April 2009

Worried about Valverde? You bet I am.

It’s never a good sign when the closer is limping around the mound while attempting to close out a game. Valverde logged the save Sunday but then hobbled into the clubhouse, hobbled toward his locker and did everything in his power not to put any pressure on that bum leg. Not good.

Then, when I asked him how he was feeling, he said, “I’m not ready yet. I don’t feel 100 percent, but I have to support my team.”

This is alarming, because Valverde is the type of pitcher who will play through anything and swear up and down, left and right that he’s totally fine, because the competitor in him is telling him he’s fine even if he’s not totally fine. For him to come right out and say, in essence, “I’m not fine” is worrisome. He must be in some kind of pain.

So we’ll see what happens this week in Cincinnati. The bullpen is beat up after throwing 10 innings in the last two days, so not having a fully healthy Valverde could be a big, big problem this week.

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Russ Ortiz has to be more efficient if he’s going to be a part of this rotation. He threw 97 pitches on Sunday and got through only five innings. That’s not good enough, and he’s fully aware of that.

“There were times today where I made pitches early in the count and they swung and got out in three or four pitches,” he said after the win over the Brewers. “That was the whole goal — get some outs as soon as possible — obviously, not throwing pitches right down the middle of the plate — but making quality pitches early and that was the goal. These [Brewers] hitters, I think they know me, that I’m going to throw a lot of pitches and they’re laying off some pretty close pitches. I just keep plugging away and I’m not going to change anything. Certain hitters, I need to do a better job of getting ahead early.”

That said, Ortiz understood the importance of winning that final game with the Brewers. The homestand was already a disappointment, but a sweep by the Brewers would have been brutal.

“I think everybody in this clubhouse knew we had to win,” Ortiz said. “It was a must-win game today. Those are games I love to pitch in, because I’ve always felt like I want to be a go-to guy. I want to be a guy that can stop something or that can keep something going. I want these guys to know that when I’m going out, we have a really good shot at winning. Today, I knew it was an important game. That’s what Pudge and I talked about. We needed to win this game.”

Alyson Footer is on Facebook and Twitter

On Erstad, Brocail, Berkman and Sampson.

Cecil Cooper was planning for a while to play Darin Erstad in right field and rest Hunter Pence on Thursday, but he admitted he had second thoughts after Pence homered and doubled during the previous night’s game with the Dodgers. In the end, Cooper decided to stick with his original plan.

“It takes guts to take [Pence] out after last night,” Cooper said. “I hope [the fans] don’t boo me tonight.”

The decision was more about Erstad than Pence. Erstad had only 10 at-bats heading into this game and no starts.

“We need to get Erstad a start,” Cooper said. “That’s the reason we’re doing it. He needs to get four at-bats, or three at-bats in a game so he can feel comfortable. When a guy gets that, he usually starts to feel better. Then, when we use him in key situations, he’s ready.”

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Considering Alex Rodriguez just had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip, I couldn’t help but wonder if Chris Sampson was headed for the same fate. Why can one player play through a tear in his labrum and the other can’t?

So, I asked Ed Wade about that, and he compared Sampson’s tear to peeling an orange. If you peel it slightly back but don’t break it off, it snaps back into place. As long as the labrum doesn’t tear further he should be OK, but there are no guarantees that it won’t.

“I guess it’s degrees of tolerance more than anything,” Wade said. “He’s had soreness and then there was the bang-bang play [at first base] where he fell back. He tweaked it again and that’s when they told us it was incumbent to get the MRI.”

Sampson will probably have the tear looked at again when the season is over, and at that time, he might opt to have it surgically repaired. That’s a long way away however, and for now, he’ll pitch through it.
 
“He might have episodes over the course of the season where he’s too sore to pitch,” Wade said. “Or back-to-back days at different times might be a problem. We don’t know at this point. It’s going to be up to him to let us know how he’s feeling.”

Right now, Sampson is still enjoying the effects of a pain-numbing cortisone shot he took earlier this week, so it’s safe to say he’s feeling just fine.

