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We're off! Astros stick it to division rival

4/1/2013

The best thing about Sunday night's game between the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros? Our long national nightmare known as spring training is finally over. We have real games that count in real standings, no more reports on offseason weight gains and weight losses, no more reports on players who say they're primed for a good season (nobody ever says they're going to have a bad one).

The second-best thing is that at least for one day the Astros won't be baseball's laughingstock. In their first game as an American League franchise -- following a move forced upon them after 50 years in the National League, to give 15 teams in each league -- the Astros humbled their new division rivals with an 8-2 win. They're in first place and Astros fans can dream of a miracle season ... at least for the next 48 hours, until they play again on Tuesday.

After seasons of 106 and 107 losses, many are expecting the Astros to lose that many games again, maybe more, as they move into the tough AL West in Year 3 of the biggest rebuilding plan any team has ever constructed. The Astros have pared every veteran player from the roster other than a few low-cost free agents like Carlos Pena, Rick Ankiel and Erik Bedard. The payroll is so low that the player they're actually paying the most money to, Wandy Rodriguez, plays for the Pirates.

Bud Norris is the team's highest-paid player on the roster, and at $3 million he's making less than the major league average. He drew the start in front of the home fans and took a shutout into the sixth inning. The Rangers had gone 19-5 against the Astros since 2009 in interleague play, and finally rallied against a tiring Norris. New Astros manager Bo Porter may have left Norris in a batter or two too long, and the veteran Bedard -- actually slated to be the team's fifth starter -- was called in from the bullpen to record the night's biggest out, getting A.J. Pierzynski to fly out to center on a 1-0 fastball with the score 4-2 and two on base.

Meanwhile, Rangers manager Ron Washington -- not exactly lauded for his tactical genius over the years -- replaced Matt Harrison with veteran Derek Lowe with two runners in the bottom of the frame to face Brandon Barnes. Now, it's probably not Washington's fault that Lowe is on the roster following a season in which he had a 5.11 ERA and walked more batters than he struck out. If anything, using Lowe when the game was still in doubt speaks not so much to Washington's confidence in a vet who may be washed up as it does to the depth in the Texas bullpen. Anyway, Porter pinch-hit the left-handed Ankiel for Barnes, and he lofted an 82 mph breaking ball into the right-field seats for a three-run homer.

Look, it's one game. The Astros played respectably during spring training, going 15-16, but the talent here still suggests a 100-loss team. But if Norris and No. 2 starter Lucas Harrell can give them 60-plus starts of decent baseball, and Bedard surprises at the back end of the rotation, maybe they can avoid 100 losses. Porter plastered the team clubhouse during spring training with motivational quotes and predictions of the Astros' lousy season. Major leaguers don't really need motivation, but sometimes they do need confidence. Winning your opener is certainly better than losing it.

Plus, at least Astros fans have a little something to cheer this year -- they know expectations are as low as you can go, but it will be interesting to see which of the youngsters will develop. Power-hitting Chris Carter? Third baseman Matt Dominguez? Catcher Jason Castro? It's not a team completely devoid of talent; some of these guys will be around on the next good Astros team. Give the fans credit for the Opening Day sellout, a sign of faith and patience in their young squad. And give the Astros credit for playing a good game on national television.

First place.

Put that one on the bulletin board, Bo.