By Knoxbanedoodle and Spiers for Hall of Fame
Editor’s note – This article originally appeared on AstrosConnection.com on June 17, 2002.
Knoxbanedoodle and Spiers For Hall Of Fame’s Astros Farm System road trip actually begins like this: we are in Providence, Rhode Island, in Spiers’s apartment, watching Oswalt strike out the side against the Pirates in the top of the eighth. He is throwing 98 MPH gas, the game is tied at one, and in the bottom of the inning Vizcaino pokes a little two run single into left field. We win.
Things are good. We keep saying: “Oswalt,” or “Dude, Oswalt,” or occasionally just: “Dude!”
Cooperstown, here we come.
It is located in the middle of nowhere in the rolling countryside of New York State. Knox remarked that it looked like a nice place to live, failing to take into account that it is surely covered by 10 feet of snow all winter. The Hall of Fame is a beautiful museum that happens to be dedicated entirely to baseball. We were struck by how few inductees there actually were. As much as you hear about undeserving players getting in, you really have to see just how few players are inducted to really appreciate it. What is it – 1,500 or so people? And, of course, not all of them were players. Touring this not-magnificently-large room, perusing the hallowed few imprinted us with an altogether appropriate sense of awe.
If you haven’t heard, they’ve got Ty Cobb’s false teeth there. Also, there was an incredible display on the evolution of baseball equipment. They start with a hand-crafted bat from the mid 1800s. It’s about five feet long and four inches in diameter (roughly the size of one of Brad Ausmus’s bats). We noticed some Astros curiosities (Astrosities?) in the section that lists all the modern-day no-hitters. The last pitcher to lose a no-hitter was with the Astros, and two of only three or four no-hitters to allow runs belonged to Astros as well.
Milo is well represented in the Hall. In the section concerning commentators they play a constant loop of famous calls. Milo has Hank Aaron’s record-breaking homer and Mike Scott’s no-hitter to clinch the division in ’86. There is a massive blow-up of the Dome in the stadiums room. Otherwise the HOF is overwhelmingly east coast oriented. A Yankees fan might actually see his ego inflate to three or four times its original size walking around the Hall.
Pluta pitched this game but we got to see Rohlicek working between starts before the game. He throws hard and has extremely crooked pants (high leg kick – good form). He was working with the B-Cats pitching coach on holding runners and seemed very attentive – very un-Nuke Laloosh.
Prior to the game, Pluta spent a long time kneeling in center field imploring divine aid – possibly in throwing his breaking pitches for strikes. He got very distracted with his inability to do so while warming up before the game. Ultimately, he allowed 3 runs in 5 innings – all of them in the 4th (great recovery with men on 2nd and 3rd and no outs). The Snappers mostly got to him by sitting on his fastball (which was consistently 92-94 on the day), though he did hang a curve that ended up an RBI double. Spiers noted at one point that Pluta probably wasn’t accustomed to pitching in the cold – and Jesus it was cold! 48 degrees and windy at game time – which was 4:00 in the afternoon.
C.O. Brown Stadium is old and mostly empty. It has the scent of death on it. We were hangin’ with the die-hard fans behind home plate – a 70 year-old woman with a cowbell who razzed the umpire like there was no tomorrow. Another old guy behind us sporadically shouted very simple commands to the players: “Get a hit!” or “Strike him out!”
Mike Jones, Brewers uber-prospect, is a rangy right-hander with a graceful delivery. He throws everything and does not have an overpowering fastball. He used to throw in the mid-90s, back in high school, but was in the mid to high 80s all day. He didn’t allow a baserunner until two outs were recorded in the 3rd, and didn’t allow a hit until the all-or-nothing B-Cats right fielder Steve Checksfield (.194, 6 HR, 38 K, 4 BB on May 19) sent a seeing-eye single through the right side to lead off the fifth. The good guys proceeded to take full advantage of Jones’s lack of command in the inning, employing for a stretch an innovative new strategy that we’ll call the “Whatever You Do Don’t Swing” technique. 3 walks and 3 hits, including a bases clearing, 3-run double off the bat of impressive left handed first-sacker Todd Self led to 5 runs in the frame – a lead Pluta, Campos and Tremblay would protect.
