PLAY BALL!

Here's your all-inclusive guide to Astros opening day

Photo by Bob Levey /Stringer/Getty Images.

Baseball is finally back for the 2020 season, we'll hope and see for how long. But at 8:10 p.m. next Friday, Justin Verlander will take the mound at Minute Maid Park to throw the unceremonial first pitch of what has to be the strangest season in Astros – and every other team's – history.

Teams will start the COVID-shortened, 60-game season, with a 30-man roster, which will be whittled down to 26 players after about a month. Both the American and (gasp) National Leagues will use designated hitters. The Astros have a new manager, Dusty Baker, and new general manager, James Click, for their season of vindication. Relievers will have to face at least three batters unless the inning ends first. Players won't be allowed to spit or high-five each other. The Astros third baseman shaved his head again. Phillies infielder Didi Gregorius will wear a face mask during games. Extra innings will start with a runner on second base. Fun fact: if that runner crosses home plate, it will be scored an unearned run.

Subject to change, here's the Astros starting pitching for the opening 4-game set against the Seattle Mariners. Verlander on Friday night, Lance McCullers goes Saturday (3:10 p.m.), followed by Zack Greinke on Sunday (1:10 p.m.) and Josh James on Monday (6:10 p.m.) Like most of the schedule, the games against Seattle will be televised on ATT SportsNet SW. Unlike the NBA, baseball teams will not be confined to a coronavirus-protective bubble, which means everything about this season really is subject to change.

The Astros will play 40 games against American League West rivals and 20 games against the National League West. No Yankees, no Red Sox. The season will be split evenly, 30 games each at home and on the road. The Astros will be trying to repeat as American League champions, win the American League West for the fourth consecutive time, and top last year's 107-game win total. It would be the first time the Astros have done any of those.

Baseball's opening day always has been special, since April 22, 1876 when Boston beat Philadelphia, 6-5, in what is regarded as baseball's first professional opening day. The game took just over two hours to play. Wouldn't that be nice? We could be home in time for Dominique. Here's how the N.Y. Clipper newspaper covered that first contest: "Weather was favorable and the attendance large, over 3,000 persons being inside the inclosure."

While today's players are far superior to those of 1876, so are today's sports writers. I'm sure my baseball scribe buddy Richard Justice would have written "more than 3,000 fans" and "enclosure" instead of "inclosure," which I'm not sure is even a word. Next week Justice will report that the paid attendance at Astros' Opening Day will be, in the words of George Costanza, "absolute zero." The 2020 baseball season, at least at the start, will be played without fans. Forget Dollar Dogs on Tuesdays.

Baseball, being a game of stats, has a special column for Opening Day. Tom Seaver holds the record for most Opening Day starts with 16. In 1940, Cleveland's Bob Feller threw the only Opening Day no-hitter, beating the Chicago White Sox, 1-0 in old and cold Comiskey Park. Temperature at game time: 35 degrees. Largest attendance for an Opening Day: 74,420 at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium to watch the hometown Indians beat the Tigers, 2-1. Henry Aaron hit his 714th homer, tying Babe Ruth's all-time record (at the time) on Opening Day in 1974. Presidents often have thrown out first pitches on Opening Day. In 1950, ambidextrous Harry Truman threw out two pitches – one righty and one lefty. Frank Robinson holds the record for most home runs on Open Day – eight dingers for four different teams. Three players have hit homers in four consecutive Opening Days: Todd Hundley (1994-97), Gary Carter (1977-80) and Yogi Berra (1955-58). Astros soon-to-be free agent George Springer (sign him!) enters 2020 riding a three Opening Day homer streak.

The strangest Opening Day game, though, had to be way back on April 11, 1907, when the Philadelphia Phillies beat the New York Giants … by forfeit. If you had to guess the reason for the forfeit, you'd be here forever still guessing.

New York forfeited the game because a Giants fan hit umpire Bill Klem in the head with a snowball.

Snow had fallen in New York the night before the game. The Phils were leading 3-0 in the top of the ninth when fans began throwing snowballs at each other. Some fans ran on the field and one of them threw a perfect strike, clobbering Klem in the head with a frozen fastball. Since the home team is responsible for stadium security, Klem stopped the game and gave the win to the Phillies by forfeit.

Whoever threw the snowball beaned the most famous umpire in baseball history. Klem umped big league games from 1905 to 1941. The "Old Arbitrator" worked games in 18 World Series (a record) and is credited with being the first to use arm signals to indicate balls and strikes. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1953. His plaque does not show him getting smacked with a snowball.

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With the disappointing loss in extra innings late the night before, the Astros returned to RingCentral Coliseum on Saturday afternoon to try and even the series against the A's, who now owned a 3.5 game lead in the AL West over Houston. Here is a quick rundown of the middle game of the series:

Final Score: A's 3, Astros 1.

Record: 6-8, second in the AL West.

Winning pitcher: Frankie Montas (2-1, 1.57 ERA).

Losing pitcher: Framber Valdez (0-2, 2.04 ERA).

Valdez does his job

Framber Valdez ran into stress early on Saturday, facing trouble in the bottom of the first inning. It started with a leadoff solo home run, putting Oakland up 1-0 before they would record an out. He later allowed back-to-back one-out singles to rack up his pitch count in the frame but would limit the damage to the single run.

He was able to re-focus and settle in during the following innings, getting quick, scoreless innings in the next four. In the bottom of the sixth, a leadoff groundball that likely should have been the first out was instead a single that would come back to bite Houston. That runner stole second and advanced to third on a bad throw, then scored on an RBI-groundout, doubling Oakland's lead to 2-0. Valdez would go one more inning, giving Houston precisely what they needed by helping give their exhausted bullpen a break. His final line: 7.0 IP, 7 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 9 K, 1 HR.

Houston's offense unable to get anything going

Unfortunately for Houston, Frankie Montas was even more efficient on the other side. Houston was only able to notch two hits against him over seven innings while Montas only had to throw 86 pitches over that span. Oakland would go to their bullpen in the top of the eighth, with the Astros getting just a single in the inning.

Nivaldo Rodriguez would take over for Valdez in the bottom of the eighth and allowed a solo home run to make it 3-0 before completing the inning. Houston would get a leadoff double by Kyle Tucker to start the top of the ninth, and he would come around to score on an RBI-single by Alex Bregman. That's as close as Houston would get, though, as Oakland would finish off the win to secure the series and extend Houston's losing streak to four games.

Up Next: The final game of this series and Houston's nine-game road trip will be on Sunday at 3:10 PM Central. Jesus Luzardo (0-0, 2.31 ERA) will make a start for the A's while Cristian Javier (1-0, 1.42 ERA) will look to continue his success in 2020 for the Astros.

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