March 2010

Why let rain get in the way of a good time?

Rain-soaked cancellations of Spring Training games usually signal the end of the baseball day for the average fan, but for most ballplayers, there is still work to be done.

Half the Astros squad boarded the buses Thursday morning for Viera, where three hours later the game would ultimately be cancelled due to torrential downpours. Back at the home complex, however, the other half of the team did its best to get its work in, including several pitchers who were scheduled to throw bullpen sessions.

I looked out of the window of the Astros offices around 10 a.m. expecting to see nothing but empty fields, but instead, here’s what I found:

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That’s pitching coach Brad Arnsberg and reliever Chris Sampson, seemingly ignoring the fact that it was raining hard enough that everyone else exited the fields and ran for cover.

Rain might not seem like that big of a deal during Spring Training, and that’s partly true. Once the fields are soaked to the point of flooding and the conditions become dangerous, there is absolutely no reason — other than financial ones — why teams should try to get the games in long after the fields are deemed unplayable.

That doesn’t mean the players just get to go home, however. For all pitchers, staying on schedule is essential. Roy Oswalt, the scheduled starter for the doomed game in Viera, instead returned home on the team bus and threw to Minor Leaguers on one of the backfields. He threw 60 pitches over the equivalant of three innings.

“That was the best we could do today,” Oswalt said. “The last inning was good. The first two, so-so. The last inning, I figured out what I was doing.”

Jeff Fulchino and Tim Byrdak each threw an inning as well. The rest of the work had to be done in the cages after the rain started again.

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Did you know there was a baseball game involving Craig Biggio played at Minute Maid Park on Thursday?

Biggio’s St. Thomas High School baseball team, for whom he’s the head coach, played Galveston O’Connell.

Many thanks to Astros authentication manager Mike Acosta, who sent along these images. Mike surmised this was probably the first time since Biggio’s retirement that he was back on the field at Minute Maid Park, in uniform, for a baseball game.

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Best seats in the house.

Spring Training is a great time to hang out at the ballpark and catch some rays, but the best part has to be the vantage point the fans have to the players.

Spring ballparks are tiny, seating somewhere in the neighborhood of 6,000 to 10,000 fans. During the regular season, thousands are relegated to the upper decks — nosebleeds, if you will — but during Spring Training, there is not a single bad seat in the house.

My favorite area is located right behind the bullpen. Not only do fans have the opportunity to engage in conversation with the relievers, but they can watch the starting pitcher warm up less from than 10 feet away.

As I watched Wandy Rodriguez warm up today, I was struck by how close he was to the fans seated just behind the ‘pen. That’s a perspective you can’t get at any other time other than Spring Training, and for the fans, that’s a real treat.

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The ESPN Club on Disney’s Boardwalk was hopping Wednesday, and for good reason. Lance Berkman draws a crowd no matter where he goes, and that was definitely the case this time as the fans enjoyed an hour of Puma perspective. We even picked up some fabulous Puma One Liners…even when Lance isn’t trying to be funny, he just is.

He answered a full slate of questions, some of which I’ll post now (in case you missed it):

On his conversations with opponents while manning first base:

Albert Pujols and I talk a little bit over there. Mainly, he’s like, ‘What’s wrong with you? Why aren’t you hitting?’ Albert’s a great guy, that’s how he is.”

On if he’d ever adopt the Hunter Pence high-sock look:

“I’ve done that before, to just mix it up a little bit. Especially if you don’t hit the ball well with the low pants, you go with the high pants. But it takes a lot of effort to wear high pants. You have to have an extra pair of socks. It’s a high maintenance look and I’m pretty low maintenance.”

On Brad Mills:
“Brad’s done a great job, especially for a guy who’s a first year manager. He’s really been impressive. I think all the guys like him and respect him. He brings a winning pedigree to the clubhouse. You can’t find anyone who says anything bad about him. It’s a great hire for the organization. Even if we run into a little adversity this year, I don’t think he’s going to be any different. I have a lot of respect for him and have enjoyed being around him in this camp.”

On young players to look out for:
“You kind of know the guys we have who are knocking on the door. Bud Norris, he’s got to continue in his development as a Major League starter for us to be successful this year. Our two young catchers (Jason Castro, J.R. Towles), I’m impressed with both of them. Chris Johnson, the young third baseman — he’s been put on back burner because we signed Pedro Feliz, but he’s got a lot of ability. He’s a great defender and has been swinging the bat well.”

