No one was quite sure what message the Mets were trying to communicate Saturday in sending a pitcher named Harvey—Matt Harvey, that is—to the mound for the first of a three-game series against the Astros, not to mention the first game of the first doubleheader ever played at Minute Maid Park, not to mention the first game played in Houston since Matt’s namesake hurricane swept in and drowned the city. But if intimidation was what the Mets were going for, they picked the wrong town. The ‘Stros, no doubt taking their cues from the metropolis that shall not be vanquished, unleashed a storm of their own on Harvey, flattening the righty, who left the game after just two pitiful innings.
There was symbolism in the Mets pitcher hitting George Springer, the first batter he faced, and symbolism too in the way our George trotted to first, completely unfazed. (Some fans thought he’d been walked.) Still, the nick triggered a flood of first responders, a quartet of hits by Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, Marwin Gonzalez and Cameron Maybin (aka the Other New Astro) that brought four runners home before the inning was done. At that point, lusty cries of “You suck, Harvey!” could be heard coming from various corners of the stadium, although whether these were spewings by angry New Yorkers or the cathartic, post Hell-week yelps of Houstonians was impossible to say.
As it happens, Harvey faced Springer again in the second inning, giving up a two-run homer that quickly became known as the Shot Heard ‘Round the City after Springer dramatically patted the Houston Strong patch on his chest as he crossed the plate. It was the kind of moment that made grown men cry, an expression of love by the Connecticut Yankee for his adopted hometown that Houston won’t soon forget. And it was just one of many memorable gestures on a day that saw mayor Sylvester Turner throwing out the first pitch, A.J. Hinch giving an impassioned pregame speech to the Minute Maid crowd, and enthusiastic ‘Stros fans cheering louder than any crowd of 30,000 has a right to, even as the team they adore pounded the Mets 12-8 in game one, with starter Charlie Morton getting the win. And as for that other starter, well, one of the SportsTalk 790 commentators put it succinctly: “Harvey was the loser”—four words that no doubt brought smiles to the faces of radio listeners citywide.
“I hope it provides a smile or two, provides a break from what’s going through these people’s minds,” Hinch had said before the game, when asked what contribution a bunch of highly paid professional athletes could possibly make at a time of such misery. “To keep it in perspective,” he quickly added, “we’re a baseball team. We provide entertainment.” Still, it’s a unique form of entertainment, and one perhaps uniquely valuable at present. “We try to make the city proud, we wear ‘Houston’ across our chests. And we will represent this community very well.”
Even before picking up bats and balls, the Astros had already done just that the day before, on Friday, when several of them fanned out across town. They visited shelters, heard heroic tales of survival, met both the temporary and permanently displaced, hugged a multitude of volunteers, posed for every camera and signed every autograph they could. It was neither photo op nor empty gesture. None of the men had been born in Houston, but every single one of them had taken this city to his heart. As the day went on, they seemed to draw strength from the sight of so many tenacious, indomitable Houstonians surviving with the help of each other. So many kinds of people, one team. E Pluribus Houston.
That they intended to exhibit such qualities themselves—to the extent that one can on a baseball diamond, of course—was evident from the time the Astros stepped on the field at 1:11 in the afternoon till 10:25 on Saturday evening, when Ken Giles threw the last pitch of the second game and the ‘Stros clinched their second victory of the day, this time by a 4-1 score. If they are on, there’s no team more aggressive or relentless on the field, and Saturday night they were on. Don’t take our word for it. Go back and watch the videos—of Josh Reddick sliding head-first into home, of Altuve tapping the plate just ahead of a throw by the newly-Met Nori Aoki, of Joe Musgrove’s masterful sixth inning and J.D. Davis’s towering sacrifice fly, of Gonzalez’s sneaky and scorching base-running, of Gonzalez’s double-play turn, bare-handing Altuve’s throw and whipping around for the throw to first base, of Gonzalez’s diving stop in the eighth inning, after which he calmly fired a perfect strike to first-baseman Tyler White while still sitting on the grass.
This was no mere entertainment. It was a bravura performance, perfectly timed. “You couldn’t really have scripted a better day,” said Hinch when all was said and done, and he was right. Playing in front of a hometown crowd and a city desperate to regain some sense of normalcy, the Astros did their part simply by playing like their old, normal, spectacular selves again.
That was even more the case the next day, when Carlos Correa returned to the lineup, bringing with him a hitting and fielding prowess the Astros had sorely missed during his 22-game absence. The crowd, no doubt eager to cheer any remnant of pre-hurricane Houston, warmly welcomed him back as well, and Correa thanked them by drawing a walk in his first plate appearance and stroking a single in his second, a drive past the Mets shortstop that allowed Bregman to score. It was just one piece of Houston’s 8-6 come from behind victory over the Mets on Sunday afternoon, but an auspicious one nonetheless, not unlike the three-run homer belted by Maybin, playing in only his third game as an Astro. And as the team’s newest acquisition, pitcher Justin Verlander, paced the dugout in his first-ever non-Tigers uniform, it was hard not to be excited about September and beyond. After the bleakest of Augusts, suddenly there were rays of hope everywhere you looked.