It was a typically steamy night on the outskirts of Houston, Brazil for the 78th round of the 2014 World Cup, between the Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves. Despite having already qualified for the 79th round, the Astros still had something on the line: starting anew at home after a 1-5 road trip during which striker George Springer failed once again to hit a 500-foot home run. The 1-5 stand has their overall record down to 33-44, which totally makes up for in both surprise and symmetry what it lacks in everything else.
In goal for the Astros was Scott Feldman, last year's winner of the slightly coveted Baseball Player Most Resembling a Regular Adult award, fully recovered from injury but yet to return to early season form. Unfortunately for the team, Feldman finds himself freshly mired in World Cup controversy having earlier in the day raised the ire of outgoing acting FIFA president, Bud Selig*, by A) being an Astro and B) taking a bite out of Selig's pork shoulder sandwich at that one really popular BBQ joint at the laconic corner of Petrolero and Mechanical Bull streets.
Feldman has been so-so since his return, raising his goals allowed per game to 3.95 for the season, which isn't nearly as bad as it sounds because, from a sabermetrics perspective, this is actually baseball, not soccer. His rough recovery, however, has caused Crawfish Boxes commenters to call for his regular adult head on a plate and to be replaced by everyone from LJ Hoes to Ethel Merman on a tear to a holograph of 1970s era Nolan Ryan.
In goal for the Braves was Aaron Harang, a man with 14 wins against Houston in his career, a mid-1990s goatee, physical heft, the droopy but sunken eyes of a Japanese anime henchman and, in this writer's opinion, an excess of ‘A's in his name.
The first bad news of the evening came when Springer's first inning homerun once again failed to travel 500 feet. In fact, it only went 441 feet, keeping the monkey firmly on his back by a full 59 feet. The second bit of bad news came when, back in the dugout, Springer took his helmet off with his back to the camera, revealing a haircut style that might charitably be described as ‘unfortunate'.
The next bit of bad news came in the top of the second half when Chris Johnson, on loan from the Astros for Marc Krauss and a 12-year-old phenom Bobby Borchering, equalized with an RBI double, erasing Feldman's clean sheet. Feldman was, fortunately, able to pitch his way out of the second half. Then, in the bottom of the second half, consecutive one-out singles by Castro and Carter were followed by a Grossman K and a Villar flyout.
The bad news wasn't over. In the top of the third half, BJ Upton homered off of Feldman, giving the Braves a 2-1 lead and that special mojo a team gets when a thin bespectacled fellow in a slump homers.
In the second half of the third half, Altuve moved Fowler to third with a scrappy basehit. After Springer grounded out for the first out, Singleton came to the plate, sporting that oddly popular mustache-less beard and a whiffle-ball size of chew, and promptly hit into a double play.
A pattern was forming: runners left on base.
Then came the next pattern: Upton brother homeruns, as Justin hit one in the first half of the fourth half that banged off one of the community signs in deep left center.
The Astros scored a goal in the second half of the fourth half on an RBI single by midfielder Villar but the rally was killed on a controversial third strike call on fullback Dexter Fowler.
Feldman then pitched out of a 100-plus jam in the sixth, which was nice until I looked at the clock and realized this game was really dragging. That combined with the fact that Zeid was warming up in the bullpen put a damper on that slight uptick in mood.
Zeid came to the mound in the first half of the seventh half, sporting a full, healthy beard, complete with mustache, and throwing 95. With one out, one Brave bunted another Brave over, which was disappointing despite getting watch an impressive if unsuccessful 'Zeid Slide'. Zeid got out of the seventh half with his personal clean sheet intact.
In the second half of the seventh half, Villar (who sports a very thin version of that creepy mustache-less beard Singleton has opted for) drew a one-out walk, bringing up Fowler, who took his sweet time striking out. Then came Altuve: clean shaven, with purpose. Altuve rocked a single down past the third baseman for his 105th hit, sending an aggressive Villar from first to third. This brought the clean-shaven George Springer up. Second and third, two outs. Down 3-2. The excitement had built. The time was ripe. Springer grounded out, which brings us to the first half of the 8th half of what was turning out to be an exceptionally long World Cup match with remarkably little on the line.
(Next pattern: Astros' hair -- be it on the back of Springer's head or missing underneath the noses of Villar and Singleton, seems to be sabermetrically seeking out that next market inefficiency. Which it really, really shouldn't. If Luhnow winds up bringing back the soul patch based on a damn spreadsheet, I'm done.)
The announcers, fresh off their coinage of 'Zeid Slide', pointed out the 'Sipp WHIP' of 0.67 as the clean-shaven lefty came to the mound. Sipp, throwing 93-94 at times, got the first two Braves to ground out then ended the inning by striking out the impressively bearded Gattis.
Which takes us to the second half of the eighth half, which brought Brave set-up guy Beardy McBeard to the mound. McBeard was throwing 95 but, more interestingly, throwing himself toward the batter immediately before releasing the ball. His unorthodox weirdness fooled Singleton but not Dominguez, who drew a four-pitch walk, bringing up Astros fullback Castro. Justin Upton made an incredible play going after and getting a foul ball despite Chris Johnson tagging along and getting in the way for the second out. Chris Carter then singled, bringing pinch runner and mustache-less bearded Marwin Gonzalez to third. That was fun until I saw Grossman, with his ginger-ish mountain scruff beard and sub-Mendoza BA come to the plate. Pressley, brought in as a pinch runner for Carter, steals second, adding to the excitement. Then Grossman struck out.
Next pattern detected: anti-climactic inning endings.
Sipp got the first batter of the ninth, a lefty out. Qualls came in, with his version of the mid-90s goatee, and made short work of the next two batters.
Which brings us to the second half of the 9th half of the longest soccer game ever. Would it be anti-climactic? Would there be runners left in scoring position? Would the facial hair be mixed? I finished by beer while watching Kimbrel warmup. Kimbrel's first pitch was 97 mph and a stat pops up on the TV that says these Astros are 0-38 when losing after the 8th. Oh geez.
Villar grounds out.
Fowler grounds out. The anti-climactic pattern is emerging.
But wait! The second baseman gets a yellow card for dropping the ball, putting Fowler on first!
Altuve steps to the plate. He hits a high chopper, which Fowler jumps on his way to second to be forced out, with Altuve safe at first.
Here comes Springer. Springer takes a ball. Altuve steals a base. Two outs, 2-0, down 3-2. The excitement is fully built. My feed cuts out. I get it back and the count is 2-2. Feed cuts out again. I get it back and the game is over.
*Outgoing due, according to the official FIFA statement charges of "being too corrupt even for FIFA, which is, like, ... dude.'**
**Like virtually everything else above, the above footnote was totally made up. Selig is actually a fine, upstanding citizen, the greatest American since Louis Pasteur.