March 2009

Enough of that. Back to our regularly scheduled programming.

A few news and notes from camp today:
*J.R. Towles is out for a game or two with a torn nail after apparently hitting his hand on a ceiling fan while taking off his shirt.

*Hunter Pence missed his third game in a row Friday while nursing a slight strain of his left calf. “I’m ready to play today,” he said. “I’m strong, good, healthy and happy. It feels like your body does on a normal everyday basis, when you’re playing every day. You’ve got got to loosen up, that’s all.”

*Cecil Cooper received a call from his predecessor, Phil Garner, who, after noting the Astros’ dismal spring record, offered up some encouraging words. “He just said, ‘Hang in there,” Cooper said. “It’s always good to talk to him.”

*Pudge Rodriguez will wear No. 12 this year, but for the first couple of games, he’ll wear No. 14. At that time, he and hitting coach Sean Berry plan to swap, with Berry taking No. 14.

I’m glad you all enjoyed the first set of pictures I posted. Here is round two…

Television announcers Bill Brown and Jim Deshaies, during a Talkin’ Baseball session at FanFest a number of years ago. You’ll notice JD still has some hair.

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More modern times: Brownie and JD, September of 2007.

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This cracks me up. Poor Eric Bruntlett was stuck pairing up with Brad Ausmus during a photo booth session at FanFest three or four years ago. Most of the women asked to take their picture with just Brad. Eric had a sense of humor about it, however.

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Chris Burke was always a fun guy to have around. Here he is providing some comic relief during batting practice.

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I took this shot at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago in 2007 not realizing this was the exact moment Phil Garner was giving Lidge his closer’s job back. Garner had given it to Wheeler two months earlier.

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This AP photo and reminded me of one of my favorite storylines from the 2002 World Series. Anyone remember this? That’s J.T. Snow, grabbing Dusty Baker’s son, Darren, seconds before the little guy was about to be pummeled by whoever was about to score. Darren was a bit overzealous with his batboying that night.

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Clubhouse manager Dennis Liborio. I like this picture because it shows the painting that hangs in his officethat was given to him by Ken Caminiti in 2000. That’s Dennis at his desk, on the phone, with Bagwell, Biggio and Caminiti peering into the window to his office. It was painted by sports artist Opie Otterstad.

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I took this the day the Astros retired Larry Dierker’s uniform No. 49 in May of 2002.

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This was taken during batting practice before one of the Astros’ many exhibition games with the Royals the weekend before Opening Day. Here we have the two most popular second basemen in Astros history, Bill Doran and Craig Biggio. Doran was a coach with the Royals for several years.

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Brian McTaggart’s daughter, Erin, made Biggio a little sign to congratulate him on 3,000 hits and on his retirement. Brian promised Erin he would give it to Craig, and when he did, Craig immediately hung it up in his locker. I thought that was just so nice. So I took a picture.

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This one I just love. When a player is on the disabled list, he pretty much loses his mind with a) boredom and b) frustration that he cannot play. Here we have Adam Everett, on a Sunday morning around 10, fielding grounders from coach Doug Mansolino, from his knees. Adam’s leg was still broken from that collision with Carlos Lee, and as you can see, those are his crutches laying on the ground behind him. Adam was just happy to be doing something, anything; hence, the ear-to-ear grin.

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This was taken when the Astros clinched the division in St. Louis in 2001. Bet you forgot Scott Servais played for this team. This one is funny because this was actually staged — I asked Everett and Servais to act like they were about to pour champagne on each other, but they went ahead and did the real thing. I believe if you look closely, there’s a Tony Eusebio
sighting in this picture.

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Ashley Judd attended batting practice with her husband, who was throwing out the first pitch at the game that night. Old what’s-his-name r
ace car driver took the proverbial backseat to the movie star, who as you can see here was a big hit with your Astros. Phil Garner was an especially happy man.