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At some point Wednesday, Doug Brocail was scheduled to make a Minor League rehab appearance. But he said he was going to try to talk Cooper and pitching coach Dewey Robsinson out of it, and apparently, it worked. Brocail will throw a simulated game
Friday instead and if that goes well, there is no reason why he shouldn’t be activated on Sunday when he’s eligible to come off the DL.

“What if he had gone there to Round Rock and thrown six pitches, or five?” Cooper said. “He’s not a guy that’s going to sit down after six pitches and get up and go another inning. It didn’t make a lot of sense. He’s going to do it here, and we’ll see if we can get him activated soon after.”

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Lance Berkman’s homer Thursday night was the 292nd of his career, which moved him ahead of Craig Biggio for second place on the club’s all-time home run list.

So now, Berkman is sandwiched in between Biggio [291] and Jeff Bagwell [449].

“I’m honored to be in the same company as the two franchise icons,” he said.

As proud as he is to have played with Bagwell and Biggio, Berkman is OK with the fact that he is NOT an original Killer B. He is actually quick to remind us that he was playing at Rice when the whole Killer B thing first started in 1996.

It’s for that reason that Berkman doesn’t quite understand the buzzing sound played over the loudspeaker from time to time when he bats, and come to think of it, neither does hitting coach Sean Berry, one of the founding fathers of the first wave of Killer B’s. [That group included Bagwell, Biggio, Berry and Derek Bell].

Overheard: Brad Ausmus, acknowledging that this is the Dodgers’ only trip to Minute Maid Park this year: “This is the last time I’ll never play here.”

During Spring Training, we polled several key figures from the last 10 years on their favorite Minute Maid Park memories. We’re rolling them out slowly over the course of the season. First up, Roy Oswalt. Check it out here [scroll down]: http://astrosmemories.mlblogs.com/

From the camera archives:
The Astros are a close bunch. Puma demonstrated this while preparing to do an interview with radio announcer Dave Raymond. Puma’s like that close talker from Seinfeld. Dave acted like he was uncomfortable but I think he secretly liked it.

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Here they are at a more comfortable distance:

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I have no idea what Ed Wade and Randy Wolf were talking about, but being the nosy photographer I am, I snapped this and drew my own conclusions. Wade’s a big fan of Wolf; it wouldn’t surprise me if he made another run at him next offseason.
 
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Valverde out tonight, and maybe longer.

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Jose Valverde is out for tonight’s game and could be sidelined longer, depending on how quickly his bruised right foot and pulled calf muscle heal.

“He’s going to be laid up for a while,” manager Cecil Cooper said before Wednesday’s game. “He definitely will be out tonight. We hope to give him a day or two and see how he is.”

Valverde pulled the muscle after taking an Orlando Hudson line drive off his foot and making a diving throw to Lance Berkman at first. He admitted later it was hard for him to throw strikes after the incident.

A melancholy Valverde expressed optimism that he would be ready to pitch for the finale against the Dodgers, but honestly, that’s looking kind of doubtful.

“Tomorrow,” he said. “We’ll see how I feel. If I feel better tomorrow, I’ll be able to pitch.”

This one hurt.

Hats off to Hunter Pence. It couldn’t have been easy to stand at his locker and explain in full detail his eighth-inning at-bat against Arthur Rhodes, but he did it. And he did it well. He addressed us immediately, got it over with, and I applaud him for how he handled the whole thing.

“I’m going to be a winner,” he said. “I’m going to find a way. In those times, I want to be up to bat. This time, I didn’t get them, but tomorrow’s a new day. This is where you find out what you’re made of, when times get rough.”

The Astros, collectively, are not good offensively right now. They’re either last or close to last in some pretty important categories — runs, average, hits, RBIs. This is a collective struggle. But Monday night, the focus was on Pence, who looked at a called third strike with the bases loaded, two outs, and the Astros down by a run.

Geoff Blum always provides great perspective, and he didn’t disappoint this time when talking about Pence.

“I’ve been hitting behind him for just a couple of games now,” he said. “And after watching last year and hitting behind him this year, even I get to be a part-time fan when I’m sitting on deck. I expect him to do something amazing, because I think he’s built for it. He’s worked hard to get to that point. But this game is harsh. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen that time, but there’s plenty more game left. I know Hunter’s going to relish every chance he has to be in that situation.”

