HOUSTON -- Following more than a half-century of largely mediocre results in the National League, the Houston Astros made their American League debut a historic and memorable one Sunday night.
While artfully mixing exceptional pitching with stellar defense and aggressive baserunning, the Astros bashed the Texas Rangers 8-2 at Minute Maid Park to record their 4,000th regular-season victory.
Rick Ankiel, one of a small handful of veterans dotting the rebuilding Astros' 25-man roster, crushed a pinch-hit, two-out, three-run home run off Rangers right-handed reliever Derek Lowe to turn a tenuous two-run lead into a comfortable advantage in the sixth inning.
"It's obviously a great feat for the organization being the 4,000th win in franchise history and our first win as an American League team," Astros manager Bo Porter said. "I'm actually more excited for the fans of Houston just to get an opportunity to witness all the hard work the 25 men in that locker room have put in all spring. I'm happy for those guys in that clubhouse because they worked extremely hard for this night."
Ankiel became the first Houston player to smack a pinch-hit home run in his first plate appearance with the club since Justin Maxwell accomplished the feat last April 9 against the Atlanta Braves. Maxwell, incidentally, hit two triples Sunday, including one off southpaw Matt Harrison that drove in two with two outs in the fourth.
The Astros are the first franchise to switch from the National League to the AL in major league history. Their move was greeted with angst in Houston, both because of the team's deep roots in the NL and because the AL West, home of the Rangers, Los Angeles Angels, Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners, is widely viewed as ultra-competitive.
Even with the losses of Josh Hamilton to the Angels and Mike Napoli to the Boston Red Sox, the Rangers remain a contender in the division. There are concerns over the depth of their pitching, particularly with Texas opening the season with starters Neftali Feliz and Colby Lewis on the disabled list.
Harrison matched his career high with nine strikeouts, but he faltered in the sixth inning before giving way to Lowe, whose 82 mph slider was deposited by Ankiel into the right field seats.
"The experience of pinch-hitting, what helps is being able to keep your emotions under control in those situations," Ankiel said. "I've faced Derek Lowe plenty of times before, too, so that helps. I know the pitcher."
Harrison faced the minimum one trip through the Houston batting order, striking out three in a row to close the bottom of the first inning and open the bottom of the second.
After Houston's Jose Altuve led off the game with a single to center on the first pitch, Altuve was called out attempting to advance to second on a ball in the dirt. Rangers catcher A.J. Pierzynski delivered a throw to the left side of the bag that shortstop Elvis Andrus fielded before applying a swipe tag on Altuve. Second base umpire Andy Fletcher called Altuve out, but replays revealed he was safe.
Harrison (0-1) failed to escape significant trouble in the fourth, allowing singles to Brett Wallace and Carlos Pena before Maxwell plated both with a triple that ricocheted off the left field wall fronting the Crawford Boxes. The Astros doubled their lead to 4-0 an inning later. Brandon Barnes scored from first on a Nelson Cruz error in right field, and Altuve drove home Ronny Cedeno with a base hit. Cedeno, who singled, went from first to third on the Cruz misplay.
"They were a very aggressive team," Harrison said. "I knew I was in for a fight, so I had to make sure I got the ball down and execute my pitches. I was able to do that through the first three; in the fourth and fifth, I just started to make some mistakes."
Astros starter Bud Norris (1-0) labored a bit through four innings, limiting Texas to two singles yet needing 69 pitches to do so. He mowed through the bottom of the order on nine pitches in the fifth but allowed consecutive two-out RBI singles to David Murphy and Cruz in the sixth. Veteran left-hander Erik Bedard, making his first relief appearance since 2004, induced Pierzynski to fly out after Cruz cut the lead to 4-2.
Bedard worked 3 1/3 scoreless innings to record his first career save.
"You have to tip your hat. They played good baseball over there," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "That's all you can say. They pitched. They hit. They did everything.
"We were fired up, too, but you have to give Norris credit. He did a good job."
NOTES: Astros OF Brandon Barnes, the longest-tenured member of the organization, addressed the team on Saturday night in advance of making his first-ever appearance in an Opening Day lineup. With the Rangers starting a left-hander, Barnes, a right-handed hitter, started in right field over the veteran Ankiel. ... Washington opted to start Leonys Martin, who bats left-handed, in center field over Craig Gentry. Martin, making his first appearance on an Opening Day roster, hit .359 with four doubles, two triples and 13 RBI in 26 Cactus League games. Washington noted that he will not platoon Martin and Gentry in center, but he will determine a starter based upon specific matchups. ... Over the weekend, the Astros played RHP Alex White on the 60-day DL with elbow discomfort. White earned a spot on the 25-man roster, but experienced pain in his pitching elbow during his final tune-up against the Chicago Cubs on Friday night. There is a chance he'll need Tommy John surgery. The Astros replaced White on their roster with RHP Edgar Gonzalez, one of their final cuts this spring. ... Among the seven players who made their Texas debuts were former World Series champions Lance Berkman, Lowe and Pierzynski.