I (Knox) was most excited about seeing Rodriguez and I got to see a very mixed performance. Leading off in the first he absolutely drilled a line drive at the center fielder for an out, and that would be his best-hit ball of the game. With 2 outs and a runner on second in the 3rd inning (who had walked on 4 pitches and advanced on an errant pick off throw) he saw 3 straight balls and then took a mighty cut at the 3-0 offering. WTF? I guess he was just looking for a juicy pitch to get out of his slump. Anyway, he fouled it off and flied out to center on the next pitch, thus snatching an out from the jaws of a walk. He got it right in the big fifth, though, walking and eventually scoring. He struck out swinging twice to round out the day.
Defensively he was very solid. The Snappers three run 4th should’ve been a two run fourth thanks to an exceptional throw to the plate by Rodriguez from center. The runner would’ve been out by a mile if only Obradovich (whose defense looked miserable) had held on to it. Other than that, MROD was positioned well and caught everything in his area.
This team seems to get along well with each other. Before the game the position players played hot potato with a couple balls and had a helluva time. Pluta is another short fireballer. Tremblay looked like your run-of-the-mill junk throwing lefty. Campos was solid, going 3 innings and striking out 2. The B-Cats don’t hit a ton of homeruns, but today they were patient and they were fast. We tried but were unable to find out if this might be the last year the Cats are an Astros affiliate. Pluta got one ground out and that came in the 5th, his last inning. He also was seen stepping on the chalk on more than one occasion.
Either the radar gun in Lexington is a bit slow or pitchers in the Sally League manage to dominate with fastballs in the 78-82 MPH range. Needless to say, this doesn’t jibe with a league where a 2.09 ERA (as of 5-20) is only good for 9th best. And who does this sterling number belong to, you ask? None other than Kannapolis Intimidators left-hander Craig Szado before taking the mound against the struggling Legends. Ernnie Sinclair started off for the good guys. Aside from seeming to have cup issues for his entire start (not quite Travis Wade bad but still sort of nauseating) he also didn’t have the kind of fastball (slow gun or not) to make scouts drool. It wasn’t hit hard, but it was usually hit. He recorded the vast majority of his outs with breaking stuff and change-ups. Of his 4 Ks on the night, three of them were looking. He allowed 5 hits and 2 runs in the first four innings, then settled down to retire 9 straight thru the 7th.
Szado did not fare as well. The bottom of the first went like this: Caraway singles and steals second, Wright singles, Mckee hits a 3-run bomb to left, Soto reaches on an E4 and advances to second on a wild pitch, German singles, Gimenez singles for an RBI. Then, with four runs in, nobody out and men on 1st and 2nd, he retired Jimerson, Whiteman and Helquist to round out the Lexington order. This was a sign of things to come, as over the next four innings he would face the minimum. Jason Stumm and Paulino Reynoso relieved him, going 3 innings and allowed an insurance run to Lexington in the 8th that happened like this: with one out, McKee doubles, Soto walks (the only walk of the game for either side), and German singled for the RBI. Gimenez K’d and Jimerson flied out with runners on second and third to end the inning.
Barzilla relieved Sinclair in the 8th and pitched 2 shutout innings, earning his first save of the year. He’s a little guy who, according to the highly suspect Lexington radar gun, throws very, very soft…like, 2001 Tulsa Drillers soft.
All in all, it was sort of hard to tell whether we were watching a display of solid pitching or a case of the Intimidators simply not getting the job done.
