May 2006

Rocket launch

Capt317f08f57a7a4ab9b63e8db3d4bc58e0astrWe couldn’t get to the conference call with Roger Clemens, the phone
lines were busy. And there were enough reasons for that: if there is a
baseball player on the face of this Earth that still creates buzz as no
other, he is certainly the Rocket.

It was a very busy day for us: after Newsday stuck
with their story, we were still waiting for a sign from Astros brass.
And it appeared as a media alert sent by email from the Media Relations
department. It sure was in short notice, the conference was scheduled
for 11 AM Central Time, and the message got to us approximately 1 hour
and 15 minutes before that.

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We immediately approached our sources, which confirmed us the
proceedings. Well, they never denied it in the first place. But they didn’t confirm it either until this morning. We never
used the word "denial", just like other media outlets did. Those early reports of a deal were considered "premature". They were approximately 18 hours too early.

This is a day in which the baseball universe is most certainly revolving around the Rocket. Some people might be emotional about this, some others might express they are not pleased with what they consider "diva antics". But very few are staying quiet about it.

Our MLBlogosphere has been a place for discussion, and everyone has an opinion. For our very own take on this subject, you’ll have to wait for early next week, when is our moment to step up to the plate on astrosdehouston.com; the Astros official site in Spanish.

I’ll just tell you this is one very exciting moment to be involved with
this organization. It was sure a lot of work for Astros employees at
Union Station, a hectic day all along, but it felt great to be able to
spread these good news.

Did anyone remember there was a game being played this afternoon? Thought so. I have to admit, I didn’t watch it in its entirety. Too much of a Rocket blast for that.

Now, I’ll give you some quotes from today’s press conference. Keep on smiling, Astros fans.

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Randy Hendricks, Clemens’ agent
: "There was no deal done yesterday
which is what we?ve told everybody, and it?s true, but I got a hold of
Tim early in the evening and said ?why don?t you come by my house I
think we can talk about this deal.? We got done about midnight, and I
talked to Roger real late and told the other three teams that were
involved, Boston, New York and Texas. They did a terrific job and it
was a tough decision for Roger, and I?ll let him explain in his own
words why he made the decision. The deal was done at midnight like I
said, and we have more steps to go before Roger is on the mound".


Drayton McLane, Astros Chairman and CEO:
"I love to talk about being a
champion, winning and being the best. And I know of no one that
represents that better than Roger Clemens. About an hour ago, I called
Commissioner Bud Selig and was telling him of the agreement we reached
late last night, and he congratulated me. He said ?I think that?s great
for Major League Baseball. He has grown up in Houston, he is loyal to
the fans in Houston,
and that?s what?s great about baseball."


Roger Clemens:
"Well, like I just told Drayton and Tim, and like I told
Randy when he called me late last night, the ball is in my court now.
This is a difficult decision on my part for a number of situations. I
have to now take the next step to get my body ready to come back and be
effective, win games, and do what I?m used to doing, and that?s being
extremely competitive at a high level".

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"There were times that I told Deb that I just wanted to step away from
it all and continue to enjoy working at the foundation and in the
community and watch my buddies here work on this team. You know, here
we go again. I?m going to give it a shot. Not necessarily that I know I
need to or want to, but I?m committed. Again, it?s about winning. I
just kept coming back to the guys I went to battle with, and last time
I checked we were in the World Series last year. It?s the same team, if
not better. I know I?ve got my work cut out, like Tim said, and I?ve
got to do it step by step. I can get into a game situation and my body
not respond the way I want it to. I push my body hard, but I still need
to get some competitive and stressful innings in. Again, I don?t think
I would have taken on this challenge if I didn?t constantly hear from
my teammates. They were talking to me and encouraging me that they
thought I could do it, and that?s the deal. I?m going to get out there,
and fortunately I?ve been working out pretty hard the last couple weeks
and I?ve been staying away from the comments and things like that".

