I don’t know how he did it; I really don’t. But when starter Russ Ortiz went to the mound and found his stuff missing, he got through 5.0 innings on sheer guts.
Ortiz took 33 pitches just to get out of the first inning, down 3 runs after walking the first two batters he faced and giving up two singles. Luckily, the offense decided that this was the day they’d show up this week, and bailed him out. By the time he left after the fifth inning, he had a 4-3 lead, had thrown 113 pitches, allowed 3 hits and five walks, hit a batter, and had struck out just two. Twice, he induced double plays.
Only twice did he have an at-bat fewer than three pitches long: Once when he hit Casey Blake with the first pitch he threw to him; and his final batter, James, Loney, who hit into a 4-3 groundout to end the fifth inning. Prior to Loney, he’d thrown seven pitches to Manny Ramirez, who struck out looking in an uncharacteristically sloppy plate appearance; and he’d thrown ten pitches before walking Andre Ethier. 17 pitches on just two batters.
The Dodgers lineup saw an average of 4.913 pitches per at-bat against Ortiz.
But somehow, he held them scoreless after the first frame.
After four innings, he looked worn, but the Astros offense came through with 3 runs in the bottom of the fourth to give him a 4-3 lead, and he gutted out the fifth inning, despite a pitch count already hovering near a hundred. He gutted through the final inning and earned the win – his first in over two years. His last major league win was on April 20, 2007.
Hunter Pence was the only starting position player to not reach base, going 0-for-4 with a strikeout and never getting the ball out of the infield. Carlos Lee went 2-for-4 with a 2-run home run, but with all respect to El Caballo, it was Kazuo Matsui who looked every bit the hero tonight. Matsui went 1-for-2 with 2 walks, a stolen base, a sacrifice fly, 2 RBI, and 2 runs. And he flashed a nice glove, turning a beautiful pivot on a 5-4-3 inning-ending double play on a Casey Blake one-hopper.
Jeff Keppinger had another great night at the plate, extending his hitting streak to his entire Astros career by going 2-for-3, getting hit by a pitch, and scoring a run.
Jose Valverde looked flat in the ninth inning, but managed to earn the save despite an error, a blown call at first by umpire Jerry Layne on a gorgeous play by Lance Berkman to save yet another error, and a walk. He was limping at the end, and had trouble throwing strikes, but he gutted through the final two batters, James Loney and Russell Martin, striking them both out.
Cecil Cooper did his very best to blow the game, inexplicably bunting once again after Jason Michaels opened an inning with a double – this time of the ground rule variety. A poor decision by Guillermo Mota, however, put runners on the corners after a Fielder’s Choice failed to nab Michaels at third. The Astros, as a team, were still just 4-for-12 with RISP, but a .333 clip is far better than the past few games, so I won’t complain too much.
How we managed to pull out the victory in this one is a mystery, but we did. And though Russ Ortiz may not get much credit for his performance tonight, it was one of sheer guts and determination. And that goes a long way, because you won’t have your stuff every night.
It’s nice when, every once in a while, it doesn’t matter.
Tomorrow, I begin my Brandon Backe for Closer Campaign in earnest. Backe is expected to pitch for the Express on Monday in a rehab start after suffering a “strained left side.” I really have no idea what that means.