Jimerson is a bad ass centerfielder. Though he struggled at the plate (0-4), he tracked down quite a few dangerous fly balls and made a great play ranging far to his right to cut off a would-be gapper and turn it into a single. Speaking of fast, this team’s got some serious legs. Caraway motors. He and German both had stolen bases in spite of the Intimidators catcher, Gustavo Molina, who has a cannon. Whiteman was nailed so bad on a straight steal that he didn’t even slide. And on the subject of great catchers, Gimenez didn’t get to showcase his arm very much. The Kannapolis centerfielder stole a base off him in the 3rd when his throw was a bit short. But after Sinclair threw his last warm-up pitch in the middle of an inning we saw him throw an absolute laser to second that didn’t seem to get higher than 4 feet off the ground and arrived with perfect accuracy right where the base-stealer’s feet would have been. That was cool. Barzilla doesn’t look like the type who’s going to pile up the Ks, but of the six outs he recorded 5 were on ground balls. (Oh, it was fucking cold, again. 50-degree weather in Kentucky in May. Lord, Lord, why hast thou forsaken us?) Tommy “I Never Saw A Pitch I Didn’t Like” Whiteman still isn’t walking much, but he had two hits on the night. German impressed at third base today, making a great play in the ninth on a swinging bunt. We agreed that Milo’s call would go something like this: “Here’s Molina coming to the plate. He’s 0-3 so far with three – uh-oh…better hurry! Whoa! Put a blue star next to that one! And now it’s Wigginton….” Also, Applebees Field in Lexington is awesome! They had a barbershop quartet outside the ballpark before the game started (singing, naturally). Just generally a very active and pleasant atmosphere. Lots of people showed up in spite of the weather, and I don’t know that I’ve ever been part of a spunkier crowd. The razzing, chatter, cheering and ribbing from this crowd was downright inspiring. The stadium itself is still sparkling new. Only qualm I have with it is that it’s easy to miss the action on the field when maneuvering around. Other than that, it is a far cry from the cement mausoleum that is C.O. Brown Field in Battle Creek. And finally, here’s a sign of the times: at one point in this game, two guys with last names starting with soft “g’s” were on base for the Legends, German and Gimenez. We are looking forward to seeing Eny Cabreja go tomorrow and extending our winning streak to 3.
Jimerson is fast. Drilled a single the third sacker got his glove on but couldn’t handle, stole second, then third – and taking second was on a pitchout. Acevedo was getting fastballs blown by him consistently. Nothing resembling offense in this game, with the only run coming off an error. Wright fell down and dropped an easy fly ball. Acevedo did so as well in the 9th. Both also made great plays on foul pop ups, with Acevedo hanging on after colliding with Whiteman. Fortunately, no one was hurt.
Cabreja was working fast and mixing a fastball, curve and change. His curve was his best pitch, getting a lot of whiffs and called strikes. He mostly spotted his fastball, only getting whiffs high and out of the zone. Whiteman was about as smooth as they come at short.
Elder Statesman Mike Gallo has no problems with the Hickory Crawdads – who sport unis with just “Dads” written across the chest, which we thought was pretty cool. 1B/DH Young made Frank Thomas look more like Adam Everett, weighing in at almost 300 pounds.
It was 53 degrees today before the sun went down. Spiers wore two pairs of pants with a sweater under his jacket and was still miserable, mostly because we lost. Alas.
Onward to New Orleans.
This was our first time to Zephyr Field and we were both duly impressed. The ballpark is not unlike the Dell Diamond, with seats very close to the field and access to every part of the stadium without being cut off from the game. New Orleans smells like crap, but Zephyr Field smells sweetly of frying grease. Also, not unlike its counterparts in Round Rock and Houston, it teems with hot girls. The only drawback that we could see of the stadium was its unfortunate placement – smack dab in the flight path to and from Louis Armstrong International Airport.
The park really is huge – 409 to dead center (I heard Bill Brown say 420 once, maybe I am mistaken) and over 400 to the power alleys. We were both expecting to see some scrub going for the Z’s and so were understandably elated upon reading in the paper that it would be Wade Miller, making his second rehab start. As we sat alongside the bullpen before the game, Z’s pitching coach Tom Hickey signaled C.J. Nitkowski and Kirk Bullinger over to sign a ball held by a kid who was with his dad. Nitkowski lived up to his rep as a generally swell guy, and Bullinger was very nice, too. Then WaMi came over and started pumping fastballs to Raul Chavez.