"I?ve got deep roots in the Boston tradition and I left nothing in the
bag when I was in New York. But the bottom line was  the winning and
success we?ve had here the last two years- I had the opportunity to
come home and seized that moment, worked hard at it, and I?ve had some
great teammates work side by side with and we achieved some goals.
There is the same talent, or better in that locker room and they know
it.
The games I?ve been able to catch and see, we haven?t had the best
of breaks go our way this year. So hopefully that will turn around and
we?ll have a good time with it."

Reporter: Will it be emotional for you on June 22, and what will that be like for you?

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Roger Clemens: "I?m sure it?ll be emotional for me my family, but I
hope to have taken all the steps to be prepared and ready for that. For
me, that?s still a long way off. I don?t want to have any setbacks and
I want to make sure I?ve pushed myself hard enough to be ready for that
date everybody has talked about
".

"If I asked Drayton to come in the clubhouse and do arm exercises with
me, he?d be there. (laughing). He usually is there, and he?s standing
over me asking me ?are you ready to be a champion?? He?s the most
positive man I?ve ever met. I know he has to have some bad days, but
I?ve never seen them. He?s always positive, his commitment to winning
is obvious, and not just in my sense of being here. It?s obvious what
he wants to do, and he pushed us to the point and helped us get to the
World Series last year.

I would hope that everyone?s goal is to get to
back there. You just have to win 11 games once you get to the playoffs,
and I think this team is capable of doing that. I think we?re a
playoff-caliber team. To have the opportunity to pitch with Roy Oswalt,
who I?ll be real surprised if he doesn?t win 20 games again, and with
Andy Pettitte, he?s the reason I was able to come home and play. I?m
looking forward to it; the ball is in my court, that?s all I can say. I
have to go out and do it
and get ready so I can be a part of this".

The official press release

Here’s the press release. Soon Clemens will participate in a conference call for all media. We’ll try to get you some quotes from that. In the meantime, here it is

ASTROS SIGN CLEMENS

Seven-time Cy Young Award winner, 11-time All-Star returns for third season with Astros, 23rd year overall

HOUSTON ? The Houston Astros announced today that the club has signed right-handed pitcher Roger Clemens to a minor league contract. The one-year contract is valued at $322,000. The announcement was made by general manager Tim Purpura.

Clemens is tentatively scheduled to make three minor league starts prior to making his Astros debut. It is the club?s intent for him to make his first start at the Class A Lexington Legends (Lexington, KY) on June 6, tentatively followed by a start at the Double A Corpus Christi Hooks (Corpus Christi, TX) on June 11, and a third minor league start at the Triple A Round Rock Express (Round Rock, TX) on June 16. Clemens is tentatively scheduled to make his first start for Houston on June 22 at Minute Maid Park vs. the Minnesota Twins. His one-year Major League contract will be valued at $22,000,022.

                                                                                                                                                                  

Clemens, 43, will return for his 23rd Major League season. He is 341-172 with a 3.12 ERA (1632ER/4704.1IP) in 672 career games (671 starts), and his 341 wins rank ninth all-time, two away from eighth-place Tim Keefe (according to the Elias Sports Bureau). The winner of an unprecedented seven Cy Young Awards, Clemens was 13-8 with a career-best 1.87 ERA (44ER/211.1IP) for the National League champion Astros in 2005.  His 1.87 ERA led the Majors and he also earned his 11th career All-Star selection last year, pitching one scoreless inning in the Midsummer Classic in Detroit.

In two seasons with Houston, Clemens is 31-12 with a 2.43 ERA (115ER/425.2IP) in 65 starts. He has appeared in eight playoff games during his two years with the Astros (seven starts) and is 4-2, including a win in the 18-inning NLDS Game 4 vs. Atlanta, in which Clemens pitched three scoreless innings in relief, his first relief outing since July 18, 1984 with Boston.

