Thursday, September 28

Hope abounds as Astros return to Houston for home opener

The baseball season isn’t yet two weeks old, but Erik Garcia has already seen enough. He knows his beloved Astros will win the 2022 World Series and reclaim their rightful place on the major league throne.

“They’re going all the way this year. God loves the Astros,” said Garcia, 39, of League City.

Just 10 games into the season, Astros fans at Monday’s home opener were brimming with confidence for Houston’s matchup with the Los Angeles Angels, and why shouldn’t they be? The Astros are coming off yet another American League title and five straight postseason appearances, and they’ve kept the team’s core largely intact throughout. Manager Dusty Baker has returned for another year, and the much-publicized sign-stealing scandal feels like a thing of the past — in Houston, at least.

“You can’t buy chemistry. They just get along really well and they know how to win,” Garcia said. “They’ll have off days, but in the long run, it comes down to the playoffs, and the Astros are always thinking about the big picture.”

Garcia was one of thousands of fans who arrived at Minute Maid Park hours before the first pitch to soak in the atmosphere of a new baseball season. Concourses were shoulder to shoulder a full hour before the game, with fans coming in early from the outdoor Opening Day Fan Fest — which featured children’s games, photo booths and a thumping DJ’s stage — to enjoy the pregame ceremonies.

The weather was perfect for a game under the stars, with cloudless skies and temperatures in the low 70s, but the roof at Minute Maid Park was closed. The Astros chalked it up to mechanical failures.

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“If I was the owner and I wanted it closed, I’d say the same thing,” said Ricardo Bresas, 38.

Even the loss of beloved shortstop Carlos Correa — who delivered no shortage of clutch playoff moments through his seven years with the club — seemed like a distant memory by the time the Astros played their first home game. His replacement, rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña, has been the hottest hitter on the team thus far.

Craig Murphy, 50, wore a modified Correa jersey as he watched the Astros collect their American League Championship rings ahead of the game. The jersey had been altered with blue tape, so that Correa’s 1 became Peña’s 3 and Correa’s name was blocked out with “Peña” written over it in Sharpie.

Murphy and his son Cort, 26, have traveled from College Station for every home opener for the last eight years. He believes the 24-year-old is a future All Star, and when Peña drew a bases-loaded walk on a full count to give the Astros the lead in the fourth inning, then got a bunt single in the sixth to advance Kyle Tucker, who who then scored, Murphy felt like he may have been proven right. He’s the second player in Astros history to have three hits in three of his first eight games.

“He’s growing up quickly,” Murphy texted.

Other fans were emboldened by the return of starting pitcher Justin Verlander, who helped lead the Astros to their 2017 World Series win but spent most of the last two seasons recovering from elbow surgery. Verlander had a dominant second start of the season against the Seattle Mariners, throwing eight scoreless innings on just 87 pitches, 64 of which went for strikes.

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“He’s cheating Father Time. I mean he’s my age and he’s throwing nearly 100 mph and could have thrown a complete game. I think he’s got at least another couple seasons as a really high value contributor,” said David Young, 39, of Houston.

Whether Peña, Verlander or anyone else can keep it up is a question that will only be answered in October, but for now, Astros fans were happy to bask in the singular glory of a barely nascent baseball season —when each home run feels like a harbinger of glory to come, and each strikeout a sneak preview of future postseason dominance.

“It’s gonna be a fun season so buckle up and get ready for the ride,” Young said.

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