HOUSTON — The joke isWell, the joke depends on which team you were talking about here Sunday night. In a rather strange decision, MLB deemed it to be the Texas Rangers against the reputed lowest form of baseball humanity as the pairing for the 2013 showcase opener.An hour or so before first pitch, a scout for a National League team who had spent the last six weeks seeing the Houston Astros in spring training in Florida gave this report:A bleeping disgrace to the game.His harsh disgust is common throughout baseball. Under new ownership, the Astros, coming off back-to-back seasons of 106 and 107 losses, axed the payroll down to $25 million (lowest salary total in the majors), and came up with a roster stacked with many questionable minor league names.Plus, after 51 seasons as a National League club, the Astros are now embarking on what is supposed to be a much tougher assignment as a new member of the American League West.Which brings us to how the Rangers figured into the joke:This season opener was a must-win game.And so is Game 2 of this series on Tuesday night, and the finale on Wednesday afternoon.Houston figures to be so bad that the other four clubs in the AL West, with 18 games each against the Astros, have to be thinking the divisional title will probably be decided by which team totally dominates Houston.Which brings us back to the MLB showcase game here Sunday night.The first laugh of the season went to, yes, the Astros, who took an 8-2 decision before an active sellout crowd of 41,307, which included a sizable number of Rangers fans.With a mere 161 games to go, hold the panic.Yes, based on expectations for the season, any wasted opportunity against the Astros is a negative, but there were a couple of other negatives that went beyond the L in the opener.One of the most glaring concerns for manager Ron Washington, both going into spring training and coming out of spring training, was the state of his bullpen in front of closer Joe Nathan.It is basically a rebuilt pen from a season ago, and a glaring example of the iffy situation was when 39-year old Derek Lowe was added to spring training in early March, a signing off the baseball street.Lowe, however, made the final cut as the long-man in the bullpen, and got the call Sunday night in a critical spot. With starter Matt Harrison coming apart after a strong start, Lowe was summoned with two outs in the sixth inning to hold what was then a 4-2 deficit.Boom. Pinch hitter Rick Ankiel, a low-budget veteran signee by the Astros in the off-season, cracked a three-run homer to right field.The bullpen figured to be an early-season sweat, and right away there was an issue.Then again, Harrison got the Opening Night call on the mound, and it was a deserved honor. But the lefty faltered after facing the minimum of nine in the first three innings. In the fourth, Harry had two outs and a runner at first when he gave up a single to Carlos Pena, with Justin Maxwell, a kid with some game, then belting a two-run triple high off the short wall in left.The struggle had just begun for Harrison. A one-out walk in the fifth and then a hit-and-run single combined with some concrete hands by Nellie Cruz in right field led to the games third run.Cruzs error resulted in the second run of the fifth, when a good little hitter, Jose Altuve, singled sharply to right center.And after the Houston lead was trimmed to 4-2, Harrison allowed two walks in the sixth when he was yanked for Lowe. As far as Opening Night was concerned, any drama ended right there.Harrison was obviously not pleased with himself afterward. I had the strong start because I was keeping the ball down against some very aggressive hitters, he said. And they were definitely swinging it aggressively.If you keep the ball down, youve got a good chance of having success against hitters like that. But then the ball started staying up. I couldnt make the pitches I needed to make. Thats when it started coming apart on me.And thats also when the joke of an Astros team, as most in baseball think it will be, suddenly got the first laugh of a new season.Meanwhile, the Rangers have another must-win game coming up here Tuesday night.Randy Galloway can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on Galloway & Co. on ESPN/103.3 FM.
Randy Galloway, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @sportsdfw