Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Adventures in Round Rock 

I was very excited to go to my first Round Rock Express game since Round Rock became a AAA team in the PCL this season. Since its inception it has been leading AA in attendance, and finally Nolan Ryan got his wish and turned it into a AAA club, moving the AA team down to a new stadium in Corpus Christi.

The ballpark at Round Rock is the "Dell Diamond", and is about 10 minutes away from the primary campus of Dell. Suffice to say, the stadium is top notch, seats 10,000+, sloped grass for picnicing in the outfield, several kid play areas, and even a swimming pool.

But, who really cares about the park. I got my tickets for two reasons. First and foremost, I wanted to get a good look at Felix Hernandez. Second, I wanted to cheer on the rest of the Rainiers to victory and see what the future held for the Seattle Mariners.

Felix was originally slated to go today at noon, but due to the rainout on Sunday, the Rainiers are pushing him back to start Thursday, with Rich Dorman going today. Not coincidentally, but Thursday is the one game that I CAN NOT ATTEND. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH! Very irritating, to say the least.

Luckily, my ten dollar tickets five rows behind home plate did not go to waste. For who should I see charting pitches two rows behind me. El Cartelua! Felix was a bit surprised to be approached for an autograph, but then he saw the Mariner hat, smiled, and gladly gave me a FH with a circle around it. Felix also was wearing some nice bling - this silver necklace and bracelet set and a very large gold watch. You couldn't look too long without going blind.

So, with an autograph from Felix out of the way, I settled in with my peanuts and beer to see how the rest of the Rainiers were looking.

Ex-Brave Damian Moss got the start, and he was rock solid for five innings. Other than a few balls that found the gap in the first inning, the Express were off balance all evening. Moss scattered four hits over five innings, walking one, grazing a batter, and striking out five.

The Express sent out two guys who were making their Round Rock debuts this year, after spending the beginning of the season with the Astros. Chris Burke was supposed to be the everyday secondbaseman, but got little playing time when Craig Biggio decided to reclaim his old stomping grounds. Luke Scott was an outfield replacement for Lance Berkman (go Rice!), but lost out his battle to stay in the bigs to speedster Willy Taveras. The other interesting player in the Express lineup was leadoff hitter and center fielder... Charles Gipson!

Yes, the Gipster is back in AAA with the Astros this time, and he looked completely lost out there against Moss, watching three straight strikes in the first. It was Burke who started the scoring for the Express by lining a double to the left field wall. Chris Snelling fielded the ball cleanly off the wall and fired a one-hop BULLET to second base that beat the runner, but apparently, secondbaseman Ramon Santiago missed the tag. A walk and a popout later, Mike Coolbaugh would do all the damage that was to be done off Moss by drilling a 2-run double into the right center gap.

Snelling got to show off his arm again in the third inning when DH Denny Klassen lined a shot over the third baseman's head that headed for the corner. Snelling took off on a sprint, slid into the corner as he cut off the ball, popped up, and threw a LASER right to Santiago that had Klassen beat by two steps easily. Unfortunately, Santiago dropped the ball in his haste to turn with the tag, and Klassen had a double.

But enough of the pitching and defense, lets talk about something that us Mariner fans don't get to see much of: Home Runs! By the good guys! In ther first five innings against former Astro Carlos Hernandez, the Mariners would score six runs on four hits, every one of them a home run. Shin-Soo Choo hit two nearly identical bombs to left field, both about 375 feet, Jamal Strong flexed his newfound muscles with a blast to centerfield that was 400+ feet. And Rainier home run leader Aaron Rifkin increased his homer total to 10 with a popup down the left field line that cleared the 330 foot wall.

The announced crowd was 7800, but looked like about 5000. Either way, the only noise heard during these home run trots was from a screaming Mariner Optimist. I've always enjoyed rooting for the visiting team, because the players can hear you. I counted three Mariner hats and one Ichiro! jersey in the stands, so most everyone was rooting for the home team.

Shin-Soo Choo was definitely the hero of the day. He added a 2-run triple in the sixth, this time to right field and finished 3-4 with a walk. His only blemish a caught stealing in the third on a swinging strike three to Ryan Christianson. Both Christianson and shortstop Michael Morse looked like they were caught up in the home run derby with outs that went a mile only to be caught by the second baseman as they returned to earth. Chris Snelling never got much of a chance to show off his bat, as he saw only two strikes in his first three trips to the plate on his way to three walks. But still, Yoda finished 1 for 2 on the day, and just looks like a player out there. Get this kid up to Seattle, quick!

After the scoring died down, the final Rainier highlight was the return to the hill of Cha Seung Baek. He looked smooth out there, but seemed to be placing balls right down the middle. The hardest hit balls from the Express came off of Baek as he gave up two runs on four hits in three innings with a couple of strikeouts. But a little rust is to be expected in your first game back. Jered Thomas finished out the game with a couple of hits and Ks in the ninth.

Other highlights for me included getting to dance the Chicken Dance AND the Cotton-Eyed Joe (during the 7th inning stretch after Take Me Out to the ballgame). And the 8-10 year old boy who was on the big screen being filmed dancing was hysterical. The hot dogs were good, the crowd was friendly, even to the opposition, and you can't beat 80 degrees and clear at 7pm.

Today, its off to the heat of the Texas sun, as forecast have the temp in the 90's by noon start time. No Felix today, and that's probably fine, as I'm also going to have my wife and three kids (ages 2,5, and 7), so I'll probably spend more time at the rock climbing wall then watching intently anyway. Either way, its a nice break from suffering along with the big league club.

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