HOUSTON -- If the Astros have their way, there will be plenty more nights like these. There will be more clutch home runs like the one Rick Ankiel cranked, more timely triples like the two Justin Maxwell tallied, more strong pitching performances like those Bud Norris and Erik Bedard turned in and more sellout crowds to boost the boys along.
The Astros, the new kids on the block in the rough-and-tumble American League West, played the kind of flawless and carefree baseball first-year manager Bo Porter has preached for nearly two months, and on Sunday night at an electric Minute Maid Park in the first game of the 2013 Major League Baseball season, they weren't going to be pushed around.
Ankiel came off the bench and blasted a three-run home run in the sixth inning -- the first by an Astros player in the AL -- that proved to be the knockout blow in the Astros' scintillating 8-2 win over the division-rival Rangers that was not only the franchise's 4,000th win, but its first Opening Day win since 2006.
"It's obviously a great feat for the organization, being the 4,000th win in franchise history, and our first win as an American League team," Porter said, "but I'm more excited for the fans of Houston to get an opportunity to witness all the hard work in which the 25 men in that locker room have put in all spring and I'm happy for the guys in the clubhouse because they worked extremely hard for this night. It was good to see hard work pay off."
The Astros couldn't have scripted it any better. They jumped on the Rangers -- the AL bullies from 250 miles up north -- for a 4-0 lead and held off a sixth-inning surge before closing the door, thanks to Ankiel's homer and 3 1/3 scoreless innings by Bedard that netted his first career save.
|Justin Maxwell||HOU||March 31, 2013||TEX|
|Tony Pena||KC||April 2, 2007||BOS|
|Tommy Henrich||NYY||April 18, 1950||BOS|
|Arky Vaughan||PIT||April 15, 1941||CHC|
|Bubbles Hargrave||CIN||April 15, 1924||PIT|
|Tillie Walker||BOS||April 11, 1917||NYY|
When Bedard got Mitch Moreland to ground out to second baseman Jose Altuve to end the game, the Astros -- coming off a club-record 107-loss season -- were on top of the baseball world.
"It was exciting," Norris said. "We've made a lot of changes for the organization, and to be here through thick and think has been great. To get that first win for Skip and with our new logo and in the American League, it's obviously a great feeling and we're excited to keep going and keep playing. That's a great ballclub over there, and we're excited with one win."
This was a special night, not only for Porter and general manager Jeff Luhnow, but for everyone involved in the organization. It was an unforgettable night for Norris, who took pride in throwing out the team's first AL pitch, and for Ankiel, the journeyman pitcher-turned-outfielder who sat out the second half last year.
None of that was going through Ankiel's head in the sixth inning, when he pinch-hit for Brandon Barnes and belted a 3-2 pitch from Rangers reliever Derek Lowe high over the wall in right field for a three-run homer that put the Astros ahead, 7-2.
"We all felt like we were going win it at that point," Ankiel said.
Ankiel, a non-roster invitee to Spring Training who was given a second chance by Porter and Luhnow, became the first player to hit a homer in his first plate appearance with the Astros since Maxwell did it a year ago. Later, he called the moment "unbelievable."
"When I first hit it, I hit it high, and to myself I was like, 'I got that, it's going to happen,'" Ankiel said. "After that, it's indescribable. It's an emotional roller coaster and a high you don't want to end. I'll never forget it, that's for sure."
Ankiel is now 5-for-11 with three homers and nine RBIs in his career against Lowe.
"History shows he gives me fits," Lowe said. "A 3-2 pitch, I was trying to throw more further inside with a right-hander up next. I was trying to stay inside the whole time. It was the third breaking ball he had seen. I've got to make a better pitch."
For all the heroics provided by Ankiel and Bedard, Norris did his part by holding the Rangers to five hits and two earned runs in 5 2/3 innings. He survived a tedious fifth inning and carried a shutout into the sixth before back-to-back RBI singles by David Murphy and Nelson Cruz cut the lead to 4-2.
Maxwell played the role of hero, too, going 2-for-3 with two runs scored, two triples, two RBIs and a pair of highlight-reel catches -- a diving snag in center in the third and a leaping catch against the left-center-field wall in the ninth.
"Strong pitching, great defense and timely hitting. That's a pretty good recipe for winning in baseball," said Maxwell, who knocked in the first two runs of the season.
With runners at first and second base and two outs in the fourth against Rangers starter Matt Harrison, Maxwell hit a high fly ball to left field that struck a ledge on the manual scoreboard and popped high into the air. Brett Wallace and Carlos Pena scored, and Maxwell was at third with a triple.
"It definitely broke the ice," Maxwell said. "Harrison was dealing at the time and had a bunch of strikeouts. Wally and Pena put two good at-bats before me, and it was nice to get us on the board at that time."
Perhaps this is the start of something big in Houston and for the Astros, who have rebranded their image, changed leagues and managers and can only hope now to change their fortunes. For one night, it all worked.
"It was an electric atmosphere, and you take your hat off to the fans in Houston," Porter said. "They came out tonight in great numbers and gave us a lot of support. We really thank them. The guys responded. Mentally, they were locked in, they were focused, they were ready to go and Bud Norris was outstanding, and Bedard picked us up in a crucial situation and we were able to close it out."