On Feliz:
“He’s a great guy in the clubhouse, a great defender. He plays third base about as well as anyone in the game. It frees up (Geoff) Blum to move around and play where he needs to play and come off the bench.”

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Not a great outcome score-wise on Wednesday, but it was a bright, sunny, warm day, which makes for great photo opps. Enjoy the sights…

Wandy has one final conversation with pitching coach Brad Arnsberg before taking the mound.

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Mills chats with a couple of players while walking off the field after the game.

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Quintero, Paulino and Norris have a laugh before morning stretching.

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Pence takes some hacks in the cage.

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Pence and Puma.

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Norris busts out a new glove, and gets busted.

The baseball rules book spells out, in excruciatingly specific detail, every single thing one needs to know in order to properly execute a nine-inning Major League game. This includes regulations for equipment — bats, gloves, catchers mitts and jerseys, and on and on.

Here’s something I didn’t know until Monday — regulation gloves have to be a certain color — or, more specifically, there are certain colors gloves are NOT supposed to be. One page nine of the official baseball rule book, the guidelines are stated in Rule 1.15 a:

“The pitcher’s glove may not, exclusive of piping, be white, gray, nor, in the judgment of the umpire, distracting in any manner.”

Bud Norris apparently pulled off the hat trick in his start versus the Blue Jays — his glove was a little white-ish, slightly gray-ish, and, in the umpire’s opinion, distracting.

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The umpires pointed out the glove’s incorrect hue (seen above…the one on top is the game glove. Bottom one is one slightly darker but still too light) but told Norris he could finish out the second inning if he so desired. Norris thought better of it and simply to grabbed his old black glove to finish his outing.

“I guess (Toronto’s) manager (Cito Gaston) said something, which is fair,” Norris said. “It’s in a rule book to a certain degree. I’m not looking to get an advantage. I’m just going out there with a glove.”

Norris was more focused on getting outs than color schemes, which should be good news to his new skipper and pitching coach. Although Norris is all but guaranteed a starting spot (barring a disastrous spring), he’s not looking at his spot on this team as a done deal.

“I have a new manager, new pitching coach,” Norris said of the Brads Mills and Arnsberg. “Everything I did last year doesn’t really count. I have to prove myself all over again. I still need to earn that spot.”

You’ll often hear pitchers say their “working on things” early in the spring season, and on Monday, Norris concentrated on one thing — working from the stretch, something he struggled with at times during his rookie campaign in ’09.

“Last year, there were a couple of times that I made some mistakes out of the stretch, so that’s something I wanted to work on this year,” he said. “The bigger situations are from the stretch, and that’s what I wanted to work on today.”

Norris allowed one earned run — a homer — over two innings. He walked two and struck out two.

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From batting practice in the morning:

Puma, Lee, Berry 

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Pedro Feliz

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Bud Norris.

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Oswalt, Myers.

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Random spring notes: Paulino, Wright and Ensberg. Yes, that Ensberg.

Somewhere along the way, we sort of lost track of Wesley Wright, who has been quietly going about his spring business out of the spotlight. That might be simply because reporters haven’t gotten around to writing about him yet — after all, there are about 45 days of spring features to write and still just under a month until Opening Day.

But Sunday morning before batting practice, manager Brad Mills talked a little about Wright. So let’s talk a little bit about him here, now.

Wright spent the last two seasons as a left-handed specialist but might be tested as a starter this spring. Mills said Wright will likely start a game coming up, possibly on one of the split-squad days that requires two starting pitchers instead of one. The Astros have split-squads scheduled for March 13, 16 and 21, so don’t be surprised to see Wright start one of those games.

“I’ll hold off making a lot of comments until we see how it goes,” Mills said. “But he’s definitely going to get his innings.”

At this point, I’m not considering Wright as a true contender for one of the five rotation spots coming out of Spring Training, but the Astros are definitely keeping their minds open while trying to figure out where Wright is best suited.

