Sunday, August 23, 2015

It Happened In Houston: Michael Bruce Fiers and the Moment of Consequence

When Mike Fiers threw his glove to the heavens and embraced Jason Castro, his catcher, something was realized in Houston. For most of the last decade, the Astros were descending into a joke. The team had become so bad that it felt wrong to poke fun at them. All along, in the midst of three consecutive 100-loss seasons, Houston was building beneath the surface. This year, at the trade deadline, they became buyers for the first time in what seems like forever. The trade with Milwaukee that sent Fiers and outfield savant Carlos Gomez to Houston was pretty universally viewed as a trade for Gomez, with Fiers being a toss-in to level out the prospect haul that the Brewers would receive. A few weeks later, the former twenty-second round pick out of Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale accomplished something that hadn't been done this century.

In the spring of 2000, Houston opened Enron Field (eventually renamed Minute Maid Park due to, shall we say, financial discrepancies of the title sponsor), their neo-retro ballpark. In the first decade of the park, the Astros saw unprecedented success in their team's history. This culminated ten years ago with the team's first National League championship. Sure, they were swept by the Chicago White Sox, but each of the four games was a thrilling contest. The series very well could have fallen Houston's way. Soon after the magical season of 2005, the Astros entered the wilderness and experienced an era of nearly unbelievable failure.

Three years ago, I attended a Cubs vs. Astros game in which both teams had amassed at least one hundred losses. It was a feat that had only occurred three times prior to that game. Houston would go on to lose 107 games in 2012. As bleak as that sounds, it only got worse. The following year, they dropped 111 contests. Fans were told in Houston, as they were also being told in Chicago, to trust the process. The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel looked dim. Despite gathering a crop of talented prospects and drafting well, the Astros remained a wounded deer as they wandered into the American League.

Teams "buy" at the deadline when they feel they have a chance. This was a notion that was far beyond the minds of the Astros front office in 2013. Then the following year, Houston improved to 70 wins. While the subsequent 92 losses seem like another disastrous season, it was a nineteen-win improvement. Enter the offseason. When the Astros social media department tweeted out that a Taylor Swift concert at Minute Maid Park would be rescheduled if the team made the playoffs, many felt like it was a joke. Perhaps it was that whole "hope springs eternal" thing we are led to believe every year, but maybe the organization could feel the bubble about to burst.

On April 18th, the Astros were 5-6. Perhaps during the last few years, that could be considered some kind of moral victory. There was something different about 2015, however. They won their next game. And the next. They have not been under .500 since. Suddenly the Astros were not only contenders, but behind Jose Altuve and the cast of meteoric prospects as well as the arm of Cy Young Award underdog Dallas Keuchel, Houston was becoming an American League favorite. But success is not always measured by how a team wins, but how they handle losing. Late July delivered a blow to the Astros. The team lost six straight games and dropped into second place behind the surging Los Angeles Angels. It was clear the team needed to decide whether they wanted to stay put and hope for the best, or make a move and win now. They chose the latter. After a deal to send Carlos Gomez to the Mets fell through, Milwaukee made a deadline deal to send the slugger to Houston, along with Mike Fiers. Houston was for real. Since the trade deadline, they have remained alone in first place in the American League West.

Enter Friday night. Mike Fiers, looking for his first win in a Houston uniform, took the mound against another World Series contender in the Los Angeles Dodgers. Fiers has spent the first few years of career floating just above the replacement level line, but 2015 has seen his heaviest workload. What's funny about baseball, is that any given day brings a chance to see something you've never seen before. It's cliche to bring it up, but take for instance Philip Humber tossing a perfect game. All it takes is for the pitcher and catcher to be on the same page, the defense to be in the exact correct place at the correct time. If that happens and the millions of microscopic intangibles fall your way, anything is possible.

Mike Fiers walked a Dodger in each of the first three innings. Going hitless once through the order is not too absurd, as many batters will use the at bat as a gauge to determine what a pitcher is throwing that night. Then the Dodgers went down 1-2-3 in the fourth inning. And again in the fifth. And yet again in the sixth. Fiers was rolling, and the rumbles of the baseball community began. Something special was brewing in Houston.

With his team comfortably up three runs, Mike Fiers started the seventh inning by forcing Adrian Gonzalez to ground out to second base. Andre Ethier saw three pitches, missing the third entirely. Yasmani Grandal managed to push the count to two and two, but his fate was the same- strikeout swinging. Fiers continued to frustrate the Los Angeles offense in the eighth inning. Carl Crawford went down on three pitches. Erique Hernandez only managed to see four before he, too struck out. Rookie phenom Joc Pederson watched as three outside pitches came his way. Having struggled at the plate since the All-Star break, Pederson took the fourth pitch. Strike. He fouled off the next offering. Fiers delivered an eighty-nine miles per hour fastball. Pederson just watched it go by. Minute Maid Park was shaking. Mike Fiers had struck out five straight Dodgers, and he was on the verge of a no-hitter.

Of course, in the ninth he set down the side, culminating in a strikeout of Justin Turner on Fiers' 134th pitch of the night. I always love when a no-hitter ends with a strikeout. For some reason, I feel it validates the event that much more. Jason Castro caught the pitch and the crowd erupted. Mike Fiers threw his glove into the air and was mobbed by his team. It was his first complete game. It was the first no-hitter thrown by an Astros pitcher in the sixteen-season history of Minute Maid Park.

In the post-game interview, an emotional Mike Fiers thanked his teammates and tried to put into words how it felt to accomplish the feat at the game's highest level. In one moment, he mentioned he was thinking of his mother, and he choked up. Two years earlier, his mother passed away after severe complications from the autoimmune disease lupus. Shortly before she passed, Fiers was scheduled to begin rehab back with the Brewers. He did not want to leave his mother's side, but she insisted that he go back to work. The road to Friday night's historic moment was hard for Fiers, but it was easy to tell that his mother's love and strength was with him in the final moments. He had accomplished something that has become somewhat common in today's game, but a no-hitter is always a special moment to a pitcher. In this case, it was more than just a career trophy for the mantle.

The Houston Astros currently sit four games up on the Angels. While Carlos Gomez has struggled since donning the orange and blue of Houston, the trade to acquire he and Mike Fiers was a clear and resolute declaration that the team intends to be around in late October this year. It is entirely possible that Fiers throws a no-hitter if he is still on the Brewers. Any pitcher with Major League talent is capable of accomplishing the feat. What his no-no signifies, however, is the presence of the Astros on the World Series contender scene. Every great team has one moment that is viewed as the day they shifted gears into a true championship ballclub. If Houston does the absolutely unthinkable and hoists the Commissioner's Trophy in a little over two months time, perhaps Mike Fiers' no-hitter will be seen as that moment.

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