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Cecil Cooper chose Geoff Geary after Mike Hampton yielded a base hit in the seventh inning for a couple of reasons. One was simple default — Jeff Fulchino was unavailable because he’s pitched a lot in the last couple of days, and Chris Sampson was also unavailable. Cooper didn’t expand on it when pressed on Sampson, so I’m guessing Sampson is still not recovered from that hip problem he encountered while executing an out at first base the other night. I’ll check on that tomorrow.

Anyway, back to Geary. Concerned?

“I don’t have any concern, he’s just not pitching the way he pitched a year ago,” Cooper said. “He’s struggling a little bit. All we can do is keep running him out there, and I don’t think there’s anything mechanically wrong.”

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Puma tied Craig Biggio for second on the club’s all-time home run list with 291. Next up, Jeff Bagwell’s 449. It’s going to be a while.

Paulino proves me wrong. Astros on the mend.

I’ll be honest — I wasn’t expecting much from Felipe Paulino on Sunday. He was wholly unimpressive while auditioning for the fifth starter job during Spring Training, and while his first two starts for Round Rock were terrific, success at Triple-A doesn’t necessarily translate into success in the big leagues.

Paulino opened the game by allowing a base hit to Willy Taveras, and he hit the next batter, Chris Dickerson. But from there, Paulino was clearly in control. I have no idea what they’ll do with him once Brian Moehler is ready to come off the disabled list, but clearly, Paulino earned the chance to make another start. Moehler is probably going to make a few Minor League starts before rejoining the rotation, so that will give Paulino more opportunities to prove Sunday’s outing wasn’t a one-hit wonder.

With Brandon Backe on the mend and Paulino knocking on the door, it appears the Astros might actually have a little pitching depth. I’m still not convinced Backe can be an effective full-season starting pitcher, but he’s piqued my interest. We’ll see.

Kaz Matsui should be ready to return to his position Monday and look for Jeff Keppinger to play during the Dodgers series. The Astros are facing three lefties — including former Astro Randy Wolf — and the Astros are going to need Keppinger’s bat, and his stellar average against lefties, in that series.

Alyson Footer is on Facebook and Twitter

Brocail on the disabled list.

General manager Ed Wade and manager Cecil Cooper met with right-hander Doug Brocail Sunday morning and asked the pitcher for a little bit of honesty,

Brocail obliged, and as a result, the veteran right-hander was placed on the 15-day disabled list with the rotator cuff strain he was diagnosed with on Saturday.

Wade asked Brocail point blank if he thought he’d be available to pitch by Wednesday. Brocail told Wade he’d probably need more time to recover, prompting the Astros to recall right-hander Jeff Fulchino from Triple-A Round Rock. He’ll be in uniform for the Astros’ opener in Pittsburgh Monday afternoon.

“We called Doug in and talked to him and asked him if he didn’t pick up a ball today, tomorrow or Tuesday, where did he think he would be Wednesday?” Wade said. “He thought he wouldn’t be far enough along to help us. He was honest with us, which is what we needed — the truth at that point. we needed to know where he stood.”

Brocail flew to Houston Saturday to be examined by team doctors after complaining of shoulder soreness following an ineffective appearance against the Cardinals the night before. An MRI taken on the 41-year-old reliever’s right shoulder showed inflammation, but no structural damage.

Despite his disappointment that he will be unavailable until the last game of the next homestand — the first day he’ll be eligible to be activated from the DL — Brocail admitted he was concerned about the results of his latest exam.

“I’ll be honest — I was more worried about this one than when I blew out my elbow the second time,” he said. “When you wake up and you can’t get your arm up, and you struggle to get it out…I’m a strike thrower. When I go out there and throw 13 straight balls, it’s not good. At least this way, I can get all the swelling out, and once the swelling goes out,it’ll keep the rotators from rubbing so bad.”

