HOUSTON - Following more than a half-century experiencing varying levels of success in the National League, the Houston Astros made their American League debut a memorable one on Sunday night, bashing the Texas Rangers 8-2 at Minute Maid Park on a solo, opening night stage.
Right fielder Rick Ankiel, one of a small handful of veterans dotting the Astros’ rebuilding 25-man roster, crushed a pinch-hit, two-out, three-run home run off Rangers right-handed reliever Derek Lowe to turn a tenuous two-run lead into a comfortable advantage in the sixth inning.
Ankiel became the first Houston player to smack a pinch-hit homer in his first plate appearance with the club since Justin Maxwell accomplished the feat last April 9 against the Atlanta Braves. Maxwell, incidentally, smacked a pair of triples against the Rangers, including one off Texas southpaw Matt Harrison that drove in two with two outs in the fourth.
The Astros are the first franchise to switch from the National League to the AL in major league history. Their move was greeted with angst in Houston, both because of the team’s deep roots in the NL and because the AL West, home of the Rangers, Los Angeles Angels, Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners, is widely viewed as ultra-competitive.
Even with the losses of Josh Hamilton to the Angels and Mike Napoli to the Boston Red Sox, Texas remains a contender in the AL West. There have been concerns over the depth of its pitching, particularly with Texas opening the season with starters Neftali Feliz and Colby Lewis on the disabled list. Harrison matched his career high with nine strikeouts, but he faltered in the sixth inning before giving way to Lowe, whose 82 mile-per-hour slider Ankiel deposited into the right-field seats.
Harrison, the Rangers’ Opening Night starter, faced the minimum one trip through the Houston batting order, riding a blown call from second base umpire Andy Fletcher into three consecutive strikeouts that closed the bottom of the first and opened the top of the second.
After Jose Altuve opened the first with a single to center on the very first pitch, he was called out attempting to advance to second on a ball in the dirt. Rangers catcher A.J. Pierzynski delivered a throw to the left side of the bag that shortstop Elvis Andrus fielded before applying a swipe tag on Altuve. Fletcher called Altuve out but replays revealed he was safe.
Harrison failed to escape even more trouble in the fourth, allowing singles to Brett Wallace and Carlos Pena before Justin Maxwell plated both with a triple that ricocheted off the left-field wall fronting the Crawford Boxes. The Astros doubled their 2-0 lead an inning later when Brandon Barnes scored from first on a Nelson Cruz error in right field, and Altuve drove home Ronny Cedeno, whose single Cruz botched badly enough to allow Cedeno to scamper around first and safely into third.
Astros righthander Bud Norris labored a bit through four innings, limiting Texas to two singles while needing 69 pitches to do so. He mowed through the bottom third of the order on just nine pitches in the fifth but surrendered consecutive two-out RBI singles to David Murphy and Cruz in the sixth. Lefthander Erik Bedard emerged from the bullpen after Cruz sliced the deficit to 4-2 and induced Pierzynski to fly out to center.
NOTES: Astros OF Brandon Barnes, the longest-tenured member of the organization, addressed the team on Saturday night in advance of making his first-ever appearance in an opening day lineup. With the Rangers starting LHP Matt Harrison, Barnes, a right-handed hitter, started in right field over veteran Rick Ankiel. ... Rangers manager Ron Washington opted to start Leonys Martin, who bats left, in center field over Craig Gentry. Martin, making his first appearance on an opening-day roster, hit .359 with four doubles, two triples and 13 RBIs in 26 Cactus League games. Washington noted that he will not platoon Martin and Gentry in center, but will determine a starter based upon specific matchup. ... Over the weekend the Astros played RHP Alex White on the 60-day DL with elbow discomfort. White earned a spot on the 25-man roster, but experienced pain in his pitching elbow during his final tune-up against the Chicago Cubs on Friday night. The Astros acquired White from the Colorado Rockies on Dec. 4, 2012, and replaced him on their roster with RHP Edgar Gonzalez, one of their final cuts this spring. ... Among the seven players who made their Texas debuts were former World Series champions Lance Berkman, Derek Lowe and A.J. Pierzynski.