WEDNESDAY, 11 P.M... Nobody misses their health till it's gone, and nobody appreciates it more than the ones who've just regained it. Hence, the rejuvenated buzz in the Astros dugout tonight. With each passing inning, the team seems to look more and more like its old self, the self that batters opponents like the Diamondbacks relentlessly, pummeling them with bat after bat, even as we pull off astounding catches in the field with ease, run the bases with renewed vigor, and so on.
In some ways, it is just another day, another nine innings, another nine runs. But the night's 9-5 victory over Arizona, the Astros' 74th, is important nonetheless, and not only because the club now ties the '98 Astros for the best record in team history over 119 games. Trivia aside, the game is a punctuation mark, the end of an infirmity, the beginning of a major assault on the American League pennant and beyond.
The crowd of almost 28,000 appears to have returned to form as well. They scream like a crowd of 36,000 at least, booing lustily in all the right spots, chanting AL-TU-VE like the night is riding on him. It isn't. It’s riding on the whole superb team, led by their equally superb starting pitcher, Charlie Morton, who allows just 3 hits and 1 run in six-plus innings of solid work.
"I think they're back in the groove," a fan at Minute Maid Park tells us, marveling at the myriad ways the Astros are finding their way to the plate. The runs are singled in, homered in, sacrificed in, walked in, even wild pitched in. "Yep," the fan nods confidently, like a doctor giving his patient the all-clear. "This is how it feels when things are going right."
THURSDAY, 4 P.M.… What the hell was with umpire Paul Nauert? You could drive a train through the Astros’ strike zone! The spray chart for Marwin Gonzalez’s last at-bat looked like the Friday night fireworks at Minute Maid! In fact, you know what? We may need to revisit that infamous first pitch Miss Texas threw out last year, the one we always laughed at ‘cause it bounced wildly and never even made it to the batter’s box—'cause Nauert’s got us thinking that maybe it was a strike.
And like the Dbacks’ starting pitcher really needed the help. It’s fitting that Patrick Corbin throws for a team of snakes ‘cause his pitches didn’t so much come to the plate as slither. And yet they were strikes, all of them. “I’d like to play with 27 outs and not get at-bats taken away from us,” said A.J. Hinch at the post-game press conference, speaking of Dbacks’ reliever Archie Bradley’s final “strike,” which basically left Marwin and the whole crowd just hanging there, wondering if maybe Nauert just wanted to get the game over with. “It ain’t fair,” said Hinch. You damn right it isn’t fair. And furthermore…
And yes, we get it. We are aware that no umpire, not Nauert, not anybody, could have stopped us if we’d been playing like more than crap today. Which we weren’t. Come to think of it, we’re probably gonna have a nightmare tonight in which the whole stadium is empty save for Jake Marisnick, still wandering around centerfield looking for Daniel Descalso’s inside-the-park homer. Either that or we’ll be pulling our hair out all night, wondering how it is that a guy like Mike Fiers can fool so many batters into striking out and give up 23 runs in his last 25 innings. Because here’s the thing…
Okay, breathe. Again.
Here’s the thing. We know what the ‘Stros can do, we’ve seen them do it time and again, which by the way doesn’t give us the right to grab pitchforks and get hysterical on the days when they fail to live up to great expectations. But neither should we feel overly guilty for such displays. After all, only the greatest teams turn their fans into two-faced nut cases. Only the greatest teams send fans flying to thesauri for superlatives one day and flying to the bar the next. It’s not a pretty picture, we grant you. We don’t like cheering till we’re hoarse, spilling beer and peanuts and what not all over ourselves, only to find, five minutes later, that we’re punching the wall and kicking the cat. But hey, that’s the price of greatness, people. Get used to it.