GAME 4 - April 9: Phillies 8, Astros 0
GAME 5 - April 10: Phillies 9, Astros 6
When Elizabeth and I were down in Florida for Spring Training, we took advantage of an off day to go to the beach. It was a little cool for swimming, but just fine for making the peculiar form of sand castle that we devised in our childhood Sundays at Galveston beach -- the drip castle. Here's how to make one: You start by digging a hole in the sand. Pile up the sand you dig out on the land side of the hole, as a base for your structure. (That way the hole becomes a moat when the tide comes in.) When you get down to water in the bottom of the hole, you can start dripping the watery sand on your structure to create turrets and buttresses and all kind of other sandy gingerbread. It results in a very organic kind of a structure - more like a mountain range than a castle.
Like everything in the real estate business, it's all about location, location, location. You need to dig far enough from the waterline so that your structure doesn't get washed away, but close enough that you'll get water in the bottom of the hole without having to dig too deeply. I didn't gauge the location decision quite right down in Florida - our first attempt was too far up and we had to dig down a couple of feet before we got enough water in the hole to start making drips. If I'd realized how far it would be, I probably would have changed the plans earlier, but I kept thinking we were on the verge of hitting water any minute. We weren't. Eventually we abandoned the site, and started over closer to the water. There we hit water quickly and succeeded in creating a nice little drippy castle before the incoming tide caused it to collapse - the problem with being too close to the water.
Somewhere in this beach story, there's a metaphor for the Astros losing their first 5 games of the season, digging themselves a hole that's getting deeper and deeper. It's not time for doom and gloom - it is highly unlikely that they can sustain their perfect record for a whole season. It is, after all, still the first week of the season. On the other hand, these games do count just as much as the ones in September. At some point a little before the All Star game, we'll all be thinking about what it will take to get back up to .500 -- a preliminary step before we can count on our traditional strong finish to get us into the playoffs. And each one of these first-week losses is another game under .500 to dig out of.
I'm not sure what lesson the Astros could take from my castle building. It's not as if they have been stubbornly clinging to the same losing pattern, game after game. Each game has featured different lineups, as well as rotating pitchers. But each game has also had the same result - not even close to a winning outcome. The early games featured solid pitching - quality starts from the top of our rotation and good relief pitching. The later games showed less and less solid pitching from both starters and bullpen.
But all of the games were notable for ineffective offense. Even Saturday night's 5-run third inning was kind of lucky - the pitcher hit a two-out double to start a rally that included 2 homers and gave the Astros their first lead of the season. They eked out another run in the ninth. But aside from that, there were 7 goose eggs to add to the 9 from Friday night's shutout. Very similar pattern to the first two games against the Giants when the Astros didn't score in 17 of their 18 innings.
Another odd pattern: In their first 5 games, the Astros have a total of 5 BBs. The next lowest team in the walk category has more than double that number, and the Phillies have over 30. Does this mean that the Astros are being directed to be aggressive at the plate? Are they just trying too hard? Somehow it doesn't seem like a GOOD thing - a walk is just as good as a single for getting a runner to first base. Berkman would likely have had more than 5 BBs all by himself, but he's going to be on the DL until after the upcoming road trip.
I don't know why the BB stat bugs me so much. There are other distressing offensive stats: The Astros are in the league cellar for on base percent (.249) -- 20 points below the next worst Padres (.269), in part a reflection of that lack of walks. The Astros are in last place in the NL in slugging (.320), compared to the next worst Brewers (.356) and best in league Phillies (.540). They did not get their first home runs until yesterday's pair of dingers from Michaels and Pence, 5 games into the season. They are the only team in the NL with no stolen bases, in part a reflection of the lack of opportunity. Oddly, in the team stats, the top three batting averages are held by Houston starting pitchers (Wandy, Paulino, and Myers), who each got a hit and ended up batting .500. Maybe they thought if they didn't hit, no one else would either.
On the pitching side, the Astros are tied with the Nationals for giving up the most runs (35). No Astros starting pitcher has a WHIP under 1.50. Opposing batters are hitting .350 against Astros pitchers, compared to .315 for the Nats, and .190 for the Braves. On base percent against our pitchers is .411, with only the Nats at .419 worse. Our starting pitchers are averaging just over 5 innings per start; again only the Nats are worse. As a Washington-area resident, I can tell you that being categorized with the Nationals for anything this season is not a good place to be. But even the Nats have a couple of wins so far. Why not us? Are we digging our hole too deep in the wrong place?
The only bright spot in the stats seems to be in our improved infield defense. The Astros 9 double plays so far are next to the best in the league, and probably account for why we aren't absolute bottom in some of those pitching categories. As a team, we only have 3 errors, and 2 of those were misplays by pitchers. I have to look for a bright spot somewhere.
I'm not going to bother looking for something to like in Friday night's shutout. I didn't bother to go back and watch it after the Sabbath ended. I really hate being on the wrong end of a shutout. Saturday's game had some likable moments - especially the five-run blitz in the third, which happened before I turned on the computer after the Sabbath ended. Michaels, who got a start in center field, hit the first Astros homer of the season, followed shortly after by a long ball from Pence. But all the fun was initially kicked off by a 2-out double by Paulino - I always like it when a pitcher helps himself at the plate.
It was more than Paulino did for himself on the mound, though - he gave up 4 ER on 4 hits and 4 walks, in 5 innings. That was not the worst performance by an pitcher wearing the Astros '65 retro jersey last night: Honors go to Brandon Lyon, whose 3-run seventh inning blew the Astros' tenuous lead and earned him the loss. He got 2 quick outs, then walked Utley on a 3-2 pitch, and it was downhill from there - a home run and 3 singles put the Astros behind for good. There are a lot of people who wonder how it is that Lyon is worth the $15M deal he got, and yesterday's game didn't buy him much good will in those circles. The Astros other off-season pitching deal, Matt Lindstrom, didn't fare much better, giving up a two-run home in the ninth. But the damage was already done. The Astros had a little rally in the bottom of the ninth, with Bourn's pinch-hit double, scoring on Michaels' single, but it fizzled when Pence struck out swinging.
While I'm on the theme of hole-digging and implosions, here's a bit of nostalgia for Texas sports fans: The demolition of Texas Stadium early this morning. (You can watch the video here.) I wasn't ever in this stadium, and I'm not a Cowboys fan (although I used to fib that Bob Lilly was my cousin when I lived in Texas), but it was still kind of sad to watch the stadium go down. That ugly domed profile reminded me a bit of the Astrodome, which may eventually have a similar poignant and dusty moment of its own. I see that there's a petition on the web to save the Astrodome, but I'm not sure that the expense of keeping it around for the occasional hurricane housing justifies the cost. Perhaps they'll blow it up as part of the Astros 50 year anniversary party in 2012. I'd sure go down to Houston to watch that!
Oswalt on the mound at 2 my time. Time for a bit of gardening, before I come in to watch Houston win its first game of the season. Ever the optimist. Didn't you hear? We're going to win the pennant!