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This was kind of a cool shot — that’s the Rays Scott Kazmir on the left, talking with Billy Wagner. Scott was days away from being taken as the No. 1 pick in the draft, and a local television station staged a meeting between Kazmir, a hard-throwing lefty from Houston, and Wagner, Houston’s hard-throwing lefty.

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Holy uncomfortable: Spring Training, 2003. I took this as Jeff Kent and Craig Biggio were meeting for the first time as teammates. Actually, it wasn’t as awkward as I thought it would be.

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This is a Stephen O’Brien picture, taken at the baseball dinner a few years back. Brad Lidge is obviously the focus of this shot, but I like it because of Pettitte’s expression. He has a tremendous sense of humor, and that’s something the fans didn’t see often enough. One time, I was leafing through the Astros media guide and I saw his middle name was Eugene. I said
to him, “please tell me that’s a family name.” He turned red and said, “please don’t ever call me that.” Of course, from then on, I called him nothing but Andrew Eugene.

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Lidge and Wagner, during the National League team’s workout at the All-Star Game in New York last year.

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Here we have Lidge popping the champagne in the Phillies’ clubhouse after he closed out the World Series clincher last year.

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Luuuuuuuuuuuke. Another fan favorite, Luke Scott, is now an Oriole. Took this at Camden Yards last year.

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This was one of the better PR days for the Astros. It was Hunter Pence t-shirt giveaway day, and who better to hand out those t-shirt than the man himself? It was a total surprise to the fans, and it took a while for people to realize that yes, that really was Pence. I think he was on the DL at the time, so he had some extra time to spare.

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I stopped by the radio booth a couple of years ago and quickly snapped this picture, just before they were about to go on air: that’s Dave Raymond on the left, and Milo Hamilton on the right.

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Stayed tuned for round three…

Ed Wade does not owe me an apology.

Ed Wade does not owe me an apology.

I absolutely hate to have to go back to this, because it is my desire to move on from this subject, for good. But now that my name has been brought up specifically in an SI.com article, I need to again set the record straight.

Ed Wade does not owe me an apology, because Ed Wade never lied to me. Let me say it again — Ed Wade has never lied to me.

Ever.

I have been working with him for a year and a half. I have had many candid conversations with him over time and the one thing he guaranteed me is that if I ever approached him with something regarding rumors — as long as they weren’t trade rumors, because it’s against the rules for teams to comment on players under contract other teams — if I was headed in the right direction, he would never flat out tell me I was wrong.

That doesn’t mean he’d help me, or give me any details, but he would not lie to me. And he hasn’t.

I told you that eventually I would have more on the timeline detailing the events that occurred from the time that I last talked to Ed about Pudge Rodriguez to the day that the news broke that they signed him.

So here it is.

The Astros had a night game last Friday, March 13, and that afternoon, I dropped by Ed’s office and asked him if he had a few minutes to answer some questions for a couple of features I was working on. At the end of the meeting, I asked again about Pudge, because I kept hearing his name tied to the Astros.

Ed, as you all know by now, vehemently denied that he was talking to Pudge’s agent, Scott Boras, about the free agent catcher. He was telling the truth. He had not had a conversation with Boras regarding Pudge prior to my meeting with Ed, unless you count the preliminary exchange the two had the last week of January.

(On Jan. 29, I asked Ed if he had interest in Pudge. Here is his quote, taken right from the story I posted that day: “At this point, nothing is going to fit for us. I got a sense they’ve plotted a certain floor with regard with what they want contractually. We’re not going to be able to meet those demands.” This is an important piece of the puzzle, because as you can see, I asked Ed about Pudge and Ed was honest, telling me that he had indeed talked to Team Pudge.)

Back to last Friday.

At some point, before the game, Wade met with his staff and became increasingly more worried about the catching situation. I honestly don’t know what freaked him out more, the quality of the catching throughout the spring or the team’s horrendous record. Heck, maybe after he heard himself railing about Pudge during his conversation with me he wondered if he really felt that way. I don’t know. All I do know is he changed his mind. He called Boras that night and left him a message. Then he called Drayton.