?Roger has been a tremendous boost to our rotation and our ballclub as a whole over the last two seasons,? said Purpura.  ?We are obviously thrilled that he has decided to continue his career with us, and we look forward to watching him perform on the mound again this season in an Astros uniform.  Roger Clemens is a true living legend and has had a great impact on our success over the last two seasons.?

Clemens earned his seventh Cy Young during his first season with the Astros, a 2004 campaign in which he finished 18-4 with a 2.98 ERA (71ER/214.1IP) in 33 starts.  His 18 wins ranked tied for second in the NL that season.  Clemens ranks second all-time with 4,502 strikeouts, trailing only Nolan Ryan on the career list.  In addition to being the active leader in strikeouts, he also leads all active pitchers in wins (341), innings (4704.1), complete games (118), shutouts (46), and starts (671).

Clemens also earned the Cy Young in the American League in 1986, 1987 and 1991 with Boston, 1997 and 1998 with Toronto, and 2001 with New York.  He became the second Astro to win the Cy Young Award, joining Mike Scott in 1986.  According to the BBWAA, Clemens is the first player in history to capture eight BBWAA awards, as he won the American League Most Valuable Player in 1986 to go along with his seven Cy Youngs.  He is the oldest pitcher in history to earn the Cy Young and he is one of only four pitchers (Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Gaylord Perry) to win the Cy Young in both leagues.  Clemens is the only pitcher to win the Cy Young with as many as four different teams.

Additionally, Clemens joins Christy Mathewson and Lefty Grove as the only three pitchers in Major League history to have twice as many wins as losses at any point after recording their 250th win.  Clemens? .665 career winning percentage trails only Grove all-time among pitchers with 300 wins, and his 20 seasons with a winning record while starting at least 15 games in all are the most in baseball history.

Rockets everywhere

050727_clemens_hmed_8phmediumWhat will happen with Roger Clemens in the end? Nobody knows for sure. Right after Newsday published a report that the legendary Rocket was about to return with the Astros for a third season, our phones went wild. We tried to confirm the news but it just wasn’t possible.

Tim Purpura immediately dismissed those reports, and told journalists there wasn’t an agreement yet. Clemens’ agent, Randy Hendricks, immediately followed. However, Newsday is sticking to its story, and insists two people close to the negotiations assure them Clemens has made up his mind and he will be an Astro once again.

The Astros organization is known for taking such announcements very seriously. When you get something out of top management, it is not a mere rumor but a done deal; that’s why they quickly went to tell us it was premature to talk about a decision from Clemens. We all just have to wait and see.

Clemens has already many advantages in Houston he will not find anywhere else, and on top of that list there’s being close to his home; something he has enjoyed for the past two years. He has already said no to the Rangers, and we heard that from Tom Hicks himself. Time keeps on running, and we’ll keep on following the story, to see what will happen in the end with the stellar hurler.

Now let’s talk about tonight’s game.

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It certainly feels great to see the Astros overcoming an adverse deficit, and to see how Andy Pettitte, finally, rolls with the punches, and rises above trouble. An explosive seventh frame was needed by the Astros to beat St. Louis 6-3.

After Lance Berkman opened the scoreboard in the first with an RBI single, Yadier Molina evened the score with a double in the second. Pettitte kept going on the mound without big issues, until he granted two consecutive homers in the fourth frame, to Scott Rolen and Juan Encarnacion.

However, those were the last runs the Cardinals would score in the whole game; Pettitte was able to get himself together, allowing no runs in two more episodes, for a total of 3 runs and 7 hits given up in a total of six frames, earning the win.

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His Cardinals counterpart, Anthony Reyes, was also doing a great job, until the seventh. The Astros staged a rebellion and turned the tables on the redbirds. RBI Singles by Mike Lamb and Orlando Palmeiro were just the start; and Craig Biggio provided his fireworks show with a 2-run homer off reliever John Hancock.

