Originally posted on Fox Sports Houston  |  Last updated 4/8/12
HOUSTON - Left-hander Wandy Rodriguez, at a seasoned 33 years old, made the first opening-day start of his eight-year career on Friday night. Right-hander Lucas Harrell made on Saturday just his third start with the Astros since being claimed off waivers from the White Sox last July. Right-hander Bud Norris, who just three summers ago was the brash and cocky midseason call-up, opened his age-27 season with 395.1 innings with the Astros, second only to Rodriguez within their rotation. For a roster rife with uncertainty, the Astros' rotation is a study of inexperience and unfamiliarity. Rodriguez is the de facto staff ace and Norris second in command. Kyle Weiland and Harrell are simply trying to find a home with their second organizations, and even the most casual Astros fan is abreast of the woes J.A. Happ endured in 2011. For one weekend the past was rendered irrelevant. The Astros won their rubber match with the Colorado Rockies 3-2 on Sunday at Minute Maid Park thanks in large part to another strong starting pitching effort. "That just shows what these guys are capable of," Astros catcher Jason Castro said. "All the way through our starting pitching is capable of hanging with anybody in the league. I think they showed that this weekend, and hopefully we can just keep that kind of momentum going. "The biggest thing is getting those guys late in the game and keeping that workload light on our bullpen and making their job easy when the time comes. For them to be able to do that and keep the hitters down and give us a chance to come back in the game like we did was huge." The Houdini acts produced by Rodriguez and Norris didn't come against ineptitude. The Rockies finished second in the National League last season in runs (735) and walk rate (8.8 percent), third in weighted on-base percentage (.324), and fourth in slugging percentage (.410). Left fielder Carlos Gonzales (.295.363.526 batting line in 2011), shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (.302.372.544) and first baseman Todd Helton (.302.385.466) are as formidable as any heart of the order in the NL. The Rockies enhanced their potent lineup with the addition of veteran outfielder Michael Cuddyer, whose career batting line (.272.343.452) with the Twins included three seasons with an OPS greater than 120. Right out of the gate a rotation unsettled until the final week of spring training faced a stern test, and the Astros passed it with flying colors. "We knew coming out of spring training that we had some guys with good arms, some guys that enjoy being out on the mound and that can pitch," Astros manager Brad Mills said. "To see them come through like this these first three games, it's great to get that started and get that confidence moving in that right direction. There's no doubt about it. "They can pitch, and they're proving it." While Harrell was the lone starter to record a decision, notching his first victory since his major-league debut with the White Sox against the Athletics on July 30, 2010, Rodriguez and Norris were nearly as effective. Collectively the trio worked 20.1 innings, allowing five runs (two earned) on 13 hits and five walks with 14 strikeouts. Their combined ERA (0.89) and WHIP (0.89) were wondrously minuscule. Rodriguez set the tone by working around some shabby defense and keeping the Astros in contention before departing with one out in the seventh in the opener. Norris followed a similar path, sidestepping a two-run homer from Rockies catcher Wilin Rosario in the top of the fourth inning, and minimizing the damage when Tulowitzki and Jason Giambi reached with one out and the Astros trailing 2-1 in the sixth. Norris induced a ground ball from Cuddyer and then fanned Rosario to end the threat. Harrell, who worked seven scoreless innings for a 7-3 win, provided Norris with a measure of motivation. That camaraderie developed in Kissimmee, Fla., despite the competition for rotation slots is a testament to what the starters accomplished by laboring together. "We worked hard down there," said Norris, who allowed two runs on four hits and three walks with eight strikeouts over seven innings. "We had a lot of guys competing for the back end of the rotation and we knew there was nobody really guaranteed anything. And that's good. "Lucas had an amazing night (Saturday) night and I wanted to feed off him. Hopefully J.A. can pick up where we left off and do his job (Monday against the Braves). I think that's going to carry over as long as we keep helping each other get better and make strides and communicating. Learning together as a five-man unit is going to be important." Momentum is precious, especially for a team facing low expectations. The Astros must perform optimally in several phases to win consistently, and the easiest launching point for success is exceptional starting pitching. This weekend, outstanding starts were the rule. "Each day we're not on the mound we're watching each other and seeing how we're working counts," Weiland said. "I think it's good to see guys go out there having success so we feed off each other. When you go out there and see three guys in front are out there pounding the zone and having success, a lot of the tendency is just to roll with that. "To get off on the right foot is really important, so we'll see where it goes. It's a good start for us and we'll continue to build off of that." Follow me on Twitter at moisekapenda
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