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Far from home, Astros can't escape the devastation in Houston

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Sometimes it's just baseball.

The Houston Astros took to the field on Tuesday with heavy hearts. Of that, there can be no doubt. During pregame, every question was about back home, where their city's roadways have become rivers, countless lives have been thrown into shambles and some of their teammates' family members are stranded, safe but eager for a way to get out.

If the Astros seemed exasperated before the game, you could hardly blame them. George Springer.Dallas Keuchel. Alex Bregman. Especially manager A.J. Hinch. All conducted lengthy sessions with the media, during which there were no baseball questions. Back home. That's all that mattered. Even those of us who don't live there are thinking of Houston.

"We've had a long couple of days," Hinch said. "But it is what it is. We've had this on our mind for a few days, and we beat the Angels two out of three [over the weekend]. This club can handle it."

The themes were constant from Astro to Astro: Baseball didn't feel important. They wanted to be back home, helping however they could.

Keuchel spoke of teammates who, during the club's layover Sunday in Arlington, Texas, had to be talked out of driving into the dangerous region just to see if they could do something. Do anything.

But all there was to do was to play baseball.

Does that explain Houston's listless 12-2 loss to the cross-state rival Texas Rangers? Who knows? The Astros wanted to provide an escape for their fans, and hopefully for themselves, at least for the three or so hours it takes to play a big league game. A baseball game, win or lose, in the last week of August is nothing if not an escape.

In that sense, the very fact that they played was mission accomplished.

"It felt like a road game, even though we were the home team," said Astros starter Mike Fiers, who was touched up for eight runs in four innings. "Nothing performance-wise is an excuse. I've just got to go out there and pitch better."

There was nothing regular about the day. The Rangers and Astros flew from Arlington into Tampa-St. Petersburg on Monday night to play the Lone Star State series in the Sunshine State. The hometown Tampa Bay Rays are in Kansas City, except for injured pitcher Jacob Faria, who will be signing autographs at the Trop this week to benefit the hurricane relief effort.

The fans, 3,485 of them, who all paid for $10 general admission tickets, crowded behind the plate and the dugouts to get close to the action. At times, you could hear individual conversations. If you heard a particularly loud yell, you could locate the yeller in no time.

"I really thank the fans for coming out," Hinch said. "The numbers who did and pledged their support. I'm sure they donated their time and money to come out to a unique series. I really appreciate the people doing that."

I spoke to a man named Larry before the game because he was wearing a vintage Nolan Ryan jersey from the rainbow uniform era. During the game, I decided to see if I could spot him in the stands. It took me about five seconds to see he was three rows behind the Rangers' dugout.

The second and third decks were closed; you couldn't sit there if you wanted to. The outfield seats were also mostly empty, though in left field a cluster of about two dozen young Astros fans cheered wildly for every pitch for about three innings, before the score got out of hand. Then they left.

There seemed to be more foul balls hit into the stands than in any game I've seen this year, and that means perhaps a record percentage of the fans went home with a souvenir. One fan even went home with Jake Marisnick's bat, which slipped out of his hands on a swing in the fourth inning, plunked off the Houston dugout and settled into the mitt of a happy Astros fan.

Were the Astros too distracted to play? Were they simply too mentally worn out to compete? They wouldn't admit it even if it were true. They played, and because it was happening in Florida, on the other side of the Gulf of Mexico from where so much misery and so many acts of heroism are piling up with each rain drop, it couldn't really be normal. Not even during the seventh inning stretch, when the Rays' event production crew blasted "Deep in the Heart of Texas" for the delighted gathering.

"These guys are real pros, and they can compete," Hinch said. "This was more about baseball and less about distractions or frustration. They beat us."

More than anything, maybe the night was a harbinger that normalcy is on the comeback. According to the Associated Press, while everyone anxiously watches the dams and levees, the weather forecasts for south Texas have improved. A sliver of sunshine is even a possibility. If the Astros played with heavy hearts, maybe that's all they needed to lighten the load, just a little.

"The team, the atmosphere, I'd say was kind of mixed," said infielder J.D. Davis, who pitched a 1-2-3 ninth in a mop-up role and picked up his first big league strikeout. "We were really motivated to do well for Houston. Looking at the TV of half of Houston under water is kind of hard. We played hard but just came up short."

The Astros are still a long way from home, and there is no telling when they will get back there. Still, even as the teams lined up on the other side of the gulf, under the protection of a domed roof in an air-conditioned venue in Florida, Mother Nature herself wouldn't let anybody forget what really mattered.

When the public address announcer called for a moment of silence to honor the suffering in Texas, the small gathering grew silent. But you could hear a hissing sound, a gravelly pounding, dancing across the roof of Tropicana Field. It was raining outside, a torrential downpour, each drop a not too subtle reminder of how much work lies ahead for the Astros -- and for all of their fans back home.

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