Boras, apparently unbeknownst to Wade, had actually already reached out to Drayton a day earlier and given him the “you really need Pudge, he really wants to be in Houston” speech to the Astros owner.

Meanwhile, Pudge was sending text messages to one Astros player, expressing his desire to be with the Astros. He talked publicly about being willing to change positions. He did not want to be a backup. Playing time was a priority. It smacked of desperation.

Time to pounce.

Ed talked to Boras after Friday night’s game. Ed made an offer. Boras didn’t think it was enough, but he said he’d get back to him.

The next day, Lou Palmisano, the Astros’ Rule 5 catching candidate, made two throws to second base on steal attempts that were anything but strong, putting it mildly. I thought, “Uh oh.”

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one.

Ed and Boras didn’t talk again until Monday. They went back and forth, and a deal was reached.

That’s it.

This story is pretty simple. Wade and Boras talked in late January, and they talked again last Friday. There were no conversations in between. Ed changed his mind about Pudge, Drayton changed his mind about the unmovable payroll structure and Pudge signed a contract.

This is the business of baseball. Things change every single day.

When I heard the news that the Astros signed Pudge, I never thought to myself, “I can’t believe Ed lied to me.” My initial reaction was, they waited him out and they got him on the cheap, because he wants to be an every day player.

Then I thought, this is going to look really, really bad to the public. I was right on both fronts.

One more thing. Several web sites are quoting my blog entry regarding Ed’s reaction to my question about Pudge during my meeting with him last Friday. But they only included part of the paragraph. Here is the whole thing:

“After checking with Ed Wade yet again today, I can assure you the Astros are not pursuing him. And judging from the irritated look on his face, I can also assure you I won’t be asking him about Pudge again anytime soon. At least not for two weeks. Or maybe 10 days. At the very least, I’ll wait a week.”

That was a tongue-in-cheek, humorous way of poking fun at myself for getting on Ed’s nerves with my incessant questions about Pudge. The last part was my way of saying this may be over, but it’s probably not really over.

The dig at myself was taken the wrong way, and I apologize to you and to Ed.

That’s my story. I stand by everything I have written and said over the last month and I have no regrets expect for one. I wish I had asked Ed about Pudge on Saturday at noon instead of Friday at 3.

In this game, it’s all about timing.

Odds and ends, news and notes.

News and notes…
Hunter Pence is out for two to three games, including Wednesday’s loss to the Yankees, with a slight strain in his left calf, an injury he suffered while sliding home during the Astros’ game in Lakeland Tuesday.

Right-hander Alberto Arias, recovering from a bruised right hand, will throw a bullpen session on Thursday. Arias was hit by a line drive last Saturday while pitching against the Yankees in Tampa.

Jason Michaels, who is nursing a sore hamstring, has not played the field but has been pinch-hitting. He’s expected to miss one more game, defensively-speaking.

Manager Cecil Cooper was disappointed with the combined defensive efforts of his infielders — Jason Smith, Matt Kata and David Newhan — late in Wednesday’s game.

“These are the people fighting for utility roles,” Cooper said. “I keep calling them out and nobody seems to step up. That’s all I can tell you, we need somebody to step up and nobody’s stepping up. They’re not difficult plays, either. They’re routine playes that we’re not making and should be making.”

The Astros are now 1-15-3, but look at the bright side — in the last two games, two of their starting pitchers have thrown five scoreless innings; Brian Moehler on Tuesday, and Mike Hampton on Wednesday.

Ed Wade has already received one call from a team that has a third baseman available via trade. Wade also sounds confident there will be options at the end of Spring Training, when players on Minor League contracts with out clauses become free agents. I think they’ll take a long look at Chris Johnson but they’re also going to do their due diligence.

Tough day in Kissimmeee.

