With the regular season underway TOMORROW, and my beloved Astros expected to be real contenders this year, I thought I'd take a moment to recognize one of my all-time favorite players.
Morgan Ensberg, or "Big Mo," was our 3rd baseman in 04 and 05, when the team made its big World Series run. He didn't necessarily have big stats or record home runs or anything like that, but there was something about this guy.
Imagine this. Toronto Blue Jays are in town. Astros' three-game win streak is in jeopardy. I'm watching from just behind the center field bullpen. Bottom of the 9th, tied at three, with two men on and two outs. Closer Brad Lidge has uncharacteristically blown a two-run lead in the top of the ninth, and this might be the last chance. Mo steps up to the plate. Every Astros fan is on their feet. Near sellout crowd. Record year. Team came back from a 15-30 start to advance to the playoffs by clinching the Wild Card berth on the last day of the year, but all that hasn't happened yet. Tonight, the excitement is still building at the Maid, three hours into the game. No one has left. They stopped selling beer an hour ago, but no one cares. Everyone is watching Mo as he walks up. He's not a really big guy, kinda slumps his shoulders a little, might be mistaken for a lawyer or something when he's not in uniform.
He takes his stance, the usual righty-on-righty matchup. White pinstripe jersey, black batting helmet. 3-0 count. The pitcher winds up, here's the pitch, and that's when it happens.
Mo's left foot, the lead foot in a righty batting stance, slides to his left, kinda a little behind him - toward the Crawford Boxes, if you know the Maid. Not a lot, not very far, maybe nine or ten inches, drawing a line in the dirt away from the plate, and EVERYONE in the Maid sees it. Out in the cheap seats, we all kinda gasp and lean in. If he makes contact, one of us is going home with it. Someone yells, "There it is!"
Okay, that was me. I yelled it.
Some batters pick up their lead foot and step into the swing, but that's not what's happening here. Ensberg has opened up his stance, changing the geometry of the matchup. The pitcher saw one stance and pitched accordingly, but just as the ball leaves his hand, the batter's stance changes, and suddenly the pitcher wants that pitch back. He's been tricked into pitching a home-run fastball right into Ensberg's wheelhouse. If Ensberg makes good contact, it's at least a triple, at best a walk-off three-run homer. If he makes poor contact, he can still foul it off and leave the pitcher with no idea what to throw next.
Mo had a career .263 average with 110 home runs. Respectable numbers, maybe not a Hall of Fame career. But on this particular Saturday night in June, he crushed that ball into the Crawford Boxes with the kind of authority I'd have expected from Reggie Jackson in my youth, and I left my feet like Michael Jordan. The whole stadium was electric. Mo was celebrating as he rounded the bases. 35,000 total strangers shared a moment of rapture that left us giddy until morning. We didn't know it at the moment, but manager Phil "Scrap Iron" Garner had given Ensberg the green light on that 3-0 pitch, which was a little unconventional. The usual thing would've been to take that pitch in hopes of a bases-loading walk, in order to put serious pressure on the Blue Jays' closing pitcher. If that had happened - if Mo had taken a ball to make a walk, the bases would've been loaded for the next batter (Adam Everett, I think), and any solid hit would've scored a run and won the game. If Mo swings instead of taking, it's make-or-break. He either wins the game or ends the inning and gives the Blue Jays another chance.
The other thing we didn't know yet is that this was where the season really got started. This emphatic walk-off homer to seal a 6-3 victory and a 4-game win streak at home charged the team in a way that no one had seen coming in the rough opening weeks of the season. Before this series with the Blue Jays, the team was just trying to hold it together. But now, they were making a run for something big - or at least they were winning, building excitement, charging the Maid with lightning. They didn't know it yet, but they were only a few months away from bringing the World Series to Houston - due in large part to Morgan Ensberg's left foot.