On a 1-2 count with two outs and the bases loaded in the third inning, Houston shortstop Jonathan Villar took a few casual steps off third base and broke for home.
Orioles left-hander Wei-Yin Chen didn’t notice. Catcher Matt Wieters didn’t notice. And by the time Villar slid in and Chen’s throw nailed him in the back of the neck, it was too late.
Villar’s steal of home was Houston’s final run in a three-run third inning that gave the Astros an early 3-0 lead against Chen and the Orioles. It was the first time a player stole home against the Orioles since Kansas City’s Jeff Francouer did so at Camden Yards on Aug. 11, 2012, and the first time a Houston player accomplished the feat since Jose Altuve at the Chicago White Sox on June 10, 2012.
The last Houston rookie to steal home was Astros great Craig Biggio on July 13, 1989 at Philadelphia.
While the Orioles would come back for a 4-3 win in the series opener and Chen wouldn’t allow another run in 7 1/3 innings pitched, the play was much talked about after the game.
“That was embarrassing, and that’s a lesson I need to learn,” Chen said through interpreter Tim Lin. “I looked down and I had no clue he was going to home. The only thing I was really concentrated on was home plate. So that’s why.”
Manager Buck Showalter had an easy solution for Chen: just finish the play. Astros right-fielder Justin Maxwell was behind in the count and would strike out looking on the next pitch.
“Throw strike three,” Showalter said. “Don’t step off. Throw strike three and the inning is over. Just don’t step off. Just throw a strike, and the inning is over.”
It wasn’t the first time something like this happened to Chen this year. In his start on July 19 in Texas, Rangers designated hitter Jeff Baker went from first to third on a walk. The Orioles had shifted for Rangers first baseman Mitch Moreland to pull the ball, so third baseman Manny Machado was playing near shortstop. Baker trotted to second and kept going, catching Chen sleeping and taking advantage of the defense being too far out of position.
“If you want to look on the positive side, I think sometimes they're concentrating so much on the hitter in that situation,” Showalter said. “He wasn't the only one in Texas. I think we might have had a play had we had somebody at third base. It's one of those things that when it happens to you, from a manager's standpoint, I talked to Manny about it, a lot of things like that, that OK, this happened, now it will never happen again because you're never going to have that happen. The key there is just stay on the rubber and throw strike three.”