When the team got him from the Rule 5 draft a couple of years ago, I received many questions as to whether Wright could eventually be converted to a starter. I was told he was staying in the ‘pen because that’s where the club had the biggest need. But now, I think we can all agree the starting depth is thin, and there’s nothing wrong with at least considering Wright to fill the club’s needs there too. Wright had a nice showing as a starter during Winter Ball, so there’s probably no harm in testing him out this month.

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Meanwhile, Felipe Paulino, a sure-fire candidate for the starting rotation, will be getting his innings this spring, but not necessarily at the beginning of games. One standard practice during Spring training is for teams to “piggyback” two starting pitchers in the same game. You’ll see this quite often, because most teams have more than five candidates trying to make their rotation. Piggybacking allows for everyone to still pitch on regular rest.

Paulino and Wandy Rodriguez will both pitch Wednesday, and each is slated to go three innings. Rodriguez will go first, followed by Paulino, and a handful of relievers will absorb the final three innings.

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As a reporter, there were times that I enjoyed covering Morgan Ensberg and times that he made me want to pull my hair out.

Don’t get me wrong — Ensberg was everything a reporter would want in a player: talkative, intelligent, insightful, reflective. But there was one topic that would make Morgan clam up, and at times, it was simply infuriating.

I tried my best to write about things the fans wanted to know about, and from 2006 through ’07, fans wanted to know about Ensberg’s ever-changing batting stance. It was becoming increasingly obvious to just about the entire viewing public that the third baseman was struggling with looking, and feeling, comfortable at the plate.

So I asked. And asked. And asked again. Either he changed the subject, talked around it or was so vague that by the end of the conversation, I was more confused than when I first approached him. After a while, I gave up. It didn’t take a genius (thankfully) to figure out the guy simply didn’t want to talk about it.

But now, as a retired player, Ensberg is no longer avoiding the topic. He has started a blog — morganensberg.wordpress.com — and he’s touching on many interesting topics, many of which he didn’t want to discuss during his playing career. The blog is titled “Morgan Ensberg’s Baseball IQ,” which he hopes gives “solid fundamentally based strategy and teaching” insight into the game. “Each week I will teach you something about the game,” Ensberg writes. “Either at the professional or amateur level.”

I’m already fascinated by his insight. In explaining why communication is the key to success in baseball, he first quotes former Houston bench coach Jackie Moore: “Take care of the little things and the big things will take care of themselves.” Ensberg then goes on to say this:

“Trust me on this one. I changed my batting stance more times than I can remember and it was because I didn’t know what I was doing.

“In order to be great you have to be willing to fail. If you are afraid to fail then you won’t learn and you will have regrets.  The military says that if you don’t know what to do then take action.

“I didn’t take action. I was afraid to fail. I learned though and will be better next time.”

Ensberg has been retired from the game for about a year and he’s hoping to begin a career in broadcasting. When he was with the Astros, I always felt he would be successful with whatever he decided to do in his post-playing career, whether it was politics or coaching or broadcasting. As much as I liked him as a player, I had 100 times more respect for him as a person. That’s why I was delighted to see he started a blog.

In his most recent entry, he talks about how it ripped his heart in half to be booed by the Houston fans: “As a result, I no longer concentrated on the game and instead concentrated on not getting booed.”

Check it out. Interesting stuff.

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From batting practice at Disney Sunday:

Puma and Pence chat with MLB Network’s Peter Gammons.

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Pence works in the cage.

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First base coach Bobby Meacham and third baseman Pedro Feliz.

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Hanging in the dugout before BP…Berkman, Michaels.

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Touching base with Sean Berry.

Every Friday through Spring Training, we’re running a feature called “Touching Base,” in an effort to let the fans get to know the Major League coaching staff, from the four newcomers — Brad Arnsberg, Bobby Meacham, Al Pedrique and Jamie Quirk — to the two returnees — Sean Berry and Dave Clark.

We hope this gives you insight to what coaches do every day. Their duties extend far beyond what you see them do on a field once the game starts. Last week, we featured pitching coach Brad Arnsberg. This week, the spotlight is on hitting coach Sean Berry.

(Check out our one-on-one video interview with Berry here.)

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Major League Baseball is mostly played at night, which makes those working within the industry grow accustomed to late hours and not-so-early wakeup calls in the morning.

That is, with the exception of Spring Training. During those six weeks, it’s almost as if there’s a race to see who can get to the clubhouse the earliest. The hours some of these people keep are, to use one of my favorite terms, absurd.