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When the majority of the team walked into the press conference room on Wednesday, I knew it was something awful, and then when I saw Aaron Boone sit at the desk in the front of the room with Ed Wade and Cecil Cooper, I felt absolutely sick.

Boone has a heart condition that he’s been dealing with for about 15 years, but after undergoing a routine physical at the beginning of Spring Training with locally-based team physician Dr. Mike Link, it became apparent Boone’s condition had become more dire.

Boone will, in the very near future, schedule surgery to have his aortic heart valve replaced. He is upbeat about this and seems to be handling it well, but this is scary — for Boone, his family, his teammates, and pretty much anyone and everyone who knows him.

Boone’s one of those guys whom everyone likes. He’s funny, easy-going and people seem to just gravitate toward him. Here’s hoping he makes a full recovery and is back on a baseball field sometime down the road. Even more importantly, here’s hoping he makes a full recovery and lives a long and happy life.

To me, he’ll always been Aaron Boooooooone.

Wow, what a finish. Roy is fired up.

How about that ending to last night’s U.S.A.- Puerto Rico matchup? I spoke with Roy Oswalt briefly after the game, and I’ve not heard that kind of excitement in his voice in a long, long time. It reminded me of how much he burns to win, how much it drives him, and the same can be said about most of the Major League players you watch day in and day out. Hearing Oswalt talk about how much fun he was having reminded me how much fun he had back in 2004 and 2005 when the Astros pushed their way through the postseason, and how much fun everyone had back then.

Winning is the only thing that matters in this game, and watching the highlights of last night’s game was a tremendous reminder of why players play and why fans watch. You can say the World Baseball Classic in only an exhibition, but after watching the U.S.A. team’s wild celebration after that finish, I think most of us agree this tournament very much matters.

So the question at batting practice yesterday was, who do the Astros want back in Spring Training more? Oswalt or Pudge Rodriguez? The overwhelming sentiment was Rodriguez, considering he has a brand new pitching staff to get to know. I would expect the process to move quickly from here and it wouldn’t surprise me if Pudge was in uniform no later than Friday.

Talked with Steve Phillips — the Mark Mulder thing was a simple mistake in his column about Pudge in espn.com. He meant Brian Moehler. Mulder is not an Astro.

Time to break out the voodoo doll.

This morning I told Cecil Cooper that the odds were overwhelmingly in the Astros favor, considering they were playing two games that day. That pretty much doubled their chances to win, right?

In a nutshell, no. The Kissimmee side lost to the Philies, 5-2, and those who traveled to Tampa to play the Yankees lost, 3-1.

So the Astros are 1-13-1. How bad is it? It depends on who you ask. Coop is having a hard time with this, but if you go into the clubhouse, you’d find a much different take on this Grapefruit League season. You would actually find people who don’t even know the Astros have won only one game.

Lance Berkman, who is aware of the record, reminded Coop about the 1998 Yankees, who won 114 games during the regular season and nearly swept their way through the playoffs.

How is that team similar to your 2009 Houston Astros? According to Berkman, quoting his good friend Yankee pitcher Andy Pettitte, the ’98 Yankees had “the worst Spring Training in Yankee history.”

I can’t find what the Yankees record was that spring, but I’ll take Berkman’s word for it. Berkman also issued a friendly reminder to his manager: “We are 0-0.” Meaning, once Opening Day gets here, this nightmare of a spring season will be forgotten.

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Posted on the bulletin board in the Astros’ clubhouse was a note indicating everyone is going to Disney on Sunday. Everyone — as in every position player and every pitcher scheduled to pitch. Usually a handful of players will stay behind and work out at the home facility. Not this time; Coop is obviousy steamed, and Sunday’s game with the Braves is going to be a group effort in its most literal sense. We’ll see how that goes.

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Russ Ortiz wasn’t happy with himself after his start against the Phillies.

“I was terrible,” he said. “I was just bad.”