In the ninth, Brad Lidge got the ball after an efficient outing from Dan Wheeler. Lidge got his 14th save of the season with a 1-2-3 inning. That’s definitely something newsworthy, after everything the Astros closer is going through.

There’s still a lot of things to do, in order to finally say the long and tedious slump is over. But it is undoubtedly a great step forward.

Nothing lasts forever?

Capta0297dd949a04a6294c4830f3e75fe7fastrThere aren’t many good things to talk about the Houston Astros these days. Last night, Taylor Buchholz, one of the reasons to remain optimist about the ballclub, had a very rough outing in which he was beaten by the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Bad news seem to spread uncontrollably: the offensive mainstay is day-to-day, starting pitching is been unpredictable, the bullpen is not looking good; and Brad Lidge is still trying to get in touch with himself.

"We are playing crappy baseball", Phil Garner said to beat reporters covering the series at PNC Park. He is so right. I confess that it’s even harder for me to write about a funk like the one the ‘Stros are going through; and not because of my fanaticism. I try to hide it very well for ethical reasons.

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It’s that you start sounding like a broken record: singing the blues day after day, when things never seem to change. The only hope you get to keep, is that the Astros have gone through situations worse than this one, that have caused drastic measures, and things have improved. It seems that the weather gets tough, and Management keeps its hand on the wheel, in a move seen by some as plain stubbornness; in the end, it turns out as a vow of confidence in your available resources.

Will this time of uncertainty end? Time will tell. It all depends on how long Berkman stays out of play. He tends to thrive when he returns from a DL stint. The Astros also rely on a rotation, which in fairness, hasn’t been too shabby. However, with Andy Pettitte’s inconsistency, youngsters such as Buchholz, Fernando Nieve and Wandy Rodriguez are carrying the heaviest burden.

You only get to hope the machine gets up and running, the way it should be. All pieces must fit perfectly.

No support

Capt245bf25f15534792b9da5e6057a7a6bbastrTonight’s result is especially frustrating: despite Fernando Nieve’s outstanding pitching, the Astros weren’t able to bring the runs home; and the Washington Nationals prevailed in the end, with a 4-1 score.

Nieve showed great stuff, pitching shutout baseball until the fifth frame, when Damian Jackson went yard with a solo shot. Morgan Ensberg tied the game with a tater of his own, his 15th of the season; however, his teammates couldn’t muster a reaction to Ramon Ortiz’s delivery. Ortiz gave up a run in seven innings. Gary Majewski and Chad Cordero did their part from the ‘pen.

In the end, Fernando granted 2 runs off 3 hits, fanning 2; but the offense wasn’t able to respond; so Nieve got his third loss this year, against barely one win. Russ Springer’s comeback after serving a suspension due to the Barry Bonds incident was a bitter one: home runs by Daryle Ward and Alfonso Soriano were the insurance the Nats needed to get the "W".

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The Astros left 6 men stranded, and didn’t have many chances of setting up a rebellion. What a contrast to last night’s game; the lack of support to Nieve is the worst note in this D.C. evening; a good ballgame in the end, that lasted 2 hours and 8 minutes.

A good start, for a change

Capt55b28ce1f0484d41bfaa3a0d89539da5astrIt was a good start for this particular Astros road trip; and they truly needed it, after a not-so-hot home stand: a 10-3 beating of the Washington Nationals, once again driven by (Lisa, I know how much you like this), explosive hitting.

Willy Taveras went 3-for-5; Craig Biggio was 4-for-5 with 3 RBI; and Lance Berkman jacked a 2-run homer off Zach Day in the first inning; giving Wandy Rodriguez a lot of support. Wandy went back to his good old ways, allowing three runs in six frames; and the bullpen was once again a stable base, with outstanding performances by Dave Borkowski, Trever Miller (do not adjust your monitors) and Dan Wheeler, who pitched a shutout inning each.

