There is an eerie light that happens once in awhile at dusk when the clouds are tall and exceptionally columnar, billowing to their full height to block those last few rays of sunlight as they straight-line scrape the Earth’s rounded surface. It is a sunset reflecting off of a cloud, and it turns the air yellow, tinting everything so gradually that you don’t realize it’s happening at first. And then all at once, you look up and everything looks like an aged photo or a movie director’s idea of what Heaven might look like.
It was in this golden hour that tonight’s baseball game began to take form. For the first two and a half innings, either side had been unable to crack the code of their opponent’s starting pitcher. Cole Hamels had a no-hitter and had just one walk through his first three frames, while Charlie Morton had allowed just an Adrian Beltre single through his first two.
But in the third, the Rangers took the lead, not in their usual fashion of hitting home run after home run in an attempt to shellshock the competition, but instead putting together a nine-batter inning that felt more like diplomatically convincing the Astros that everyone would be better served if this particular batter didn’t get out.
It started with a Napoli walk, then a Robinson Chirinos single over the mound and into center field. Shin-Soo Choo bunted badly, but Morton fielded also badly, and the bases were loaded for Elvis Andrus, whose single was nearly identical to that of Chirinos. Nomar Mazara was next, with the only hard-struck ball of the inning, which also went straight to center field. Then after strikeouts by Beltre and Joey Gallo, Carlos Gomez hit a single that was the third triplet to the Chirinos and Andrus singles. As the yellow light began to give way to the silver LED glow of the ballpark lights, Texas had a 4-0 lead over the division-leading Astros.
They would add another run in the fifth (Andrus double followed by a Beltre double) and yet another in the seventh (Andrus double followed by a Nomar Mazara bloop single; even with no outs, Andrus did not hesitate and got a perfect read allowing him to score on the play.)
Meanwhile, Cole Hamels finally did allow that first hit. It came in the fourth when Jose Altuve’s comebacker hit him in the left knee and caused it to go numb. Both he and Jeff Banister admitted later that as the game went on, the soreness and stiffness from the impact proved to be a challenge for Hamels. Remarkable, then, that when he left the game after seven innings, he had only allowed three hits and two walks to the top offense in the AL.
But in the 8th inning, the flaxen glow long since faded into a pitch black night, the first sign of trouble raised its head in the form of Jose Leclerc seemingly to forget how to throw a strike. He walked #9 hitter Derek Fisher, then George Springer hit a 2-run home run to right field. Leclerc proceeded to walk Alex Bregman, and if not for a sharply-turned 4-6-3 double play, the eighth inning might have gotten completely out of hand. But with two outs ...Leclerc walked Gurriel. It was time for Alex Claudio.
Claudio’s night will be remembered for the ninth inning, but while it ended with a roar-inducing strikeout, it certainly did not start with one. Claudio allowed an RBI double to Marwin Gonzalez, and another one to Carlos Beltran before tangling his antlers with Brian McCann for a ten-pitch battle of wills. The shrewd and slight-framed Puerto Rican and the coarse, stout-bodied wildling took turns winning small battles. Strike, ball, foul, foul, ball, ball, foul, foul, foul. Finally, the red-bearded grump connected and sent a low-sinking line drive into right field. But Nomar Mazara had broken well on the ball, and at the last minute was able to slide his glove just under the would-be patch of landing grass for the final out of the inning.
But there was one last drama to be vanquished. In the ninth inning, after Claudio quickly retired the first two batters, as the crowd began to cheer in anticipation of the one final out, Springer blooped a ball into shallow center field that skirted all would-be heroes. Then Bregman singled to left field. The tying run was now on first base, and Jose Altuve knew that one good swing of the bat could put the Astros on top.
And swing he did.
The first unfurling of kinetic energy was so violent that it nearly spun the diminutive second baseman off his own feet, which required a few quick steps to avoid finding themselves looking down on a face was contorted with determination.
Strike two was a (more controlled swing for a) foul ball, and then Claudio threw three straight pitches outside to load the count. 87, 74, 87. Altuve would not chase.
It was time for the Cambio.
Claudio’s 72mph pitch leaned into the strike zone like a drunken swordfighter while Altuve leaned out like a repulsed onlooker. Bill Welke, whose strike zone on the night had been apocryphal at best, got this one right. He pumped his fist and in short order, so did Claudio, as he growled and screamed in his dinosaur-like way. Altuve, too, growled and snapped at Welke, but to no avail. The game was over, and the Rangers had won, 6-4.
If we must tie this all together, perhaps we would conclude that tonight's win was just one of the last beautiful moments of sunlight before the night goes dark. A rare occurrence where the light hits just right and everything looks a little beautiful. But what is life, if not a never-stopping parade of moments; breath-taking, soul-crushing and everything in between. Success is most often found in the ability to grind out those two boring insurance runs between the margins (but it's okay to enjoy the good times while they are here).
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