Fulchino started for the Express on Saturday, but anticipating they may need him, the Astros put him on a strict pitch limit. Fulchino threw approximately 35 pitches over two innings, while Alberto Arias pitched the next 2 1/3 innings.

Brocail has been on the disabled list 13 times in his career. This is his first DL stint since 2007, when he was sidelined with a strained left gluteus muscle.

Forgettable day at Busch. Hats off to Torii Hunter.

Random thoughts…

I don’t know Torii Hunter, and obviously, I was not out in Anaheim when the news of Nick Adenhart’s tragic death was broken to the team. But as someone who understands the inner-workings of a baseball team, I’d like to make an observation: Hunter defines leadership. While his teammates were gripped with mind-numbing devastation in the hours after learning of Adenhart’s death, Hunter was everywhere — on T.V., radio, newspapers, web sites. He became the sole spokesman, player-wise, allowing his mourning teammates to stay out of the public eye.

Yes, the Angels held a formal press conference, which was attended by their GM, manager and Adehart’s agent. But from a player standpoint, Torii Hunter did exactly what a true leader and a great teammate does — he took over the burden that inevitably accompanies such a tragic, public story. That burden was his and his only, by his own design. Good for him, good for the Angels, and good for baseball.

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Roy Oswalt and Brandon Backe were up at the crack of dawn on Friday — 6 a.m., to be exact — to go to Oswalt’s nearby ranch for some early morning hunting. I can’t imagine anything worse than getting up at 6 a.m. to drive two hours to see a couple of turkeys and not actually shoot anything, but hey, to each his own.

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For now, Doug Brocail is not going on the disabled list, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if that changes in the next day or two. He has a rotator cuff strain and it’s hard for me to believe he’ll be back to normal in three or four days. They can’t play a reliever short for that long, and there’s no harm in bringing up Alberto Arias, who had a good enough Spring Training to make the club — if there was room in the ‘pen, which there was not. Now there might be.

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I’m not even going to address Saturday’s game. The score says enough.

Fun day at Minute Maid.

Please indulge me while I wallow in a bit of nostalgia with the pictures I’m posting today. The Astros celebrated their 10th season at Minute Maid Park with a pregame ceremony on Tuesday that brought back some of the most popular players and managers in the last decade, and it was great to see everyone again. I can’t remember the last time I saw Shane Reynolds, who has barely aged since he last pitched for the Astros in 2001. Larry Dierker was there, as was Phil Garner, Jeff Bagwell and the newly-retired Jeff Kent, who is happily living in Austin, running a couple of businesses and hanging out with the family. I wonder how long it will be before he misses baseball. He seems pretty content right now.

First, a couple of news and notes from last night’s game:
* With runners on first and second and nobody out in the ninth inning, Michael Bourn was given the bunt sign from the dugout. Although Bourn initially showed bunt, he ended up swinging away, presumably in an effort to fool the Cubs fielders and slap a single over someone’s head. It didn’t work. Bourn ended up reaching on a fielder’s choice, while Jeff Keppinger was erased at third.

Asked about it after the game, Cecil Cooper confirmed Bourn was instructed to bunt and said, “I have to talk to Michael about that.”

But Cooper also defended his center fielder: “In that situation, a lot of times it is tough to put down a bunt, and guys do have the green light to do something with the ball other than bunt it right. Ii thought it was a pretty good play, he just didn’t quite execute it.”

* The Astros’ 3-2 10th inning win over the Cubs marked the first time in a while the game was not won because of a  Darin Erstad contribution. The Astros’ last walkoff win arrived via a home run by Erstad last Sept. 26, versus the Braves, and the club’s last walkoff win in extra innings occurred on Aug. 2 of last year, versus the Mets. Erstad won that one with a sac fly.

On to the photos…

Geoff Blum and Jeff Kent

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Larry Dierker, wearing his signature Hawaiian shirt.

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Phil Garner, Roy Oswalt

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This was kind of a cool shot — that’s Jeff Kent and Russ Ortiz, who were teammates on the 2002 Giants club that lost to Darin Erstad’s Angels in the World Series. To the left is Shane Reynolds; Bagwell is behind Ortiz. The big guy in the middle is Doug Brocail.  

