Sampson realizes a dream

Sampson realizes a dream with Astros

HOUSTON -- Chris Sampson smiled as he exited the Astros bullpen in the second inning of Friday night's 14-3 loss to the Reds.

His smile grew wider as he jogged to the infield in front of 37,086 at Minute Maid Park, and it beamed as manager Phil Garner handed him the ball.

This was it, Sampson thought. The wait was finally over. He was making his Major League debut.

"I did have a smile on my face," Sampson said. "I was happy. I was very happy and excited to be here.

"I'm just glad I didn't throw the first pitch over the backstop."

Fortunately, Sampson didn't. Yet, he made his debut rather early in the game because left-hander Wandy Rodriguez struggled shortly after his first pitch. Rodriguez allowed eight runs -- seven earned -- in 1 1/3 innings, which forced Garner to call on Sampson.

"I didn't know what to expect," Sampson said. "I was just trying to go out there and when my name was called, get ready and do the best I can."

Sampson was Garner's best option with the Astros stuck in a 7-0 rut. So rather than dig into an overworked bullpen, Garner called on Sampson, who had been scheduled to start Friday night at Triple-A Round Rock.

Sampson didn't get a start here, but he pitched 5 1/3 strong innings in relief. He didn't disappoint out of the 'pen, striking out four batters while allowing three runs on six hits.

"I felt like I did pretty well for the first time out there, getting my feet wet," Sampson said.

Garner agreed.

"He did save the bullpen," Garner said. We didn't have to use Chad [Qualls] tonight; we really wanted to give [Dan] Wheeler a night off. That helped us there. That helped a lot. I was excited for him."

That excitement carried over to Sampson's first batter, third baseman Edwin Encarnacion. Sampson faced him with runners on the corners, and he forced Encarnacion into a sacrifice fly for his first big-league out.

Sampson induced a ground ball against catcher Jason LaRue for the final out of the second. And in the third, right-hander Aaron Harang became Sampson's first Major League strikeout victim.

Later that inning, Sampson surrendered a home run to second baseman Brandon Phillips. But Sampson escaped the third without further damage, got through the fourth 1-2-3 and pitched a scoreless fifth.

Sampson was productive at the plate in the third, too. He chopped a slow grounder to Encarnacion at third, which allowed Jason Lane to move to second easily. Willy Taveras, who batted after Sampson, hit Lane home with an RBI single for the Astros' first run.

That first Major League at-bat seemed a bit awkward, though. His helmet looked a size too big, as well, and Sampson simply pulled his bat out of a rack.

"I've got a little head," he said. "All helmets look big on me."

Well, a big helmet and a fresh bat didn't bother Sampson too much. Nothing could faze him on this night, because he had brought a dream to life.

Seven years ago, though, that dream faded away. Sampson spent the 1999 season as a shortstop with Class A Auburn, where he batted .239 with one homer that season.

Not exactly Jeff Bagwell-like numbers, so Sampson figured hitting wasn't his calling. He retired.

Over the next three seasons, he coached at a community college in Dallas and began pitching on the side.

"I was throwing [batting practice] to keep my arm in shape," Sampson said.

And pitching, Sampson discovered, was his hidden talent. He gave the Astros a call in 2003 to tell them.

"We had him here at Minute Maid Park -- he threw for us, threw good," general manager Tim Purpura said before Friday night's game.

Sampson threw so well that Purpura signed him to a Minor League deal. Sampson's success carried over to this season at Round Rock, where he compiled a 7-1 record with a 2.64 ERA in 10 starts.

Those numbers evidently caught Purpura's eye again, because the Astros called up Sampson on Friday. He received the good news a night earlier.

"[Round Rock manager Jackie Moore] called me to his office," Sampson said. "He told me, 'The next time you're going to pitch is in the big leagues.'"

To Sampson's surprise, he pitched less than 24 hours after that conversation.

"[Garner] just told me to be ready," Sampson said. "I didn't know if it was going to be today, tomorrow, a week from now."

By the seventh, Sampson's night was complete. And he left the mound as he had approached it Friday night: with a smile from ear to ear.

Sampson walked off the mound slowly, his red face glistening with sweat, and he tipped his cap to the hometown crowd, which rose to its feet with applause.

"I'll remember that the rest of my life," Sampson said. "It was special."

Kevin Yanik is an associate reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.