Day wasn’t able to keep Astros lumber out of sync during the 3.2 innings he pitched, leaving after that with a possible arm injury; however, it was a nice beginning for a change, so needed to erase so many doubt around the Astros and its faithful; and hopefully, to put an end to the long funk.

End of the phase?

Capt62bcfb19c5cb4545998fbd515d500a1crangTaylor Buchholz’s stellar performance today, earning the first complete game shutout by an Astros pitcher since Kirk Saarloos back in July 25, 2002; was a superb ending for the first three games of the Lone Star Series between Astros and Rangers this season; undoubtedly it became a sample of Houston’s strengths and weaknesses.

On Friday Roy Oswalt gave up three runs scattered in six innings and a third; and an offensive reaction was needed. It finally came in the eighth, sparked by a three-run double from Adam Everett. Brad Lidge had the chance to return to the closer’s sole; and despite the fact a Gary Matthews, Jr. lead-off single was a prelude of trouble once again for the battered pitcher, consecutive strikeouts to Michael Young and Mark Teixeira and a pop-up from Hank Blalock indicated that Lidge was once again in his game. The final was 5-3 Astros.

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The next evening became a new struggle for Andy Pettitte, who hasn’t been able to return to his top form. While Kevin Millwood tied the Astros offense up, Pettitte had to deal with full bases in every inning, for a total of 5 runs conceded in 6 frames. Millwood and relievers Ron Mahey and C.J. Wilson combined for a shutout and a 6-0 score. Millwood never let an Astro runner past first base.

On Sunday it could have been just enough to calm any anxiety, seeing Buchholz shaking off his recent funk, getting the shutout and only giving up six hits for a 5-0 final. Morgan Ensberg and Jason Lane provided the powder with a pair of two-run homers in the sixth and eighth frames.

"If we come out of it and play good ball, we’ll call it a phase," Phil Garner told mlb.com. "If we can’t do better than this, then I hesitate to go where that will lead us. But we certainly haven’t played sound defense, we haven’t really hit the ball and we haven’t pitched well.

We hope this is the end of such a phase. It will be tough to prove it, though; with road stops in Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh and St. Louis. (Yup, the Cardinals).

Astros babes

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There are thousands of users at astros.com; each one of them uses it to his or her convenience. Plenty of people share their feelings about he team; that’s what message boards are for. Some of them go beyond that, and join in groups, attending games together.

Shannon LaFon is a Houston resident and Astros lover, since the day her boyfriend took her to Minute Maid Park, without her being convinced of the sport and its entertainment value. She liked  the experience so much that she became a fanatic. "I believe it was the excitement and the fact that everything might change in a second", LaFon says about what interested her the most about baseball. "You’re watching a ballgame and in a fraction of a second the outlook changes. That took my heart and didn’t let me go".

She got herself so interested on the Astros and her favorite player, Lance Berkman, that she started to know about baseball to the point "my boyfriend brags about me knowing more about baseball than he does". In one of her many visits to astros.com, she started joking with other female users about the team’s need for cheerleaders.

And that was how an idea came up: a group of girls goes to Astros game together at least once per home stand; and the interesting thing is to see not just women talking about baseball and rooting for a particular team; but the fact they come from so many different backgrounds and professions;
from office clerks to law enforcement personnel.

 "I watch the baseball soap opera unfolding in every game", says Katie Glade, Account representative for a financial services company. She’s a Brad Lidge fan, that’s how she took the nickname of Lidgebabe. Each one of them is identified with the last name of her favorite player. They wear t-shirts that identify them as group members.

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"My parents are from Waco", tells Lydia Moreno, "But when I was 6, my grandfather moved the whole family to Monterrey, Mexico. Mom came back to Texas as soon as she could. (…) My mother is the reason why I’m such a huge sports fan; she’s always been a big Astros fan; but I got hooked when my sister’s boyfriend got me an extra ticket and took me with them to the Astrodome in 1966".

