The Austin Chronicle

Express Cruise, Astros Struggle, Clydesdales Clip-Clop Into Town

By Christopher Gray, April 6, 2007, 3:23pm, The Score

Houston Astros fans can sleep a little sounder this season knowing that, while the big club has had a little trouble notching its first victory, AAA club Round Rock is the class of the Pacific Coast League (and not just for its Playboy-endorsed ballpark). The Express, with several of Houston's last-minute roster cuts in the starting lineup, opened its season last night with a convincing 6-2 victory over the Iowa Cubs at the Dell Diamond. Second baseman Brooks Conrad homered in the bottom of the first after a walk to Hunter Pence, but starter Fernando Nieve couldn't hold the lead, as walks and defensive miscues allowed Iowa to score a run apiece in the next two frames.

The defending PCL American conference champions put the game out of reach in the fourth with some small ball. Pence walked, advanced to second on a wild pitch, and third on a scratch single by Conrad, but was thrown out at home on catcher Eric Munson's seeing-eye grounder past short. However, Conrad advanced to third and Munson to second on the throw, and third baseman Cody Ransom walked to load the bases. Iowa starter J.R. Mathes walked first baseman Mark Saccamanno to give Round Rock the lead for good, pinch hitter Barry Wesson playing add-on with a base hit past second to plate Munson and Ransom. However, Saccamanno wore the goat horns, killing the rally by getting thrown out at third.

Munson closed out the scoring in the eighth with a solo home run to give him three hits on the night, and Express relievers Stephen Randolph, Phillip Barzilla, and Paul Estrada held the Cubs to one hit over the final five innings, striking out eight.

Meanwhile, back in H-town, the Astros got plenty of practice with their "it's a long season" cliches, as they couldn't find a way to beat the Pirates even once, even with the Bucs missing 2006 NL batting champion Freddy Sanchez. To be fair, Pittsburgh has improved its lineup with Xavier Nady and Adam LaRoche; LaRoche was a nonfactor against Houston, but former New York Met Nady absolutely killed them with two clutch home runs. Whatever Brad Lidge has come down with that makes him incapable of recording three outs without giving up at least one run, he's now passed along to Chad Qualls and Dan Wheeler, making David Wells doppelganger and official badass Rick White the bullpen's only saving grace at the moment. And the less said about Chris Burke's misadventures in center field, the better, although the Juice Box does have one of the tougher center fields in the majors.

On the bright side, starters Roy Oswalt and Jason Jennings only surrendered a run apiece, and fifth starter (for now) Chris Sampson looked good out of the bullpen Wednesday. Woody Williams struggled but would still have been in line for that night's win if not for Houston's defensive meltdown in the fifth - their three errors were more than they usually make in a week. Two were on shortstop Adam Everett, though, but he probably won't make another until the All-Star break. Let's hope so. Craig Biggio leads the club in hitting and only needs 66 more to reach 3,000.

It could always be worse: Heading into Union Station this weekend are the defending World Champion St. Louis Cardinals, whom the Mets treated like a prison bitch in their opening three-game sweep. St. Louis scored two whole runs in three games while surrendering 20, and No. 1 starter Chris Carpenter is already out with an injury. Looks like a long season under the arch, and speaking as an Astros fan, I could not be happier. Unless it was the Cubs.

Oh, and speaking of St. Louis, for some reason the world-famous and adorable Budweiser Clydesdales will be at the Dell Diamond through Tuesday's home-stand finale against Omaha. Go figure.

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