Across the AL: Rangers, Astros Set to Meet on Opening Night of MLB

Harrison & Norris 2

With less than a week to go until the Texas Rangers visit Minute Maid Park on Sunday, March 31 to play the Houston Astros, the 2013 MLB season will be underway shortly.  The Rangers will be sending lefty Matt Harrison to the hill, while right-hander Bud Norris will start for the Astros in the team’s American League debut.

Harrison earned himself a trip to the All-Star Game in 2012, going 18-11 for the Rangers with an ERA of 3.29.  The 27-year-old pitched over 200 innings and recorded quality starts in 20 of his 32 games started.

Against the Astros, however, Harrison has not fared very well.  While the Rangers have won 22 of the 30 games they have played against the Astros since 2008, Harrison is 0-1 against the ‘Stros with an ERA of 5.14 over 14 innings pitched.  The last time Harrison faced Houston was in June 2011, when the left-hander gave up seven hits and five earned runs in six innings.

Fortunately for Harrison, not one Astro from that lineup he last saw is still with the team.  In fact, only six current Astros have ever batted against Harrison – none of whom have recorded a hit.  Only two of those six players, left fielder Chris Carter and designated hitter Carlos Peña, project to be in Houston’s everyday lineup in 2013.  Carter is 0-7 against Harrison, while Peña, who will be the first DH in Houston Astros history, is 0-8 with four strikeouts.

Bud Norris, 28, has been with the Astros since the team chose him in the sixth round of the 2006 draft.  Despite the fact that, over 29 starts, Norris went 7-13 in 2012 with a 4.65 ERA, rookie manager Bo Porter feels that the righty is the best choice for his team’s Opening Day starter.  Porter admits that, in addition to Norris being the longest tenured starter on the team, a major factor in the decision was the pitcher’s unbelievable numbers at home.

Starting a total of 11 games at Minute Maid Park last year, Norris went 4-1 with a 1.71 ERA, which was the second-lowest home ERA in all of MLB.  He held opponents to a .199 batting average and had an extremely impressive 4.82 strikeout-to-walk ratio – to put that number into perspective, the Yankees’ CC Sabathia led the AL in 2012 with a 4.48 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

In his 18 starts away from home in 2012, Norris went 3-12 with a 6.94 ERA and a 1.69 K/BB.  On the road, he gave up more than double the amount of hits he did at home and more than triple the number of home runs.  After looking at those splits, it is easy to understand why Norris got the nod for the opening night of MLB, which happens to be a home game for the Astros.

Although he has never faced the Rangers or most of the team’s hitters in his career, Norris could still run into some trouble, as Texas has a very strong lineup that is more than capable of inflicting damage.  Two active Rangers have had some lifetime success against Norris; veterans Lance Berkman and Geovany Soto are each hitting .333 with a home run against the righty.

Though Soto is unlikely to be in the starting lineup Sunday night, Berkman figures to be the starting DH and sure feels comfortable hitting at Minute Maid Park.  Big Puma, as the 37-year-old is called, was drafted by the Astros in 1997 and spent his first 11 seasons in Houston.  The six-time All-Star has absolutely unbelievable numbers at Minute Maid Park: in 788 career games, Berkman is hitting .307 with 156 home runs and 537 RBI.  Teammates Adrian Beltre (.289/5 HR/17 RBI), Ian Kinsler (.306/4 HR/7 RBI), and Nelson Cruz (.292/4 HR/13 RBI) are also fond of hitting within the juicy confines of Minute Maid Park (pun intended).

Because neither Matt Harrison nor Bud Norris has much experience against the respective lineups they will be facing in what is now an AL West rivalry, it remains to be seen whether the lack of previous matchups will benefit the hitters or the pitchers.  Clearly, though, the lowly Astros are the underdogs in Sunday’s upcoming game.  The team is coming off of back-to-back 100-loss seasons and has many, many deficiencies.  Other than Carlos Pena, Rick Ankiel, and recently-acquired Ronny Cedeno, the Astros are a very young and inexperienced team.  With that being said, there is only one way to go for the worst team in the majors.  Furthermore, the game between the ‘Stros and Rangers marks the beginning of what should prove to be another exciting MLB season; it is even one of Sports Illustrated’s 10 must-see games of 2013.

Yankee fans can get a sneak preview of the young Houston team tonight (3/26) at 7:05 PM, when the Bombers host the Astros in a Grapefruit League matchup.  During the regular season, the Yankees play the Astros a total of six times, with the first three-game series commencing in the Bronx on April 29.

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