Lydia even got out of work early one day in 1986 so she could see Mike Scott pitch a no-hitter in that year’s NLCS. She joined the group the same way everyone else did: by visiting the astros.com message boards.

The message was also picked up by Melanie Morris, a "domestic engineer", as she calls herself. She fell in love with baseball when she had to live with her father his life’s final year, back in 2001. "I asked him how he could love such a boring sport; he replied that if you loved it, it wasn’t boring at all. Then I got curious enough to follow it, and look at me now, I got hooked".

His father was a mad Astros fan, so it was only fitting she started following that same team.

The Astros babes group has caught the attention of more people each time, appearing in Astros Telecasts through FSN Houston; becoming a sort of friendly counterpart to yet another fan group, formed by males specifically, who follow each start by Roy Oswalt almost religiously: the O’s Bros.

If you ask them how their experience as a group has been so far, the answer is unanimous: "It’s been the best", Morris says. "Now I have friends to go to games with". "Definitely I’m going to more Astros games", says Patsy Rawls, who works as a buyer for a service company in Houston. The group bases in three simple rules with a defined objective: Be a female, love the Astros and be willing to have fun.

They also want to break the stereotype of the so-called groupie who only goes to a ballgame to look at players physiques. Well, it isn’t that they don’t do it, but it isn’t the main reason to go to a game. "We have Cardinal fans following our model back in St. Louis", says LaFon. "There are plenty of girls that have come to us and tell us they identify themselves with us". "The stereotypes are being broken, and there’s plenty more to do yet. When guys realize I’m a baseball fan they start to quiz me in order to see if it’s true. And many of them get amazed. Yes, I am a woman, and yes, I am a baseball fan".

No one can dare to say otherwise.

Energy crisis

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This scoreboard displayed confused many of those attending Minute Maid Park last night. They thought this was a recap of the offensive numbers from the Giants during this past three-game series at Houston. But no, it was a summary of oil prices. Who could blame them: Giants hitting was as inflated as those prices these days.

They will not be missed

Captdef63fa2de2c4db29c9407806be80afcgianAfter all the controversy started by Russ Springer plunking Barry Bonds, Giants manager Felipe Alou told mlb.com he was pretty upset with the attitude displayed by fans who applauded the fact someone hit on a human being, making that a bad example for kids. (I’m sure Thomas and Lisa have something to say about it). We’ll have to see which one of both elements are a worse example for children; but well, that’s another story altogether.

Despite the fact Bonds wasn’t in the lineup, the situation was pretty much the same: Dismal starting pitching , lack of hitting, and in conclusion, an Astros team that looks in a pretty different shape than the one we saw barely 30 days ago.

This game was, once again, a one-way street: 10-1 in favor of San Francisco. Matt Morris owned the Houston nine tonight, retiring 14 straight opponents in one occasion, and in conclusion, granting barely a run, 3 hits and fanning 4 in eight frames.

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On the flip side of the Mirror, we had Fernando Nieve, who was beat up from the start, repeating the same pattern set by his young peers Taylor Buchholz and Wandy Rodriguez in this forgettable series: seven runs, six of them earned in 3.2 innings, skyrocketing his ERA to 5.94.

Ray Durham was the offensive figure for San Francisco, going 3-for-4 with 4 RBI, including a double and a home run. The Astro bullpen, represented by Trever Miller and Dave Borkowski, was able to avoid more damage for a while, but it was too little, too late; and Morris held the bats hostage. And to top it all off, Pedro Feliz ended with that fragile calm with a tater.

The Giants leave Houston extending his dominance of the Astros, now with a 5-1 record this season against them; with the added bad luck that this series was responsibility of the least experienced portion of the starting rotation, who probably panicked with the Bonds circus in front of them. It’s all over now, and there are plenty of adjustments to make in just 48 hours, before Mark Teixeira and the Rangers arrive for a new chapter of the battle for the Silver Boot.