TRIPLE PLAY TREATS!

Astros introduce tasty additions to stacked lineup of stadium grub

Astros introduce tasty additions to stacked lineup of stadium grub
Torchy's has been replaced by Top Taco. Photo via: Mat Drain.

Baseball, with full stadiums someday soon (hopefully), is back.

Best of all, fans can cheer on the Astros while enjoying hot dogs, beer and ice cream sundaes in miniature batting helmets at Minute Maid Park. Food, glorious baseball food.

Here's our annual 10 Questions for Mat Drain, the Baron of Butterfingers for Aramark, which runs all the concession stands at the ballpark.

1.SportsMap: On a personal level, how does it feel to have fans back in Minute Maid Park?

Mat Drain: I am absolutely ecstatic to have fans back in the ballpark enjoying a hot dog and a beer. When you get the opportunity to work in a stadium like Minute Maid Park you thrive off the excitement of fans which was missing last year with the shortened season and empty stands. The hardest part of not having fans in the ballpark was missing our extraordinary game day staff who are so instrumental to the fans' experience. They had been away from the ballpark since the last game of 2019.

2.SM: What did you do last year without fans to feed?

MD: We worked on COVID plans in case it was determined that fans could return safely to the ballpark in 2020. Many of our team members and creative culinary team still were responsible for feeding the home and visiting players, umpires and media who attended games.

3.SM: So far, the ballpark is restricted to 50-percent capacity. How are you accommodating that? Do you have a full menu with all concession stands open, or have you scaled service back proportionate to the crowd size?

MD: We are opening stands based on where fans are sitting in the ballpark and keeping in mind giving fans enough space to safely distance. The majority of our items are still available, but we've reduced the number of portable locations which has slightly impacted the variety. We still offer favorites like Shake Shack, Pluckers and Jackson Street BBQ and ballpark staples like hot dogs and nachos. Our fans on the club level still have branded options like Osso & Kristalla and Papa John's.

4.SM: Describe the cashless system you're using now.

MD: All food and beverage and retail transactions are cashless. You can use contactless payment like Apple Pay or Google pay, your major debit and credit cards, or use our reverse ATMs where you put in cash and it gives you a debit card that can be used anywhere inside Minute Maid Park. We are also providing mobile order pick-up as the only way to order at Killen's BBQ at Section 109.

5.SM: Are fans' eating habits the same, or have tastes changed coming out of 2020's pandemic year?

MD: After the first few games we are seeing the same eating habits. I think folks are really excited to be back in the ballpark. I forgot how much better a hot dog tastes when you are watching your hometown Astros.

6. SM: How are you implementing social distancing at concession stands? Are fans following the rules?

MD: We are opening stands and registers based on demand. We are ensuring that our staff has a safe work environment which, in some cases, results in closing some registers and providing reduced stand staff.

7.SM: What happened to Torchy's Tacos on the outfield mezzanine?

DM: After a three-year run Torchy's, a fan favorite, is no longer available. Torchy's has been replaced by Top Taco, which is an Aramark concept.

8.SM: Will Dollar Dogs be back this season?

MD: Yes, every Tuesday night. We had our first one this week and it appeared that fans have been saving their dollars as they did not skip a beat. The next Dollar Dog Night is April 27 when the Seattle Mariners are here. The unofficial record for most hot dogs sold is 46,000 hot dogs during a game against Boston. Like years past, we will sell our regular full-sized hot dogs on Dollar Dog Night.

9.SM: What are fans saying to you? Are they requesting anything special on the menu?

MD: The best part about having fans again is being able to talk to them around the stadium. Most fans are excited to back in the ballpark and are adjusting to the 2021 season protocols. Our fans are very engaged in the ballpark experience so I anticipate as we settle into the season we will start to get some feedback on food items they would like to see or inquire when their favorite item might return. We are ready for the challenge and can't wait for a full season of baseball.

10.SM: So what's new for 2021?

MD: We have two new chicken and taco concepts.

Tenders Love and Chicken (Section 418).

Premium chicken tenders or jumbo wings for $10.49. Both are available with hand-cut fries for $16.99.

Top Taco (outfield mezzanine).

Your choice (pick 2) of Korean Brisket, Adobo Chicken, Harissa Cauliflower or Pork Carnita tacos, served on either corn or flour tortillas, plus tortilla chips and salsa for $13.85.

TLC premium chicken tenders.


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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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