, Tim and Milo talk Astros, which was insightful and HILARIOUS! (Much more on this later…).
Vandy thirdbaseman (and future All-Star) Pedro Alvarez crushed a two-run bomb in the seventh to put Vandy up 6-5. But ASU came right back with a somewhat controversial run in the top of the eighth: With runners on second and third and one out, RF/P Ike Davis lined a hot shot into center. Vandy CF David Macias made a spectacular diving play coming straight in. It was a questionable catch, though, as all the ASU fans were saying it was a trap. Macias held up his glove to signal the catch; meanwhile, the Sun Devil's leadoff man, 2B Eric Sogard, scampered home from third for the tying run. This was also questionable: All the Vandy fans thought he tagged much too early. They tried to check at third, but the appeal was denied. In either case, It really was bang-bang in both places, the catch and the tag-up, so I think the umps got it right.
Vandy almost won it in the bottom of the ninth. With runners on first and second and one out, the ASU thirdbasemen made a great diving grab on a sharp grounder from RF Dominic de la Osa, then had the agility to get up, step on third (he was playing close to the lne to prevent a double), and throw to first for the double play. Great move.
Meanwhile, Vandy closer Casey Weathers mowed down the Sun Devils in the 9th and 10th. Oh, and it was getting pretty late in the day: The Houston-A&M game was supposed to start at 3:30 p.m., but the bottom of the 10th was just getting started around 4 p.m. I figured if Vandy didn't score in the 10th, the umps would have called it a tie.
Luckily, they did score. With one out, Candy DH Matt Menigasner smacked a ball into the gap in left-center. It rolled all the way to the bullpen under the fuel pump, and Meingasner high-tailed it into third. Vandy put pinch-runner on third, and ASU decided to walk the next batter, 1B Brad French. Don't know if they were going to walk one more to load the bases. And I guess we'll never know …
ASU had brought in their huge RF, Ike Davis, to pitch in the 9th inning. He induced the double-play to third. But apparently big Ike isn't known for his command, as he sailed an intentional ball over the catcher's head! Pinch-runner Jonathan White broke for home as ASU catcher Petey Paramore collected the wild pitch and fired it in to Davis covering home. It was CLOSE at home, but White's head-frist slide barely beat Davis' tag. What an ending! Unbelieveable. Incredible. And the best.
Right, so I should mention meeting the Astros brass. I actually didn't know Purpura, McLane, Garner and Milo were going to be discussing the Astros in the left-field concourse; I was walking around looking for programs for the college games. But I hear some dudes with microphones and — Bam — there they are. Milo was nuts as usual, tellng several crazy stories about players and other personnel. He referred to Carlos Lee as Carlos May, and asked if Garner was going to carry 10 or 11 pitchers. But hey, Milo's the coolest, so I let it slide. I took some notes on my cell-phone during their talk, and here's what they had to say:
• They're all excited about Burke finally getting a chance to play a whole season. Garner said "Burke's gonna play all the time" in center.
• Garner can't say enough about Carlos May — er — Lee. He said Lee is the type of player who knows the situation every time he comes to the plate. He's not always thinking about hitting a home run. If there's a way to drive in a run — sometimes without getting a hit — Carlos knows how to do it. Garner mentioned that it's no coincidence that he's driven in 100+ runs all those years. Sure, he's hit in the middle of potent orders, but it takes a certain type of player to know HOW to drive in runs. I guess I see his point.
• Milo told the most HILARIOUS story I've heard about the Stros in a long time. Milo accompanied the team on its caravan acros southeast Texas. They stopped by Temple, Round Rock, College Station (unfortunately, I didn't have time to go). Anyway, they stopped at Fort Hood and a few of them tried their hand at the tank similuators they run for soldiers there. Milo was the tank driver for Brandon Backe. Watch out, insurgents. So they're driving around in this simulation, looking for enemies (in red) while trying to protect their teammates (in white). "Well, I be durned if that Luke Scott isn't colorblind," Milo says. "Brandon and I get obliterated, and we don't know why. So we get out of the simulator, and Luke Scott has the biggest grin on his face. He's gone and killed us all!" Oh, man. That Luke Scott. Good thing he carries around a gun with him.
