TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME

For all of the Astros uncertainties, you are their biggest of all

The Astros will make the ballpark as safe as possible. Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images.

In two weeks the Houston Astros will start their 2021 journey filled with more questions and answers than Champions Week on Jeopardy. And not just on the field, where manager Dusty Baker is still deciding who'll bat leadoff and where and how often Yordan Alvarez fits into the lineup.

The biggest open-ended uncertainty is a returning problem from 2020 – how will COVID-19 affect the baseball season and fan experience?

The Astros will start the season with about 25-percent occupancy in Minute Maid Park, subject to hopefully increase as vaccinations rise and hospitalizations drop during their 14 home games in April.

But will fans want to return to the ol' ballpark? Baseball hasn't exactly been a growth industry in recent years, with league attendance and TV ratings in slow, steady, measurable decline. MLB attendance in 2007 was 79 million. Attendance in 2019 (the last full schedule) was 68 million.

More fans attended baseball games in person two decades ago than in 2019. World Series TV ratings peaked in 1978 when the games averaged 44 million viewers. Last year's World Series, including major market Los Angeles Dodgers, had the lowest audience ever, averaging only 9.7 million viewers.

Four of the five least-viewed World Series have been in the past decade. The five most-watched Series were pre-1985.

The troubling COVID infection rate in Houston may have an impact on Astros attendance, especially in April and May as Pfizer and Moderna are bigger draws than Altuve and Correa.

The Astros will make the ballpark as safe and inviting as possible, with social distance seating upon request and hand sanitizing stations everywhere. MLB protocol mandates that fans must wear a mask except when "actively eating and drinking." Do not be an anti-mask Karen. You won't get away with nursing a Snickers candy bar in your hand for nine innings to avoid wearing a face covering. Minute Maid Park is not a public building. The Astros are the boss of you there.

"We will have masks available to fans as they enter the building if they do not have one. We are counting on our fans to be respectful of the rule and of each other," said Anita Sehgal, senior vice-president of marketing and communications for the Astros.

"We will have signage, announcements and staff monitoring with reminders. As per MLB protocols, we reserve the right to request a fan to leave if they are not adhering to the policy."

Remember the woman who refused to wear a mask in that bank in Galveston last week and challenged police, "What are you going to do, arrest me?" Done. There's a warrant out for her arrest. You don't want to embarrass yourself and your buddies by doing the walk of shame out of Minute Maid Park. You'll end up on YouTube. Simple rule: be a good fan. Wear a mask.

My prediction/solution: special seating sections for fans who are fully vaccinated. Do I have to come up with every good idea around here?

Apples to apples … or baseballs to basketballs: the Houston Rockets are operating with limited capacity at Toyota Center and still have trouble drawing fans. Much like the Rockets themselves, ticket prices on StubHub and other secondary market sites have hit rock bottom.

While you can chalk up the deep discounts to the Rockets' frustrating losing streak, the team was offering sale prices even when they had superstar James Harden and a winning record earlier this season.

It will be interesting to watch fan reaction when the Astros hit the road this season. The Astros were spared, let's say polite, commentary from fans in Yankee Stadium last year because of the shortened schedule. The Astros will visit The Bronx on May 4-5-6. Suggestions to Astros outfielders, wear profanity-canceling headphones. Full body armor might be a good idea, too. Boisterous Yankees fans don't adhere to the playground "no mothers" rule when hurling insults at opposing players.

The Astros might not receive tender bon mots from fans in Dodger Stadium on Aug. 3-4, either.

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The losing streak continues

Mariners get walk-off win over short-staffed Astros

Alex De Goti had an impressive debut. Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

After a brutal homestand capped off by losing five players to the IL for health and safety protocols, the once 5-1 Astros brought their now 6-6 record to T-Mobile park in Seattle to try and right the ship. They'd have to do it with new and young players in the lineup using the "next man up" mentality to get some wins against the first-place Mariners.

Though the young bats would work themselves into a lead most of the night, Houston's bullpen wouldn't be able to hold the Mariners down, with Seattle ultimately walking things off in the ninth.

Final Score: Mariners 6, Astros 5

Astros' Record: 6-7, fourth in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Anthony Misiewicz (2-0)

Losing Pitcher: Ryne Stanek (0-1)

After a quiet start, Houston gets three in the fifth

After cruising through the Astros through the first four innings, allowing only a walk over that span, Houston was able to put up a big inning against Yusei Kikuchi in the top of the fifth. Carlos Correa notched the first hit of the night, followed by a walk by Taylor Jones to put two on base.



That brought Alex De Goti, making his major-league debut, to the plate and, in his second career at-bat, would get his first hit and RBI, bringing in Correa from second on a single. A second run would come on the same play on a throwing error, then Chaz McCormick made it a three-run inning with an RBI-double, putting Houston out front 3-0.

Urquidy comes an out shy of a quality start

Meanwhile, Jose Urquidy was doing well through five innings. On track for a much-needed quality start, the Mariners would tag him in the bottom of the sixth, getting three-straight hits to bring in two runs to lead off the frame and leaving a runner on second base with no outs.

Urquidy would rebound to get the next two batters on strikeouts, but at 90 pitches and with a left-handed hitter up next, Dusty Baker would bring in lefty Brooks Raley to try and get out of the inning with the one-run lead intact. Raley would do his job, putting Uruidy's line final: 5.2 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 7 K, 90 P.

Teams trade two-run seventh innings

The young bats for Houston struck again in the top of the seventh, with Jones and De Goti leading it off with back-to-back singles before Jason Castro would load the bases with a walk. With two outs, Aledmys Diaz would push the lead back to three with a two-RBI single, making it 5-2.

With Raley out after facing his one batter, next out of Houston's bullpen was Bryan Abreu to help maintain Houston's lead. Instead, he would give up two runs on two hits and a walk while getting just two outs before Baker moved on to Blake Taylor, who would get the last out of the seventh with Houston hanging on to a one-run lead at 5-4.

Mariners get the walk-off win

Taylor remained in the game in the bottom of the eighth, and after getting an out, would allow a game-tying solo home run to Evan White before injuring himself trying to field an infield single. Ryne Stanek entered and finished off the eighth, sending the tie game to the ninth.

After Houston came up empty in the top half, Stanek remained in the game in the bottom of the ninth, attempting to force extras. Back-to-back walks ended Stanek's night, with the Astros hoping Ryan Pressly could bail them out. He couldn't, though, giving up the walk-off hit as the Mariners would take the opener, 6-5.

Up Next: Game two of this three-game set will start an hour earlier on Saturday, with first pitch at 8:10 PM Central. Zack Greinke (1-1, 4.08 ERA) will try to rebound from a poor start his last time out for the Astros, while the Mariners will hand the ball to Chris Flexen (1-0, 4.50 ERA).

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