A win is a win is a ...

It’s remarkable how similar, and yet how different, the two starting pitchers were last night. One pitcher couldn’t find the strike zone, and yet had the audacity to seem to question it, with both hands and a flashlight, and the other had nearly pinpoint control. Pineiro and Hampton threw nearly the same number of pitches (95 to 92) and yet Pineiro threw 11 more strikes (64 to 53) than Hampton did. I’m fairly well convinced that, if we had never swung the bat, Hampton could not have thrown 3 strikes before throwing 4 balls to any hitter in our lineup. If this is what the Astros can expect from Hampton, it’s going to be a long season in Houston.

Pineiro, on the other hand, pounded the bottom of the strike zone consistently. He walked just 1, Geoff Blum in the 2nd, and seemed to be able to place the ball where he wanted it most of the time. We all complain about Pineiro but throwing strikes has really never been his problem. His career BB/9 is 2.80 and last year w/ the Cards it was just 2.12. We shouldn’t be that surprised by his ability to throw strikes.

The two pitchers were so similar in their ability to live at the bottom of the zone with their sinker/slider/changeup mixture. Pineiro was much more consistently in the zone while Hampton nibbled the corners – ironically never wanting to throw one in the zone and getting frustrated by an inability to get called strikes – but never really seemed to get a ball up. Hampton had 6 ground ball outs to 4 fly ball outs and Pineiro had an impressive 14:3 GO/FO ratio. Hampton’s ability to stay down in the zone and our occasional impatience are the only things that kept us from hanging 7 or 8 runs on him. Hampton gave up just 1 extra base hit – a 2 out run scoring double in the third – and Pineiro gave up just 2 – doubles to Lance Berkman and Blum.

The Blum double was a fluke – a dinker that snaked its way over the third base bag and probably died in the grass 20 feet behind the bag. No problem. Those things happen sometimes. The Berkman double, on the other hand, was indicative of what happens when Pineiro doesn’t stay at the knees and below. He got a slider up just a little bit and Berkman smoked it. Pineiro gave up 8 hits in 6.2 IP but most of them were ground ball singles. Even Blum’s double was a grounder. Here’s more proof that batting average is overrated. Pineiro’s batting average against last night was .320. Most would call that awful but he was never really threatened outside of the Berkman run scoring double in the 6th. Why? Because he didn’t walk anyone and gave up nothing but singles. It takes a ton of singles to score 4-5 runs so as long as Pineiro’s able to keep the ball down, get double plays, and give up singles, he’s going to keep us in games regardless of his batting average against.

That, however, is a two-sided coin. Berkman’s double last night showed us that Pineiro walks a very fine line. His margin for error is very small. He struck out only 2 batters – Hunter Pence on a slider out of the zone in the 3rd and Jason Smith on a changeup in the dirt in the 6th. He simply cannot get the ball past hitters with any consistency. In order to have success, he’s going to have to stay at the knees and throw strikes. When his control is off just a little, he’s going to be taking an early shower. Hopefully, we’ll see a lot of games like the one he pitched last night.

I’m less enthused w/ our offensive performance than Pineiro. As poorly as Hampton pitched, getting only 3 runs off him in 5 innings is a disgrace. Didn’t it seem like the game wasn’t as close as 5-3? Didn’t it seem like it was 7 or 8 to 3 instead? It turned into a fairly close game, largely b/c of some poor PAs and Hampton’s ability to keep the ball down. Albert, for example, swung at the first pitch twice – making outs both times. In the other PA against Hampton, he walked on 4 pitches. Ankiel struck out on a curveball in the dirt and hit a grounder to first when swinging at a first pitch fastball that was up and in. In 5 innings, against a guy who was having a terrible time throwing strikes, we swung at the first pitch 8 times. No PA was more indicative of our impatience than Pujols’ 2 on, 2 out PA in the 4th. Hampton threw a slider on the first pitch at the knees and on the inside corner and Pujols grounded it to third. He hit it hard, to be sure, but is that really the pitch Albert needs to be swinging at in that situation? He had thrown 84 pitches – in the 4th inning – and had just walked the nearly unwalkable Khalil Greene. Albert swung at the first pitch and hit a pitcher’s pitch and we were only up 3-0 when, by then it really should have been 5-0 or 6-0. There’s no doubt that Albert would’ve gotten a much better pitch to hit in that situation or walked, thus loading the bases for Ludwick, had he not been so impatient.

Tony’s bullpen use was interesting, to say the least. In the 7th, w/ 2 outs and runners on 1st and 3rd, w/ Darin Erstad – a lefty – announced as the pinch hitter, Tony turned to slider expert Josh Kinney. To me this was a peculiar selection. Now, Erstad’s really no threat to hurt you w/ the long ball – the score was 4-1 at the time – but Erstad has a career .703 OPS against lefties. That situation screamed for either Trever Miller or Dennys Reyes, neither of whom had even warmed up. Clearly, Tony was saving one of them for Berkman in the 8th. However, if things go well, you only need 1 of them for Berkman b/c Berkman only comes to plate once more. It was then that I thought that Tony was saving Reyes for the 9th. Erstad walked and Matsui – a switch hitter who’s better from the left side – walked and the score was 4-2 when Kinney was finally able to get Pence – the first righty he faced. Shouldn’t Miller have been the choice there – facing Erstad and Matsui? He gets one of them and then can face Pence in the 8th before facing Berkman and being pulled for Kinney or McClellan when Carlos Lee steps to the plate. Hinky!

Then the 9th – Motte’s slider was, to me, much better than Monday and he was able to stay down in the zone w/ his fastball. Still, he got behind Pudge 3-2 and Pudge knew fastball was coming and drilled it for a solid single leading off the 9th. Motte’s going to have to avoid being predictable, as I noted Thursday. After getting Bourn, Jeff Keppinger managed to stay alive by fouling off a 97 mph fastball and, when Motte hung a slider in the middle of the plate, Keppinger hit a single to right and ended Motte’s evening. Did Tony pull Motte too soon? I don’t know. He’s clearly worried about hurting Motte’s confidence and losing games. In both games, it’s been Motte’s control that has let him down. Last year he walked 3 batters and struck out 16 in just 11 IP. Down on the farm, Chris Perez threw 2 innings Thursday night, walking one and striking 2 out. It won’t surprise me to see him w/ the big club very soon.

Game thread at 3:15 – day game on Fox. Opening day starters on the hill. Should be a good one.

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