May 2009

Backe active Friday, role undetermined.

Brandon Backe is officially an active player after being reinstated from the DL after Wednesday’s loss in Cincinnati. Backe, for now, will be available out of the bullpen. That’s not to say that he will spend the rest of the season as a reliever, but there appears to be no room for him in a weekend rotation that will consist of Brian Moehler [Friday], Wandy Rodriguez [Saturday] and Mike Hampton [Sunday].

As to whether Backe will be a middle reliever or long reliever, manager Cecil Cooper wouldn’t say.

“He’ll be activated on Friday,” Cooper said earlier Wednesday. “That’s all I can tell you.”

Backe was happy about that part, but he’s a bit perplexed as to why no one seems to know where he fits on this pitching staff. If he’s going to be a reliever, he can’t help but wonder why he spent the last month starting in the Minor Leagues.

“If that’s the case, in return, I’ve got to ask why I went off and made six starts,” he said. “I’m not here to question anybody’s authority. I’m here just to put a jersey on every day and give my best between the lines. Wherever it is, bullpen, starter, it doesn’t matter. My teammates know that more than anything.”

Backe vowed to concentrate on nothing but retiring hitters, in whatever role he’s assigned. If he does know what his job will be, he’s playing it close to the vest for now.

“I’m going to go out there regardless with the same mental focus on getting outs and helping our team win,” he said. “That’s the main objective of us as baseball players. It doesn’t matter where we are and when we get in. Roger Clemens proved it to us in the playoffs [in 2005] when he offered to come out of the bullpen and pitch three innings. He’s a savior. That turned
out pretty good for us.”

After confirming Backe’s pending activation, Cooper also made it clear Felipe Paulino’s outing against the Reds Wednesday was not an audition. Paulino will make at least one more start after this one.

“And I’m not saying he’s not going to get some after that,” Cooper said.

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Spent my time in the clubhouse before the game Wednesday afternoon trying to figure out exactly what the exchange was between Roy Oswalt and Cooper last night after the fifth inning. It appears the communication between Oswalt and the coaching staff went through pitching coach Dewey Robinson. Oswalt, hurting after fielding a Joey Votto ground ball with his pitching hand, threw a handful of pitching in the tunnel to make sure everything was OK.

Oswalt told Robinson he wanted to back out for the sixth, which he did. Obviously, it didn’t go well. Oswalt was numb in the bottom part of his index and middle fingers and could not get a feel for his pitches when he tried to get through his last inning.

Cooper said after the game that he did not know what was wrong with Oswalt. I do not believe that to be true. He knew, but for reasons not spoken publicly, he did not want to talk about it. And that’s where we are.

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Geoff Geary threw approximately 40 pitches off the mound Wednesday and felt no pain. “The ball’s coming out of my hand the way it should,” he said. It’s got life the way it’s supposed to have.”

Geary plans to throw to hitters, simulated-style, in Pittsburgh Friday, weather-permitting. He’d also like to make one rehab appearance after that.

“I’d like to throw against hitters in a game that doesn’t matter, just for mind over matter,” he said. “I could throw 90, 100 percent like I did today and then go into a game and all of a sudden have some weird feeling in my arm. I want to just clear everything up.” 

Odds and ends, news and notes

Jason Smith, recently designated for assignment, cleared waivers and accepted his assignment to Triple-A Round Rock.

Miguel Tejada has been named National League Player of the Week after hitting .522 over six games last week.

Still no word on when or where Brandon Backe will make his first appearance of the season, or if it will be as a starter or reliever.

Kazuo Matsui was omitted from the lineup Tuesday with a little soreness in  his right hamstring, according manager Cecil Cooper. Matsui could sit out Wednesday as well, but that might depend on Geoff Blum’s condition. Blum missed a second game with a sore left hamstring, and he could be out until the Pirates series. That could leave the Astros short too many backup infielders, which may necessitate a roster move.

Pudge Rodriguez was back in the lineup Tuesday, as the catcher promised. Rodriguez was removed in the first inning Monday after twisting his knee during a play at the plate.

A grand jury will not seek an indictment of Brandon Backe after hearing testimony from the pitcher two weeks ago. Charges stemming from an incident with Galveston police last October have been dropped. Said Backe: “I was very confident about being innocent. But you never know in those situations. It’s my word against the police. It’s a scary thought. I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who have been in my situation who were found guilty, and that’s just not justice.”

