March 31, 2013

Astros send Rangers to first Opening Day loss since 2008

Matt Harrison allows six runs as Houston wins its first game in the American League.

The last time the Texas Rangers had lost their season opener was on a snowy March 31 day at Seattle.

Left fielder David Murphy infamously became the intended target of a Safeco Field fan’s snowball.

It only rained at Minute Maid Park on the five-year anniversary of the Rangers’ last Opening Day loss, but each mistake they made Sunday during the middle innings snowballed into a chilly start to the 2013 season.

Matt Harrison allowed six runs in 5 2/3 innings, and Rick Ankiel hit a three-run pinch-hit homer off Derek Lowe as Houston sent the Rangers to an 8-2 season-opening loss at sold-out Minute Maid Park.

The Astros are 1-0 all-time in the American League after 51 seasons in the National League. The Rangers saw four-game Opening Day winning streak snapped and fell to last place in the AL West for the first time since April 29, 2010.

“It’s one game. We’ve got 161 left,” Murphy said. “It’s great if you win the first game and gain some momentum. We did a few things that were uncharacteristic for us, but we didn’t beat ourselves. They beat us.”

Harrison struck out nine to match his career-high and also tied the franchise record for strikeouts on Opening Day, but he walked three in his final 1 2/3 innings and all three scored.

The last two came in the sixth. He was lifted in favor of the right-handed Lowe after his 100th pitch was ball 4 to Matt Dominguez. Ankiel, a lefty hitter, batted for Brandon Barnes, and dumped a 3-2 pitch into the right-field seats for a 7-2 lead.

It was Ankiel’s third homer off Lowe in 11 career at-bats. A right-handed hitter was on-deck.

“Historically, he’s given me fits,” Lowe said. “I just tried to get inside the whole time. It was the third breaking ball he’d seen. You’ve got to make a better pitch.”

Harrison, though, had breezed through the first three innings, striking out five and facing the minimum. He struck out four on only 21 pitches over the first two innings.

But Brett Wallace singled with one out in the fourth on an 0-2 pitch, and Carlos Pena kept the inning alive with a two-out single two batters later. Wallace and Pena are left-handed hitters.

“It was just a matter of not executing pitches, especially against Wallace and Pena,” Harrison said. “I’ve got to do a better job of executing pitches when I have to.”

Justin Maxwell followed when he hit a towering fly ball to left field that bounded off the top of the scoreboard in front of the famed Crawford Boxes only 315 feet away for a two-run triple.

“That’s a routine fly ball in most parks,” said Murphy, who leaped in vain to catch the ball. “But we were not playing in most parks.”

Houston scored two more in the fifth as Harrison started to consistently fall behind hitters. Barnes started the rally with a four-pitch walk, and he scored on a Ronny Cedeno single and a two-base error on Nelson Cruz.

Jose Altuve was next, and he singled for a 4-0 lead.

“You look at the way the game was going, he was in complete control,” manager Ron Washington said of Harrison. “It all got out of whack when he had Wallace with two strikes and tried to throw a fastball by him.”

The Rangers’ bats came alive in the sixth, as they scored twice on a walk and three singles. The last two, by Murphy and Cruz, came with two outs, and each pushed home a run.

But the momentum vanished with one Ankiel swing. The Rangers have to wait until Tuesday to try to get it back, and climb out of the AL West cellar.

“It’s a little weird,” said Elvis Andrus, who lost on Opening Day for the first time in his career. “They were really motivated. They took care of business.”

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