Point of reference: Houston ended last April a pathetic 7-17 and fell behind the Rangers by seven games. The year, the Astros breezed through a 16-9 April and held a five-game lead on our northern neighbors before Monday night's contest at Minute Maid.
Players mingle on the mound
(c) Omnisport, UK
Houston catcher Brian McCann is the Sonny Corleone of baseball catchers which is one reason why the Astros acquired the aging and expensive backstop from the Yankees. Houston's PR theme this year is "Earn It", but for the Rangers it ought to be "To The Mattresses" and the Astros are serving notice they won't be pushed around this year after dropping 15 of 19 to the Rangers a year ago.
Before 22,556, McCann and fiery Lance McCullers played sheriff while their teammates exploded for five runs in the seventh to grab a 6-2 victory in the opener of the season series.
The fireworks began just before that when McCullers buzzed one behind Mike Napoli's back. Was it revenge for Ranger starter Andrew Cashner plunking Jose Altuve and Yuli Gurriel earlier in the contest? Was it Revenge for Napoli's homer in the fourth of McCullers that snapped a 1-1 tie? Or did an inside fastball just "get away", as McCullers explained afterwards, that sailed behind Napoli?
Once the uncorked pitch had passed, Napoli took steps toward the mound and McCullers woofed toward the plate. Up stepped McCann to get between them and George Springer dashed in to push McCullers away. Then the benches emptied and then the bullpens emptied but the message, intended or not, had been sent.
Nobody was ejected and only warnings were sent. The next inning, the bats went to work.
Alex Bregman, who later admitted to a "rookie mistake" posting a tweet before the game which became bulletin board fodder for the Rangers. Bregman, who attended LSU, also misspelled a word.
He made amends in the seventh by drawing a leadoff walk against Cashner. Nori Aoki bounced a chopper that shortstop Elvis Andrus misplayed. With both in scoring position, Tony Barnette replaced Cashner and Springer greeted him with an infield hit that tied the game.
One out later, Altuve spanked a double to left that put the Astros ahead to stay. Carlos Correa then lauched a two-run double before Gurriel smacked a two-bagger to plate Correa with the final tally.
McCullers struck out ten in 6-1/3rd innings with Chris Devenski posting the next five outs to get the win and drop his ERA to 1.96.
Ken Giles entered after Michael Feliz walked a batter in the ninth that set up his seventh save of the year.
Before the game, outfielder Jake Marisnick came off the Disabled List and Tony Kemp was sent back to Fresno.
The two AL West rivals square off again Tuesday night in Houston in a 7:10 Central battle. Phormer Phillie Cole Hamels (2-0) will take the hill for the Rangers against righthander Mike Fiers (0-1). Hamels is 6-3 with a 4.06 ERA in 14 career starts against the Astros.
- Bob Hulsey