Ortiz allowed three runs over 3 2/3 innings, walked three and struck out two.

“I didn’t come here just to go through the motions,” he said, when asked if he felt like his chances to make the club were diminished after this outing. “I came here to throw and throw well, and be healthy. Whatever happens, happens. I’ve said it before, yea, I want to be on the team, and my goal is to be on the team first and foremost.”

Jose Capellan is scheduled to start Sunday’s game in Atlanta. This is getting interesting.

And so it continues.

Cecil Cooper was typically quiet after the Astros’ loss to the Braves on Tuesday. He’s running out of things to say, and who can blame him? The Astros have lost 10 in a row, and as Cooper pointed out, you couldn’t even blame this last one on the “kids.”

The lineup looked largely like the one projected for Opening day: Matsui, Bourn, Berkman, Lee, Pence, Boone…with one of the projected starting pitchers, Brian Moehler, on the mound. And still, the Astros just weren’t very good.

“This was veterans today,” Cooper said. “We didn’t hit, and we didn’t execute our pitches. I don’t have any answers about why this is happening, unless someone put the hex on us.”

Cooper concluded with, “this is bordering on ridiculous.”

The Astros are now 1-10-1 and haven’t won since the first game of the spring season. Ridiculous indeed. They’ll try again in Sarasota Wednesday, and guess what? Berkman, seen here balancing a bat on his nose, is finally making a road trip. I sense the tide turning already.

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Roy marches on, Carlos heading to Fla. Fanfest, and frozen yogurt.

Random news, notes and thoughts:

One of the many traits I inherited from my dad is a penchant for yelling at the T.V. during tense sports moments. I can vividly remember him lying on the couch yelling at the television — and the Reds — during tough times in the 1970s and ’80s. Later, when I was in college, I found myself doing the same thing while watching my Cincinnati Bearcats play basketball.

And again last night, watching Team USA play Team Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic.

Watching Roy Oswalt’s pitch count rise as he labored through the fourth inning was kind of like watching John Franco try to nail down a save for the Reds in the second half of 1989. You want desperately to jump on the field and yell “stop the madness,” but you can’t, of course, because you’re at home, watching on T.V., and no one is interested in your opinion.

I had no problem with Roy hitting the 70-pitch limit if he was cruising. But by the time he hit his 65th pitch, he was clearly gassed, and in my estimation, Team USA manager Davey Johnson was a tad tardy on yanking him.

I talked to Oswalt about that today and he just laughed at me, which did ease my mind a little bit. He insisted he had a direct open line of communication with the coaching staff and that he had told Johnson and pitching coach Marcel Lachemann he wanted to get to at least 60 pitches in this outing, if not a little more.

The good thing is that Oswalt has six days off before his next appearance. He’ll throw two bullpens this week and will be back on the mound Saturday in Miami for round two of the Classic. He says his body was tired after the outing, but his arm is fine. Whew.

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Carlos Lee contacted Cecil Cooper today and told him he was headed back to Spring Training camp and wanted to get into the game on Tuesday. Lee’s Team Panama was bounced from World Baseball Classic competition after just two games, and apparently, the burly left fielder is ready to return to his day job.

“He’ll be in the lineup tomorrow,” Cooper said after Monday’s game in Viera.

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Cooper, on Jose Capallan, who pitched three scoreless innings: “He’s pitching himself right into the picture. He’s done exactly what we asked him to do: throw strikes, change speeds, pitch down in the zone. He’ll keep getting stretched out.”

 

On Felipe Paulino, who allowed six runs over two innings: “Not very good. He seems to have no feel for pitching. A couple of breaking balls were good, but it did’nt look like he had a good feel. His command was not very good.” 

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A reminder: Astros FanFest this year will be held in conjunction with the exhibition game played against the Indians at Minute Maid Park, following the Florida portion of Spring Training. The date is April 4. When I receive more details regarding activities and autograph schedules, I will be sure to pass that along. But you can count on pretty much the entire team — plus several alumni — participating.

