Monday, May 18, 2015

Toronto Blue Jays at Houston Astros - May 14-16, 2015

With Club 122 complete, I have few reasons to travel to major league venues anymore. New stadiums still appear, but they are limited to two or three per year. In order to keep sports road tripping for a few more years, I’m trying to see the Blue Jays and Leafs in each road venue. This baseball season, I'll watch the Blue Jays play interleague contests in Washington and New York, but I needed one AL venue to maintain my recent pace of three new venues per year. The East and Central have all been checked off, as has Anaheim, leaving me just four AL cities to choose from. After examining the schedule, I decided on Houston as it was a four-game weekend series and I hadn’t seen Minute Maid Park since my trip in 2001. I also expected the Jays would have a pretty good chance against what has been a dismal Astros squad in recent years. I was very, very wrong.

Cost considerations led to a flight to Dallas, where I met Sharpy, and we drove to Houston for the opener on Thursday night. The drive along I-45 is pretty dull, but there are a couple of interesting attractions in Huntsville: the Texas Prison Museum and the Sam Houston Statue (heavy rains prevented a shot from the front).

We arrived in Houston about an hour before the game and had no trouble finding a parking spot a block away. Street parking in downtown Houston is plentiful and free after 6 pm, yet few fans seem to take advantage. I prefer the entrance off Crawford Street as it is less crowded, and it is just north of here where most of the parking can be found.

Before going in, be sure to find the statue of Jeff Bagwell (above). Once inside, you will find yourself on Home Run Alley, one of the park’s signature elements, with banners commemorating past heroes and events.

Other notable features are Tal’s Hill in centerfield, the Home Run Pump that counts the number of Astro dingers hit at the park (1,371 before the series began and about 2,000 after), and the train that carries Minute Maid oranges along a track above left field whenever the Astros go deep (next to the Citgo sign in the 3rd picture below).

Even with all these unique additions, I found the park to be somewhat sterile, due to the roof that is usually closed to keep out Houston’s humidity. Baseball is an outdoor sport and Minute Maid Park is really just like any other dome, even with the view of the skyline through the windows above left field.

Food options are decent, with Nolan Ryan beef advertised everywhere. Avoid the 5 & 7 Grille though, as it is extremely overpriced, with a simple turkey wrap running $14. You can bring in an unopened bottle of water here, there was an ice cream truck selling them at the corner of Texas and Hamilton streets for $1 (along with lots of ice cream treats). There is a designated driver program too, which will net you a full-size soda if you sign up.

You can wander the concourses easily, and sit pretty much where you please. We had good seats for the opener, just behind the plate, but noticed that ushers were not checking tickets. For the second game, we bought the cheapest available ($12) and sat about 25 rows up along first base, and for the third game, a generous gentleman gave us freebies. We spent that game moving from section to section in a vain effort to bring the Blue Jays some luck.

The series actually started well as Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion belted back-to-back monster homers in the first inning off Roberto Hernandez. Drew Hutchinson pitched 6 good innings and the Jays had a 4-2 lead going into the bottom half of the 7th. Aaron Loup came in and faced 4 batters: single, walk, double, double. An error by Josh Thole led to another run and the Astros had turned the 2-run deficit into a 2-run lead. The Jays did nothing in their last two innings and a game that they should have won ended up a disappointing loss.

The Jays faced Astro ace Dallas Keuchel (below) in game 2 and he pitched well enough, while R.A Dickey could not find any movement on his knuckleball indoors, giving up a couple of long balls, including a 3-run shot to Jose Altuve, as the Astros won 8-4.

The Jays only managed 2 fly ball outs, and it became clear from the first two games that the Astros have recruited pitchers that tend to induce ground balls, a necessity in the bandbox that is Minute Maid Park. They lead the majors in ground ball outs, a big factor in their early success.

Game 3 saw the Jays storm out to a 3-0 lead, only to have the bullpen blow it again, as lefty Jeff Francis faced two lefties, gave up a single and a double, and left the game. Both runners scored when Liam Hendriks served up a gopher ball to Chris Carter. A late Encarnacion pinch-hit homer made it close, but the Jays fell 6-5, and I realized that they are in for a long summer. They can score, but they can't pitch, so expect lots of scores like this one.

We skipped the fourth and final game of the set as the Rockets were hosting the Clippers in Game 7 of their second-round series. The Jays lost that one for good measure.


My Toronto on the Road record is again below .500 at 33-34-3. I’ll see two more games this season (in Washington on June 1, and in New York on June 16) and hope that the Jays will be injury free by then and back to playing competitive baseball.



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