Opening victory is bold step for Porter, Astros
HOUSTON -- Astros manager Bo Porter ran a tough, fast camp. He had mirrors installed in every locker, and he prominently displayed a sign that said, "It starts with the man in the mirror." He talked constantly about attitude and energy.
Porter began each workout with a quote of the day. For instance:
"Greatness is a lot of small things."
"The road to being a champion is always under construction."
"Ignore the noise."
Outside the clubhouse, the Astros were said to be in a three-year rebuilding plan, or maybe a five-year plan. General manager Jeff Luhnow spent his first year on the job stripping the roster of a lot of experienced players to replenish the Minor League system.
Luhnow hired all sorts of people, traditional scouts and instructors, but also men and women with advanced degrees to collect data and then interpret what it all meant.
Inside the clubhouse, though, there was the usual job of preparing a baseball team for a season. Porter didn't give a rip about a three-year plan. He saw his job just like that of every other manager.
Porter wanted his players to take care of the details and to play hard and to play with attitude. He trusted veterans like Carlos Pena and Rick Ankiel, players Luhnow handpicked for their work ethic and ability to contribute and set an example.
During Spring Training, outfielder Justin Maxwell approached Pena one day and told him, "I really admire the way you do things. You run hard every single time."
Maxwell understood that if a 12-year veteran like Pena ran hard, then someone like himself, a guy still trying to prove himself, had to do it exactly that way.
Porter wanted a team with a certain attitude, a team that would force the action and be solid defensively. He wanted them to understand if a team just did the basic things, if they let the other team know they weren't about to back down, then the Astros had a chance to be competitive.
"If you allow a team to relax, they will relax," Porter said. "But if you make them play faster than they want to play, that's how you force people into making mistakes."
Some of Houston's players wore T-shirts Sunday night that had the word "Defense" on the front and "27 outs, no more" on the back.
Translation: Play cleanly, don't give outs away.
After 20 years in the game, Porter had worked too hard and too long to give up on a season, especially his first one. He'd also been one of those borderline players who, maybe, just maybe, needed someone to believe in him.
So if a lot of people thought the Astros were going to lose at least 100 games for a third straight year, Porter just asked that his players ignore that stuff and do things right.
To a franchise like the Astros, little moments are important. This Opening Night was one of those. Six months from now, the Rangers may not even remember Game 1.
For the Astros, though, it was huge. It was a night to soak in an electric atmosphere, to appreciate 41,307 packing Minute Maid Park.
Porter himself paused a moment during pregame ceremonies to think what the moment mean to him and his family.
"You get to moments like this, and you think back to all the blood, sweat and tears," he said. "It's nights like tonight that makes it all worth it."
Anyway, on this one Sunday night, the Astros, this team no one expects anything from, played a perfect baseball game. They ran the bases aggressively and forced the Rangers into a couple of mistakes. They got great pitching from Bud Norris and Erik Bedard.
Ankiel hit a pinch-hit three-run homer, and Maxwell drove in two runs and made a couple of flashy plays in center field, and Houston began its American League era with an 8-2 victory.
Afterward, the players talked about their manager, how he'd gotten them prepared mentally as well as physically, how he'd made them believe in themselves when almost no one else would.
"I think it starts with Bo -- the tone he sets every day," first baseman Brett Wallace said. "He's got that energy and an aggressiveness about him. He's really instilled that in us. Every day, whether we had drills or we had a game, we were attacking it and being aggressive. I think you can already see it in Game 1 today."
As Ankiel said, "Bo's aggressive by nature. He's high energy. He's passionate. If you spend time around Bo, he'll make you more passionate about the game."
The truth is the Astros have no idea how many games they'll win this season. That's why this first one was so important. It is still a rebuilding project.
In a lot of ways, it was a chance to show off their new uniforms and colors and a chance to show that they're going to play the game a certain way.
"He had us ready to go," Norris said. "He had us focused day in and day out. He has pushed to get the most out of each player."
Porter got the job, in part, because of his energy and ideas. He also got the job because he convinced Luhnow he would be open to the volumes of data his front office will prepare.
There was a glimpse of that data in the top of the seventh inning when Houston shortstop Ronny Cedeno was positioned almost behind second base and fielded a Mitch Moreland grounder hit directly at him.
Upstairs in Luhnow's box, Astros owner Jim Crane turned to Sig Mejdal, who has the title of "director of decision science," and asked, "Did you move him there?"
Mejdal smiled and nodded.
In the end, though, these Astros, this collection of young guys and veteran players nearing the end of the line, will be challenged by teams with more pure talent. But Porter has convinced them that attitude and effort and playing smart also matter.
"We feed off Bo's energy, too," Maxwell said. "It's all the little things. Running bases hard. He reminded us tonight, 'You did a great job in Spring Training. Don't let up.'"