Pudge leaves game with left knee irritation.

Head athletic trainer Nate Lucero and manager Cecil Cooper made their way to the mound in the bottom of the first inning on Monday, which usually indicates a possible injury to the pitcher.

But the two were clearly having a conversation with catcher Pudge Rodriguez, not Wandy Rodriguez, so it came as no surprise when Humberto Quintero took over behind the plate in the next frame.

Pudge Rodriguez left the game with a sprained left knee, and his status is currently day-to-day. Rodriguez insisted he would be back on the field Tuesday.

“I’ll be playing tomorrow, no matter what,” he said.

Rodriguez suffered the injury after his knee twisted awkwardly while he was attempting to tag Adam Rosales on a play at the plate in the first inning.

“It wasn’t [Rosales], I just got caught in the wrong place,” Rodriguez said. “I went down and my knee went the wrong way. I went to tag him and my left knee got stuck. I felt a little pop in my inside knee, in the back.”

When he resumed his crouch position behind the plate, Rodriguez felt pain in the knee area. He communicated that with Cooper while also insisting he could continue playing, but Cooper decided to take the safe route and remove the veteran catcher.

“Cooper told me, ‘Just go in and don’t take any chances,'” Rodriguez said. “I could have gone back and played but he told me to take it easy. He said he’s going to need me to help for the season. I’ll be OK tomorrow. For sure, tomorrow.”

Cooper indicated that infielder Edwin Maysonet could be used as a catcher in an emergency situation. Geoff Blum, another catching option, is sidelined with a strained hamstring.

Blum leaves game with strained hammy.

Geoff Blum will likely miss at least two games with a strained left hamstring after suffering the injury during Sunday’s finale with the Rangers.

Blum felt the discomfort after singling in his first at-bat in the second inning.

“When I went into second base, I kind of hesitated a little bit in my slide,” he said. “It felt more like a cramp when I did it but my third at-bat when I took that swing, I felt it. It bit pretty good. It hurts.”

Blum left after the sixth inning and was replaced at third base by rookie Edwin Maysonet. The veteran infielder’s status is currently day-to-day.

“We’ll wake up tomorrow and see how it goes and I’ll probably have a better evaluation of what’s going on,” Blum said. “[Athletic trainers] Nate [Lucero] and Rex [Jones] are going to do a good job in taking care of me and hopefully it is just a day-to-day thing and something I can deal with and work through.”

Blum said he hasn’t pulled a hamstring since 1996, while playing for the Expos’ Double-A affiliate in Harrisburg, PA.

Maysonet called up, Cooper addresses team issues.

Edwin Maysonet messed up a bunt attempt in the eighth inning Thursday night and afterward his Triple-A manager, Marc Bombard, called him into his office and said, “You’ve got to start working on your bunting, especially up there.”

Maysonet didn’t initially understand what “up there” meant. Turns out, it meant the big leagues. Maysonet was called up to replace Jason Smith, who, hitless this season, was designated for assignment after the Astros’ loss to the Brewers.

This is Maysonet’s second call to the big leagues. He was also part of a group of Minor Leaguers who was called up last year when rosters expanded to 40 in September.

Maysonet was hitting .309 with seven doubles and five RBIs for Round Rock at the time of his recall. He’ll fill the same role as Smith — a backup infielder and pinch-hitter.

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There have been a lot of whispers about a contentious relationship developing between the players and manager Cecil Cooper, and Cooper addressed the topic before Friday’s game with the Rangers.

Cooper insisted his repoire with the players is fine and downplayed the notion that he’s lost the clubhouse. Here is what he said:

“When you struggle, all sorts of things happen. I’m sensing that’s probably what’s happening. I don’t think it’s a bad relationship. If it is, I don’t think it’s really on me. I think my door’s open. I expressed it all the time. I’m open, I move around amongst my players every day, if there are issues they should be addressed. I don’t feel there are.

“You have to be open, you have to be available and guys have to speak their minds when there’s something going on. There’s only so much you can sense or feel. They have to express themselves.”