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Jeff Kent, standing alongside 10-year season ticket holders.

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Kent and Bagwell, and Reynolds (looking down). Who’s that man in the middle? Why, that’s Buck, who works for Dennis Liborio in the Astros’ clubhouse.

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Shane Reynolds.

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Reynolds, Dierker, Kent.

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 Alyson Footer is on Facebook and Twitter.

Random thoughts on the eve of Opening Day.

Happy Opening Day everyone. I can honestly say that during this marathon Spring Training, I was starting to doubt this day would ever get here. Now that it’s here, I thought I’d mark down some random thoughts and ramblings that have run through my mind in the last day or so as I try to simultaneously unpack from Spring Training, gear up for Opening Day and repack for St. Louis…

* I like this team. This is notable only because a year ago, days before Opening Day, my thought was “Uh oh. This is a disaster.” Nothing was going right. The players were virtual strangers after Ed Wade’s offseason of housecleaning. The pitching wasn’t good. I don’t remember much about the hitting, but considering how many games they lost coming out of Spring Training, I’m guessing that wasn’t good, either. This year, I’m seeing something much different. The chemistry among players is great. Optimism is high. When Cecil Cooper said, “We can win 90 games,” the players didn’t respond with eye rolls. Instead, they said, “Sure, why not?”

Yes, the starting pitching worries me, because of its age and injury history. The rotation showed no signs of wear, tear and fatigue through the spring season, but it’s early. Really, really early. Still, I like what Russ Ortiz showed us, I like how Mike Hampton progressed with each outing and, of course, I like seeing Roy Oswalt atop of the rotation.

The bullpen could be the best in the division. The offense is right up there as well. I’d say the Astros had a perfect spring — they lost games early, when their hitters were still working on their timing and the pitchers expected to not make the team gave up the lion’s share of the runs. As time wore on, cuts were made, hitters came to life, and they started winning.

No one wants to peak on March 8.

* I cannot, for the life of me, understand why fans get so riled up when the ESPNs of the world don’t give their team any love while making their season predictions. Who cares? I mean, really, truly, who cares?

* The first homestand is going to be a doozy, if you’re into pregame pomp and circumstance. Tuesday is going to be pretty neat, considering the Astros have invited back some of the most colorful characters from the last nine years at their downtown ballpark. Among the guests: Shane Reynolds, Lance Berkman, Larry Dierker, Jeff Bagwell, Jeff Kent, Phil Garner, Roy Oswalt, Carlos Lee, Jose Valverde and Cecil Cooper.

On Wednesday, which also happens to be the 35th anniversary of Milo Hamilton’s famous call of Henry Aaron’s 715th home run, Hamilton will have a street named in his honor.  A stretch of Hamilton Street that runs along the East side of Minute Maid Park is being renamed, Milo Hamilton Way. Fans are invited to attend the dedication ceremony at 3:00 p.m. at the corner of Hamilton Street and Texas Avenue.

See you at the ballpark!

Final roster official soon; FanFest fun at the ballpark.

Cecil Cooper plans to finalize the Astros’ Opening Day roster after the game today, and it’ll come as a surprise to no one when Russ Ortiz is named the fifth starter, Jose Capellan is sent to the Minor Leagues and Jason Smith is named the backup utility infielder.

Reggie Abercrombie already knows that he didn’t make the team, and as always, he was classy and professional with his reaction. He commended the Astros for signing Jason Michaels in the offseason, saying, “Michaels is an outstanding player. You can’t not go get him. He makes the team better.”

That’s why Reggie is a great teammate, and liked by everyone.

Snapped a few pictures of FanFest at Minute Maid Park today…

 

Puma, Abercrombie, Blum, Capellan (hidden by a bat) 

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Abercrombie, Blum

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Astros broadcasters at a Talkin’ Baseball session.

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Mrs. Puma, Cara Berkman, chatting with FS Houston’s Patti Smith during a Women in Baseball session.

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Drayton McLane signs autographs.

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The new guys, Jeff Keppinger, sitting next to Humberto Quintero.

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Alyson Footer is on Facebook and Twitter.

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