I had mistakenly thought FanFest was a two-day event, but it’s only one…please make note in your calendars, and sorry about the confusion.

From the Inbox:

Why isn’t Lance Berkman getting more playing time? It’s obvious he needs to work on his swing, and two innings every few days just doesn’t seem to cut it. I can’t understand Cooper’s thinking. My prediction: they will finish in last place! —

Elizabeth W., Dallas

When Cooper mapped out the travel schedule for his veteran players for the spring, he had Berkman marked down for no more than three road games all month. That’s why you haven’t seen much of him. Berkman is working out daily at the home complex and is of course playing in most home games, but is it enough? I realize Cooper wants to go easy on his veterans, but at the same time, the hitters have work to do in terms of getting their timing down at the plate. The only way they can do this is to face live pitching regularly, and it bugs me that Berkman is missing all of these road games. And there really isn’t any excuse for him not going to the Braves complex for a game or two, considering it’s less than 30 minutes from the Astros’ complex.

I have to disagree with you that they’ll finish in last place. I don’t know how good they’ll be, but they won’t finish lower than the Pirates. That I can promise you.
 
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Who wants low-fat frozen yogurt after the seventh inning stretch? I do…and I’d bet I’m not alone. Who can I contact to request/encourage this addition to the ballpark menu? — Tracy B., Houston

A cool refreshing snack without the high-calorie guilt? Count me in! I liked your idea so much I forwarded it to the Astros customer service. And let this serve as a reminder to everyone out there — you send your questions, concerns, compliments and complaints to customerservice@astros.com. I can assure you they read each and every one of them and respond to the best of their ability.

Brother, can you spare a win?

We walked into Coop’s office after today’s game and his first words were “Ditto. That’s all you need to write. Ditto.”

In other words, the pitching, hitting and defense of your Houston Astros left a whole to be desired, again

The Astros have not won, at least in terms of games that count in the exhibition standings, since Feb. 25.

I’m out of things to ramble on about and my eyes hurt after watching today’s game. So I’ll you take over — is anyone out there worried?

Wanted: wins. Gall saves the day.

Prior to Saturday’s game, manager Cecil Cooper was fuming about the Astros being shut out two times in eight games. As I watched the ninth inning between the Astros and Cardinals later that afternoon, I wondered how Coop would react to the Astros being shut out three times in nine games, which, if an historical account of Grapefruit League stats actually existed, could very well have proven to be a record.

Thanks to John Gall, we don’t have to pretend to research that little factoid. With two outs in the ninth, Gall doubled home Chris Johnson, which allowed the Astros to lose 5-1 instead of 5-0. It’s the little things that keep us going, no?

So even though the Astros haven’t won since their first game of the Grapefruit League season — save for their win over Panama, which doesn’t count as a win in the league standings — there are a few positives to draw from this game. Mike Hampton looked OK, and he said he feels like he’s getting better every time out. Hampton allowed two runs over three innings, but he breezed through his first two frames, retiring six consecutive batters.

Russ Ortiz, my pick to be the fifth starter, didn’t do so well. He allowed three runs over 2 2/3 innings and admitted later he didn’t feel comfortable for very much of this outing.

“I was just off,” he said. “Timing-wise, I was just late. I was trying to force everything, trying to catch up.

“The first inning, I was fine. I came out the second inning and I was just off, from the get-go. You get frustrated and start thinking too much, at least that’s what I did. You’re almost kind of thinking when you want to throw [inside], I tell myself,

‘Make sure it’s in,’ instead of just, ‘OK, fastball in, here it is.’ With those thoughts in your head, you’re fighting an uphill battle.”

The next time through the rotation, Ortiz can expect to start a game, rather than enter in the middle as he has his first three spring outings.

I know it’s only Spring Training, but the Astros could really, really use a win right about now. Sunday in Bradenton would be a good time to start.

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