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The Strike Zone

Houston Astros win, are in first place in AL West. (You read that right)

The first win of the 2013 season belongs to Bud Norris, who allowed two runs in 5 2/3 innings against Texas. (Pat Sullivan/AP) The first win of the 2013 season belongs to Bud Norris, who allowed two runs in 5 2/3 innings against Texas. (Pat Sullivan/AP)

By Cliff Corcoran

Major League Baseball's regular season kicked off Sunday night with a matchup between the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros, two teams with wildly different outlooks heading into the 2013 season. The Rangers are a popular pick to win the American League West and reach the postseason for the fourth straight year. The Astros, who made their debut as an American League team Sunday night and have lost 213 games combined the past two years, are widely believed to be on course for a 110-loss season; some even think they could challenge the modern-day record of 120 losses set by the infamous 1962 Mets.  What's more, Texas has a payroll that is almost $90 million more than Houston's and had two players in its lineup on Sunday (Adrian Beltre and Ian Kinsler) that make more combined than the Astros' entire team.

Naturally, the Astros not only won, but they also pounded the Rangers 8-2, and did so by using something appropriately uncommon: tandem starters. First, Bud Norris gave rookie manager Bo Porter 5 2/3 innings, after which Porter gave the ball to fifth starter Erik Bedard, whose last Major League relief appearance came in 2004, and let him finish the game, throwing 3 1/3 scoreless innings to pick up his first career save. Bedard, who threw just 38 pitches, will now get a full four days of rest before his turn in the rotation comes up on Saturday.

Houston's reward is that it will get to enjoy being in first place in the AL West -- and the best team in Texas -- for a couple of days (the second game of this series will take place on Tuesday). Further, while they are still likely destined for the division basement, Sunday night's game was a nice showcase for an Astros team that has taken too much flack this offseason. Centerfielder Justin Maxwell went 2-for-3 with a walk, a pair of triples, and an impressive ninth-inning catch which found him race into a corner at the wall in Minute Maid Park's left-centerfield. Platoon rightfielder Rick Ankiel hit a two-out, pinch-hit, three-run homer off the Rangers' Derek Lowe in the bottom of the sixth to blow the game open, and Norris and Bedard held the admittedly downgraded Texas offense to two runs on six hits while striking out seven.

The way Houston used its pitchers tonight was no accident. The Astros will be using tandem starters throughout their minor league system in the early months of the season, effectively doubling the number of young pitchers they can watch work long outings and turn over lineups in the hope of identifying which of their young arms really are best suited to a starting role. Clearly, they intended to use Bedard this way if the game allowed for it.

Incidentally, Bedard got the save because he held the lead for three innings and finished the game, triggering a part of the save rule that rarely comes into play. Of the 1,261 saves recorded in the 2012 regular season, just nine of them came via that aspect of the rule. Coincidentally, the last was by Lowe in an 8-2 game against the Rangers, that coming on Aug. 13 when he was with the Yankees.

The two big hits in the game were Maxwell's first triple and Ankiel's pinch-hit home run. Maxwell's triple, which drove in the first two runs of the season in the fourth inning, was a wall-scraper to left field off Rangers' starter Matt Harrison that hit a ledge on the scoreboard on the left-field wall and bounced into the air, allowing the speedy Maxwell to race around to third. Ironically, the umpires, who had blown two calls earlier in the game that couldn't be reviewed (a tag play at second base an a trap play in center field), did review Maxwell's triple to see if the ball had actually hit the wall above the home run line, but the call on the field, which was correct, stood.

That hit gave Houston a lead it never relinquished, and Ankiel's homer off Lowe two innings later put the game away. With two on and two out and his Rangers trailing  4-2, Texas manager Ron Washington either failed to anticipate the lefthanded Ankiel pinch-hitting for righthanded rookie Brandon Barnes, who started in rightfield, or actually opted to have the righty Lowe face Ankiel's lefthanded power bat rather than have one of the three lefties in his bullpen pitch to Barnes with two more righties due up behind him. Whatever the intention, Lowe hung a curve and Ankiel crushed it into the rightfield seats, increasing the Astros' lead to 7-2 and giving their fans what may yet prove to be a rare moment to brag about.

From there, Bedard, who allowed only a single in his 3 1/3 innings of work, cruised to the finish line, but it wasn't all roses for the Astros. Their two, three, and four hitters (Brett Wallace, Chris Carter and Carlos Peña) struck out eight times in 12 plate appearances, a bad omen for a club that very much looks like an expansion team, both in the composition of its major league roster and its new uniforms, which recall the 1962 Colt .45's road look.

Still, for at least a couple of nights, Astros are in first place, the Rangers are in last in the same division and Erik Bedard leads the league in saves. Welcome to a brand new baseball season!
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