Lately, however, the players have been expressing their feelings, largely off the record, to reporters, and not Cooper. They were not happy when Cooper opted not to bunt when the Astros had runners on first and second in the ninth inning in Chicago last Saturday, and some were irked with how he handled the lineup card mixup the other night during their game with the Brewers. Several wondered why it was a player, and not Cooper, who reached out to explain the mixup to Michael Bourn, who did not initially understand why he was being called back to hit again, after he had led off the game with a base hit.

On going to the media with their concerns, and not directly to him, Cooper said this:

“Then I’d say they’ve got a problem. They need to come and talk to me. That’s what I say to that. They need to talk to me. If I had an issue with someone, I would talk to that individual. I would hope they’d have enough confidence and feel good enough to come and talk to me. It’s not like I’m not around. It’s not like my door’s closed. It’s not like I don’t move in and out
of the clubhouse. It’s not like i’m not approachable. I would hope they would come talk to me.”

Geary on the mend. Maysonet recalled.

Geoff Geary is throwing on flat ground every day, fully intending to be ready for activation from the disabled list when he’s eligible on May 29. Whether he’s actually ready remains to be seen, however.

Geary, sidelined with right biceps tendinitis, is working with the team’s athletic trainers to strengthen the muscles on his upper back — near the back of his neck — with hopes that it will improve Geary’s posture and relieve the pressure on the front of his shoulder.

“It’s a day to day process, and every day that I feel better, the more excited I become,” Geary said.

Pitching with pain is something Geary is accustomed to. He says he’s done so most of his career, not from anything out of the ordinary, but simply because pain is the natural byproduct of doing something so physically unnatural and violent as overhand pitching.

“There have been times I can’t sleep because I couldn’t get my arm in the right position,” Geary said. “That’s just something you have to deal with. Your pain tolerance increases.”

Geary pointed out that he pitched with tears in his groin and abdomen in 2008 and found a way to get through it. This time, however, he realized he couldn’t pitch through the pain and still produce acceptable results.

He realized this pretty quickly during the Rockies series last week. In what was headed for a blowout Astros win, Geary allowed five runs in the ninth inning. He went on the DL the next morning.
 
“I kept telling myself, ‘if Jamie Moyer can pitch at 86 [mph], so can Geoff Geary,'” he said, referring to the Phillies’ 46-year-old mainstay. “But I’m not doing anything but hurting myself. Jamie Moyer knows how to pitch at 86. I don’t.”

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Following Thursday’s game, the Astros designated infielder Jason Smith and recalled infielder Edwin Maysonet from Triple-A Round Rock. Maysonet will serve in the same role as Smith, as a second utility infielder. “He can play all over,” manager Cecil Cooper said.

_____________

Two things that struck me funny from Wednesday’s lineup card mixup that resulted in Michael Bourn hitting second, despite leading off the game with a base hit:

* Before the game, Bourn was the featured presenter of the lineup during FS Houston’s pregame show. I believe his exact words were, “Hitting in the leadoff spot, me.”

* According to manager Cecil Cooper, just before the game began, he and a couple of his coaches were talking about Joe Maddon’s lineup gaffe from a few days earlier that resulted in the Rays having to bat their pitcher. Little did they know…

From batting practice:

Erstad, Blum and everyone’s favorite lefty, Jim Deshaies. 

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Dave Clark talks bunting with Michael Bourn.

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Carlos Lee.

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Carlos Lee and Puma have a laugh while Puma fields grounders.

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Jason Michaels and Jeff Keppinger talk hitting.
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Hampton day to day, what to do with Backe, and, most importantly, remembering Arnie.

Mike Hampton is tentatively scheduled to start on Sunday when the Astros wrap up their series with the Rangers, but as of Wednesday, the lefty’s status is day-to-day. Basically, this means that either the cut on his thumb will be healed by Sunday, in which case he’ll pitch, or it’ll still be an open wound, in which case he won’t.

“We think he’ll be fine,” manager Cecil Cooper said. “If not, we’ll have to figure out a way to give him a day or something, if he needs it. If there are issues, we might skip him. We’ll have to see.”

Hampton apparently cut his thumb on a soap dispenser while showering in the clubhouse at Wrigley Field on Sunday. I have to admit, it sounds a little strange to me. How does a soap dispenser have something that sharp enough on it that it would cut someone?