Miller threw almost nothing but fastballs during his warm-up session, and was apparently having some minor problems with his delivery mechanics which Hickey talked to him about. It was interesting to note the difference between Miller warming up and, say, Pluta or Sinclair. After throwing a few hanging curves or sliders in the dirt, the latter two pitchers got a little angry – or at least distracted. They’d work faster and eventually have to be calmed down by their respective coaches. Not so with Miller, who remained patient and collected throughout his session, in spite of not having pinpoint control. Maybe having won 16 games in the Bigs last year has something to do with that.
On the real mound, Miller was tenacious but fallible. His curve ball was repeatedly drilled, and his fastball isn’t quite up to speed yet, only breaking 90 two or three times. However, his location was good enough that it, along with a good slider and nasty change, kept the Sacramento hitters from getting in a groove. He allowed 2 earned runs (3 runs) and five hits in 5+ IP, striking out five (two swinging) and walking only one. Ineffectual relief work by “The Crotch Grabber” Travis Wade allowed both runs to score in the 6th. All in all, Miller looked a lot like a guy making his 2nd rehab start and the first to go past 3 IP: promising but rusty.
Offensively, several strange things happened in this game: 1. Frank Charles hit a triple. 2. Raul Chavez stole a base, and 3. Adam Everett collected two hits, one of the infield variety but the other a clean double over the left fielder’s head on a 1-2 count. He also scored twice and drove in one. 5 NO players had 2 hits on the day, and the good guys won 6-3.
It would appear that Derek Grubbs, the PA and Entertainment Director at RR got a lot of ideas from the Z’s. Many of the sound effects and much of the music is the same…. One thing that the Z’s would do well to copy from the Express is the quality of their Jumbotron. The snapshots of the Zephyr players were so terrible that we agreed every NO batter was either 500 pounds, or Cro-Magnon man…Barry Wesson looked like some kind of unholy offspring of Jabba the Hut and Howie Long. Speaking of Wesson, 6 RR alums played tonight, including Tom Shearn (who has apparently stuck with the horse that brought him to AAA, throwing strikes, throwing hard) and excluding Ginter, who got a day off. Some funny stuff happened at first base in the bottom of the innings, too. At least, we liked to think so. See, Carlos Pena has just been demoted by the A’s, as had Lane by the ‘Stros. At one point, Lane got on first and we guessed at the conversation, “How was your cup of coffee?” “Fine. Yours?” Later, Everett reached first. “You know, I was an opening day starter.” “Tell me about it.”
They serve Newcastle at Zephyr Field. And, at last, the weather was beautiful.
Since everybody probably saw the Astros game we attended we won’t talk much about it. It was great to see Redding do so well, especially after starting off so poorly. It was great to see Biggio come through in the 9th after a fantastic at bat. Most everything else about the game sucked. The team is finding a way to lose, and today even Gene Lamont chipped in. Oh well.
Should be Saarloos in Round Rock.
And it was – and I lost the scorecard – but it was a beautiful night and RR defeated the Mariners 4-1. We wondered where Snelling was and then saw his name on ESPN’s bottom line the next day saying he went 2-4 for the Mariners.
For those of you who don’t know, Saarloos dominates the Texas League with a change-up, slider, curve and subpar-but-accurate fastball. Let’s call him Little Maddux, except where “Mad Dog” (has there ever been a more inappropriate nickname?) relies on his change Kirk relies more on his slider.
It was a glorious night at the Dell Diamond, which is the undisputable jewel of the Astros farm system. All I can remember is that the Express batted around in the first inning and scored three runs, while Saarloos pitched shutout baseball for (I think) seven innings. It is also possible that we hit the Hooters Shiner stand and ever-handy Andy (beer man) one too many times. But who can blame us? What a game! What a team! What an organization!