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Astros Appear Prepared for an All-Time Heel Tour

Houston is off to a fast start despite finally facing the boos of hostile away crowds.

Welcome to The Opener, where every weekday morning you’ll get a fresh, topical column to start your day from one of’s MLB writers.

Roughly 12,000 fans gathered in Oakland for each of the four opening-series games between the Athletics and Astros last week, many of them ready to unleash a torrential downpour of boos and bangs that’d been building for more than a year on baseball’s biggest villains. Despite MLB's releasing its report declaring the Astros cheated during the 2017 and 2018 seasons about 15 months ago, opposing fans hadn’t yet relished the opportunity to shower the guilty players with their due derision after being forced to stay home last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Houston made sure A’s fans had more to jeer about than cheer. By the end of the weekend, the boo birds were circling both teams.

Facing perhaps the most passionate heckles of their career—albeit from a limited-capacity crowd—the Astros won their first four road games for the first time in franchise history (a streak that was ended by a late Angels comeback in Anaheim on Monday night). In fact, Houston never trailed the entire series, beating the defending American League West champs 8–1, 9–5, 9–1 and 9–2 to become the fourth team in history to plate at least eight runs in its first four games. After scoring just 25 runs against Oakland’s pitching staff in 10 games last season, the Astros touched up the talented unit for 35 runs in the series.

The largest cheer may have rung out in response to Carlos Correa, the primary antagonist in the eyes of many, being plunked on Opening Day by starter Chris Bassitt (it almost certainly wasn’t on purpose). Other than that, it was a somber affair for A’s fans hoping they’d witness a comeuppance.

Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve celebrate a win over the A's

Even after their loss to Los Angeles on Monday night—which was briefly paused in the sixth inning to remove an inflatable trash can thrown onto the field and again in the eighth when Angels fans upped the stakes with a real recycling bin—the Astros lead the majors thus far in runs per game (8.2), home runs (9) and slugging percentage (.527), and rank second in OPS (.918) behind only the Dodgers.

The four hitters still in Houston who were involved in the scandal have looked determined to redeem themselves after slumping in 2020, prompting what may have been premature grave dancing on the Astros dynasty. Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel rank ninth and 11th in the majors, respectively, in OPS. Jose Altuve leads the majors with nine runs scored and is 8-for-21 (.381/.480/.429). Correa is the lone member of the quartet who hasn’t quite found his groove, but he had a two-hit game Monday and had already reminded everyone of his offensive prowess in last year’s playoffs.

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The A’s are the defending AL West champions, but after Houston eliminated Oakland from last year’s playoffs and stormed out of the Oakland Coliseum with a season-opening sweep, the Astros are the division’s team to beat. And it doesn’t seem like they’ll be too bothered by the chilly receptions they’ll receive across the country all summer long.

MLB’s marketing team has embraced the new-school attitude toward celebrations, but the league’s disciplinary arm is still stuck in the past.

Reds slugger Nick Castellanos was suspended for two games Monday after he scored, screamed and flexed in front of Cardinals reliever Jake Woodford on Saturday. Woodford had sent a 92-mph fastball into Castellanos’s ribs to put him on base, perhaps in retaliation for skipping his way down the first-base line after launching an Opening Day home run, though of course the Cardinals deny this.

This whole sequence of events preceded the first “brawl” of the season, which did not please the powers that be. Fine. But sidelining Castellanos—who, by the way, is leading the majors with three home runs and a 1.333 slugging percentage—for two games is a harsh overreaction that shows why baseball is considered the stuffiest team sport in the U.S.

Taunting is punished with an unsportsmanlike penalty and a fine in the NFL and a technical foul in the NBA. Certainly not a two-game suspension, especially for a player like Castellanos, who didn’t initiate any physical contact with his opponents or escalate the ensuing skirmish.

Castellanos appealed the decision and was able to play Monday night. He proceeded to hit the go-ahead home run in Cincinnati’s victory over Pittsburgh, and he let out another epic bellow, this time in the direction of his teammates in the dugout. I’m here for this newly passionate Castellanos hitting drives into deep left field all season long.

Quick Hits:

• Fernando Tatis Jr. suffered a partially dislocated left shoulder during San Diego’s game against the Giants on Monday, crumpling in a heap of pain at the plate after taking a big swing. If he’s out for an extended period, it’ll be a major loss for the Padres and the entire sport. Tatis’s rookie campaign in 2019 was cut short by a stress fracture in his lower back that cost him 43 games. Let’s hope this ailment doesn’t sideline him for nearly that long.

• The same old Mets showed up for the team’s delayed season debut against the Phillies. Jacob deGrom shut down Philadelphia for six innings before the Phillies scored all five of their runs in the eighth inning against New York’s bullpen to steal a 5–3 victory. Trevor May and Aaron Loup were the goats on Monday, but manager Luis Rojas also deserves some side eye for pulling deGrom—who was supposedly on a pitch count of 100—after 77 pitches. The Phillies bullpen, which last year had a strong argument for being the worst in MLB history, is now the only relief corps yet to allow a run in 2021.

• Seeing Texas’s new Globe Life Park filled up for its home opener was jarring. The state has been hitting record low numbers in multiple COVID-19 metrics to begin the month, but this still feels like a premature celebration akin to a wide receiver's dropping the ball before reaching the end zone. You can bet every team will be closely watching Texas’s COVID-19 case graph over the next few weeks to see if it can justify trying to get away with it, too. Hopefully the people in charge also keep an eye on the ever-increasing number of deaths and prioritize the safety of Americans ahead of financial gain.