______________

Brandon Backe will make his seventh and final rehab outing on Saturday in Round Rock, but he won’t be reinstated from the DL right away. He can’t make any more rehab starts beyond next Tuesday, per the 30-day rule for pitchers, but that does not mean the Astros have to make an immediate roster move.

Instead, Backe will throw his normal between-start bullpen session and, assuming the team intends to put him on their 25-man roster, a move would be made just prior to Backe’s joining the rotation.

There is no target date for when Backe may appear for the first time in a big league game this season.

“We’ve talked preliminaries, but we haven’t nailed it down,” general manager Ed Wade said. “We’ll have to see how he progresses, how other guys progress and try to figure it out when we have to.”

Presumably, Backe would bump Felipe Paulino from the rotation, considering Paulino is the only starter who has options remaining on his contract and can go back to Round Rock without penalty. Nothing has been decided, however.

“It’s a nice problem to have,” Wade said. “It’s always better to have more than not enough. We tend to be able to figure those kinds of things out and unfortunately, as if often the case, those things figure themselves out. All we want to do is hope Brandon gets through that start on Saturday in good shape and pitches the way he pitched in his previous rehab outings.”

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Sad, sad news about a Minute Maid Park institution, Arnie Murphy, better known as “The Peanut Dude.” Arnie passed away after undergoing a stem cell procedure to aid his ailing heart.

Arnie was a member of the Astros and Aramark family for over 15 years and through the years, in addition to displaying some of the best peanut-tossing moves in the business, he had dedicated himself to bringing comfort to the many young children of the Sunshine Kids — a support group for kids with cancer and their families.

Every night, Arnie would pose with a Sunshine Kid in front of the press box, and the image would be shown on the giant JumboTron for the entire stadium’s viewing. It was a small gesture, but not to the featured youngster. Arnie always had a smile and a kind word, and the ballpark just won’t be the same without him.

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Sampson tweaks his back. Backe has one more start.

Manager Cecil Cooper was leaning toward giving Chris Sampson a night off Tuesday in an effort to give him two full days following a “stressful” outing in Chicago over the weekend. But after tweaking his back while playing with his son on the offday, Sampson may have no choice but to sit out the opener with the Brewers.

Sampson was sitting on the floor at his home and while playfully grabbing his two-year-old son, C.J., he felt a pain in his back.

“I went to grab [C.J.] while he was running by, and I kind of tweaked my lower back,” Sampson said an hour before Tuesday’s game. “It’s loosening up a little bit. I’m just going to treat it all day today and keep some heat on it, see if it won’t loosen up enough to possibly pitch tonight. If not tonight, then should be ready to go tomorrow. It’s not serious.

The back issue has nothing to do with the hip problem he experienced a couple of weeks ago.

___________

Brandon Backe is scheduled to complete what could possibly be the longest rehab assignment in history when he takes the mound for a seventh time in a Minor League game on Saturday. For Double-A Corpus Monday, Backe threw eight shutout innings,
allowing five hits and one walk while striking out five. He threw 98 pitches, 74 for strikes.

If he’s deemed ready to rejoin the team next week, the Astros will have some decisions to make. Does Backe go into the rotation, and if he does, who leaves? Felipe Paulino? And if that is the case, does Paulino go to the Minor Leagues, or does he rejoin the bullpen?

“I’m sure we’ll have discussions what to do,” Cooper said. “It’s a good problem to have.”

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Yes, I have a new job. Welcome Brian McTaggart.

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June 1 is going to be a big day for two people — me, as I will begin my new post as the Astros’ Senior Director of Digital Media, and my good friend and colleague Brian McTaggart, who takes over as the Astros beat reporter for MLB.com. I couldn’t be happier for Brian, whose knowledge of and familiarity with the Astros through his five years covering the beat for the Houston Chronicle will surely make the transition smooth and quick. He’s highly respected by the folks he covers and I am sure you will enjoy his daily coverage on Astros.com and MLB.com.

I say that with a touch of sadness. I’ve been covering this team since the very beginning, way back in 2001, when no one was sure if this web site thing was going to work, or have staying power. I continue to be astonished with what we’ve done over the last eight years and what a smashing success MLB.com has become. That’s a testament to my coworkers, from the out-in-front reporters to the behind-the-scenes support staff. It’s a huge, huge operation and
I’ve never met more dedicated, hard-working people. Kudos to all of you.

