The Astros won their fourth game in a row, and fifth of the entire Spring Training, today. A lot of people are scratching their heads and trying to figure out what happened. What changed? Why is this team, who went winless in nineteen straight, suddenly able to win four consecutive?
It’s pretty simple, really. There are two basic reasons, and neither of them has anything to do with Ivan Rodriguez.
The biggest is that our lack of organizational depth, as you get deeper into Spring Training, is less exposed. As more teams begin to send their minor leaguers back from whence they came, it becomes major leaguers against major leaguers. Suddenly, the games that we were losing in the seventh and eighth innings, when our mediocre Double-A pitchers gave up hits to other teams’ slightly-better-than-mediocre Double-A hitters, are falling our way when we have major leaguers playing in those innings. This is great in Spring Training. As the season progresses and we need to patch holes in our roster, as every team does over the course of a 162-game season, we will begin to feel this.
The second reason is that our major league team is made up largely of veterans. Veterans always seem to, from my observations, take a little longer to get into the “groove”. Our starting eight average 8.75 seasons of experience between them. There wasn’t a lot of competition this spring, so no one felt much pressure to produce sooner. So now, as Opening Day approaches, it looks like things are falling into place and we can all take our fingers off of the panic button.
Of course, we’re still a fourth-place team in a weak division at best.
Speaking of streaks, tonight I watched Japan extend their World Baseball Classic title streak to two. It doesn’t sound impressive, except that there have only been two WBCs.
We arrived early today. After two days of getting there just in the nick of time, I wanted to get a chance to watch the warmups and batting practice, get a few shots, and chat with the folks around me.
Of course, many of the folks around me didn’t speak English. And of the few that did, far too many spoke a broken, gutteral English that NL Central fans will recognize as Cubspeak.
There was a decidedly-international feel. In addition to Korea and Japan, the U.S. of course had a large contingent on hand. And, it being Southern California, after all, Mexico was well-represented:
Since I didn’t really have a dog in the race, I mostly allowed myself to get caught up in the fervor as gametime approached. The Korean and Japanese contingents showed up in full-force and rooted on their teams. Chants of “Nippon! Nippon!” and the Korean phrase for “Republic of Korea” (or so I was told… it was a three-syllable chant that sounded vaguely like “Attica” with five drum beats after it) overlapped and battled with one another in a multi-layered force of energy and enthusiasm, but both sides were respectful of one another.
In fact, as I allowed myself to get caught up in the excitement of the fans sitting around me, in a way I was glad to see Japan against Korea, instead of the USA in the finals. These fans deserved it more. In America, we complain about the WBC. We complain about players potentially getting injured. We complain about them missing time with the ballclubs paying them millions of dollars. We complain about the playing time they get; the playing time they don’t get. We don’t really like the WBC as a nation. But Japan and Korea, on the other hand, wanted to win this thing, and they wanted to win it very badly.
Of the sixteen teams participating, I began to wonder if maybe the USA was the least deserving. Not based on talent, but rather on a pure lack of motivation to prove themselves on the national stage. After all, don’t the best and the brightest from all of these other countries try to come to the US to compete in our major leagues? Monetary reasons aside, the best players in the world have to prove themselves against the best competition, and that can only be found in Major League Baseball. We’ve grown accustomed to it, and the puny and occasional chants of “USA! USA!” at Sunday night’s semi-final matchup simply could not compare to the inescapable, loud, constant cheers in Monday night’s finals. From the first pitch until the last out, the fans cheered.
As the game progressed into the later innings, however, I found myself rooting for the scrappy Koreans. The reasoning was two-fold, I suppose: 1) I am from Ohio, and my second-favorite team is the Indians. The sole major leaguer on the Korean roster is Shin-Soo Choo, an Indian. Compare that with Ichiro, who would rather punch himself in the face than play in Cleveland. 2) I didn’t want to see Japan continue to dominate the WBC. We’ve seen them win it. This Korean team, on the other hand, was as much fun to watch and hadn’t yet won it all. Besides, isn’t saying Japan is a great baseball country becoming old hat by now?
I guess not.
Two things struck me as I was watching the game. Despite all the talk of fundamentally-sound Asian baseball (and it was), each team had one gaffe that may have helped to decide the game. With two outs and a runner on second in the bottom of the ninth, up 3-2, Japan’s shortstop was playing almost directly behind the runner, very close to second base. The third baseman was playing very nearly on top of third base. A right-handed hitter was up, with about 80 open feet in the 5.5 hole.
I couldn’t quite understand the positioning, and as should have been expected, the batter knocked a grounder through that massive gap, scoring the runner from second and sending the game into extra innings.
The second moment came in the top of the te
nth inning. With runners on second and third, Ichiro came to the plate. Ichiro may very well be the greatest player in the history of Japanese baseball. Without a doubt, he is the biggest star. He now has eight seasons in Major League Baseball, and ice water runs through his veins. I don’t care who’s batting behind him, I don’t know why you don’t walk him to load the bases and get a force at any base, especially with two outs.
At the very least, you don’t give him anything to hit. At all. Instead, an eight-pitch at-bat followed, during which Ichiro hit a two-run single to put Japan up for good, 5-3. Especially puzzling was that a few batters later, with first base open, Korea intentionally walked Norichika Aoki for the second time in the evening to get to cleanup hitter Kenji Johjima of the Mariners.
All things considered, though, it was a well-fought game and I’m extremely glad I went.