• Garner and Purpura are real excited about Matt Albers. Say that he's made a turning point in his professional career. That he wasn't fully committed to baseball, but now he's developed a strong work ethic and great attitude and will make a fine addition to the Astros clubhouse. They mentioned he was in the running for the 4th and 5th starter positions, along with Nieve, Sampson and Moehler. (They didn't mention Wandy's name!)
• Milo made fun of Drayton's high-school basketball days in Temple. Says they stopped by the historic gym where Drayton played. "And saw the bench where he sat during every game." Oh, Milo.
• Garner said Lincoln Holdzkom is humongous. Like he's got football pads on his shoulders. And he was hitting the high 90s.
• Alyson Footer is pretty cute. Just thought I'd throw that one in there.
• Oh, Tim said he'd "lifted the viel" on Garner even thinking about Troy Patton. Garner apparently has a man-crush on the big lefty, and with good reason. Garner said when he was managing Los Tigres, Patton was a better pitcher in high-school than the entire Tigers pitching staff. Ouch. Patton and Pence were invited to major-league spring training in Kissimmee. It's doubtful either will make the opening-day roster, but it will be a good chance to see how they handle major-league competition.
• Drayton assured the fans that Biggio would get his 3,000th hit at home. Garner also mentioned that Biggio would get more rest throughout the season, with many of his off-days coming on the road. Good thinking, Phil.
• Milo screamed "Santo Toledo" a few times. That was fun.
• Tim and Phil expressed their fondness of Hidalgo. Tim recalled personally wheeling Hidalgo in a wheelchair outside the brand-new Enron Field after Hidalgo had broken a bone in his hand. Tim also said that Hidalgo's one of the classiest, most humble people in baseball, and he was so proud of his comeback. It sounds like everyone in the organization is rooting for him. Sorry, Jason.
• Garner said if the season started today, he would carry 12 pitchers. 'I just don't see any way we can't carry 12," he said. Hmm. A little math: 12 pitchers, 8 starting position players. That leaves 5 bench players: Lamb, Palmeiro, Loretta, back-up catcher (Quintero/Gimenez). So basically, there's one spot left for Bruntlett, Lane and Hidalgo. Yikes. My vote's for Hidalgo, but who can play center if Burke goes down? Can Luke Scott shift over with Hidalgo in RF? Who knows.
• Garner said his opening-day line-up is this: Biggio, Burke, Berkman, Lee, Ensberg, Scott, Everett, Ausmus, Oswalt. Meh.
• Finally, I get up to the microphone during the Q&A session. I ask 2 questions for everyone: 1) How do yall feel about Hunter Pence and Brooks Conrad, and 2) What's to be done about the catching situation (i.e. how can we get more offensive production there). In response to the first question, Tim and Phil talk for a few minutes about Pence and how Bagwell says he's gonna be the next big thing. The next generation funky-swinger. No one even mentions Brooks Conrad. In response to the second, Phil says he was really impressed by one guy at the pitchers and catchers mini-camp last week. It wasn't Quintero. Or Gimenez or J.R. Towles. It was 2006 first-round pick Max Sapp. First of all, great name. But Garner went on about how this guy is the real deal. He can throw, hit for average and power, and is generally a great guy. So ... yeah. Garner also mentioned that one of the hardest things to do in baseball was to develop and keep great catchers. That it really is the most unique position in the game. With which I concur.
I guess that's all the good stuff. We stayed for the first few innings of the A&M-Houston game, but left in the third. What a day. the Juicebox looks great, although the 'Eat Mor Fowl' signs on the foul poles look pretty stupid. Oh, we saw Jason Lane and Charlton Jimerson signing autographs. And Bagwell was doing a photo-shoot for half an hour. He looked pretty good. All in all, a great day. I picked up a copy of Baseball America magazine, and they rank the NL Central's farm system. I'll have to post about that tomorrow.