I’ve heard from a lot of you already, and I appreciate the kind words and well wishes. There is a perception that I’m going away, slipping into desk-job oblivion — that could not be further from the truth. I’m in charge of pushing the Astros further into the digital age, where blogging, Facebooking and Twitter-ing [yes, I know it’s called Tweeting, but seriously, I cannot seem to embrace that word] are where everything is headed. Consider me your fly-on-the-wall
observer, one with an all-access pass [within reason, of course] to places the club has never before shared with the public.

I’ll spend a lot of my time with the Major League team, but I’ll also visit and blog about the Minor Leagues as well. I’ll be at every home game, floating around all parts of the ballpark and sharing my observances through the various new media options we all have at our fingertips. I’ll also be with the team on many road trips.

I’ll have duties on the marketing and sponsorship sides as well, and I’ll be responsible for conveying information about community appearances, off-the-field events, ticket specials and promotional initiatives. The job description is still evolving, and I’m excited to see where this is headed.

I have no idea what goes on in the draft room on draft day, or the GM suite during the Winter Meetings, or the closed-door arbitration hearings. I’m about to find out, and in turn, so are you.

So while I’ve left MLB.com, I’ll still reside in a special section of the Astros’ web site. I’ll have more time to answer reader emails and of course, I’ll still post lots and lots of pictures on this blog, which beginning June 1, will be my main method of communication.

And to address something that most of you are wondering, no, I’m not going to lose my objectivity. One of the most oft-used phrases in baseball could not be more true: It is what it is. Baseball is an everyday rollercoaster ride of highs and lows, wins and losses, triumphs and controversies, and as a storyteller, I’ve done my best to convey my observances in a fair, unbiased light. That’s not going to change. That was established right away upon meeting
with the Astros about this job, and they understand that if readers don’t think they’re getting the real deal, they would have no reason to go to Astros.com.

That said, Brian McTaggart is the beat writer, and reporting the news will be his job, and his alone. I’m here to describe the process, to tell you what I see, to make you feel like you’re there, even when you’re not. When answering fan questions, I will be forthright and honest, as always. More than anything, I’m hoping I spend most of my time bringing you the personalities of the players and the team that you can’t get from simply watching from afar. The Astros are the first team to create a position like this one, and we’re all excited about where this is
going. I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

Alyson Footer is on Facebook and Twitter 

Buddy, can you spare a glove?

Jeff Fulchino had an interesting couple of hours after he was recalled from Triple-A Round Rock. He met the Astros in Chicago Thursday night, and because he didn’t travel with them from Denver, he had to bring his equipment bag with him from the hotel to Wrigley Field Friday morning.

He hopped in a cab with a couple of teammates, but once they paid the cab fare, the driver took off — with, unwittingly, Fulchino’s equipment bag. So the relief pitcher had to borrow shoes and a glove from a couple of teammates. The glove was no problem — he swiped one, temporarily, from Roy Oswalt. The shoes, on the other hand…well, the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Fulchino wears a size 15. Not a whole lot of that just hanging around in the clubhouse.

LaTroy Hawkins was the closest, with a size 14. That’s close, but maybe not quite close enough. No wonder Fulchino was walking a little funny when he headed to the field for stretching before Friday’s game [which was eventually postponed].

But there’s a happy ending. A clubhouse worker received a call from the cabbie, who, upon discovering the equipment, headed back to Wrigley to deliver the goods.

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Michael Bourn and his solid production continues to be a hot topic each day. But manager Cecil Cooper takes no credit for the center fielder’s emergence.

“That’s all Sean Berry,” Cooper said, referring to the Astros’ hitting coach. Cooper also included third base coach Dave Clark as a major influence.

Speaking of Berry, he’s back with his family at his California home, where he’ll spend about a week. He’ll then return to Houston for another examination by his doctor, and if he’s given the “all-clear,” he’ll resume his coaching duties soon after.

It’s been about a week since Sean had surgery to remove a cancerous kidney, and he’s anxious to rejoin the club. He is, of course, glad the team is hitting well in his absence, but he’d prefer to see it up close and personal — and who can blame him?

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