Manager Brad Mills and pitching coach Brad Arnsberg are both present and accounted for in the home clubhouse at Osceola County Stadium no later than 5:30 a.m. Most of the other coaches are not far behind, but with good reason — their players start filtering in as early as 6:30 a.m., and they’re ready to work.

Take Hunter Pence, for example. He’s there by an ungodly early time of 6:30, and within the hour, he’s ready to hit. That’s where hitting coach Sean Berry enters the picture, and it’ll be hours, and many, many sessions in the cage, before Pence is ready to call it quits for the day.

“There’s a few guys, like the Hunter Pences, that are in here morning, noon and night,” Berry said. “That’s OK. That’s what we’re here for. Hunter and I kid a lot that we have to teach him how to hit every day. We have a lot of fun with it.”

One of the original Killer B’s, Berry was a part of the Astros organization long before he became the hitting coach for the Major League club. He was first the club’s Double-A coach before spending two years as its roving hitting instructor. That past history means he’s probably known Pence longer than anyone currently working in the Astros’ system.

A coach fulfills many duties, but none may be more important than that of security blanket. They’re there to teach, encourage and observe, but they’re also there to make sure their players stay focused, and at the same time, relaxed. If baseball really is more of a mental than a physical game, it’s no wonder players become so attached to their coaches.

“As a hitting coach, you’re there to wipe their tears and help them out as much as we can,” Berry said. “That’s OK. That’s why we’re here.”

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All of the Astros’ coaches received their share of criticism during the Astros’ dismal finish in the standings in 2009, but Berry’s work with Pence and team MVP Michael Bourn should not be overlooked. Berry and third base coach Dave Clark have played an integral role in both Pence and Bourn making tremendous strides in transitioning from swing-happy youngsters into mature hitters who have better pitch recognition and who know when to be aggressive and when to wait for their pitch. This is something that cannot be detected by a stat sheet but is vital to having staying power at this level.

Berry has the added challenge of knowing how far to push his hitters during the spring season. Youngsters still have things to prove. Veterans, on the other hand, simply need to pace themselves and be ready to go in April, rather than worrying about what they do in a mid-March game in Viera.

“For the established players there’s not as much urgency during Spring Training as there is during the season,” Berry said. “For the young players trying to make the team, I have to be aware of which guys we can kind of tinker with a little more and work on a few things.

“There’s a little more relaxed atmosphere somewhat, but we’re trying to get ready to win ballgames, even in Spring Training. We have a new edge this year, and we’re having a lot of fun with it.”

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Just the facts: Sean Berry
Born
: Santa Monica, CA
Resides: Paso Robles, CA
Age: 43 (turns 44 on March 22)
Drafted: First round by the Kansas City Royals in 1986.
Major League debut: September 17, 1990
Final game: July 24, 2000
Began his coaching career in 2003.
Best remembered as
: One of the original “Killer B’s,” along with Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Derek Bell.
Hobbies: He’s a wine connoisseur and enjoys golfing.
Something you didn’t know: “I’m a pretty good tennis player. Even though I don’t play anymore, I can still wax everybody.”

Astros, Mills pass the first test. Game one in the books.

As nice as Spring Training wins are for the fans, you’re not going to draw a ton of emotion from those in uniform, regardless of the outcome. The spring season is long and there’s a ton of work to do to get ready for Opening Day, and one win won’t make or break a season.

Still, winning is always nice, regardless of whether the games count in the real standings. The Astros pummeled the Nationals on Thursday by a score of 15-5, and manager Brad Mills drew both positives and negatives from the landslide win in Kissimmee.

The offense was fantastic, but the defense struggled. Hunter Pence wowed the crowd with two home runs, a feat that did not go unnoticed by the new skipper.

“Can I put in my order for two homers every day? Is that OK?” Mills said. “He’s been working every day early, before BP, and late. That’s how he does things. It’s not a surprise that he was ready right out of the chute.”

Watch Mills break down the Astros’ win here. And, as always, enjoy the images from gameday at Osceola County Stadium…

Pregame dugout scene: Michael Bourn, Jason Michaels 

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First base coach Bobby Meacham and Geoff Blum.

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 Jeff Bagwell signs an autograph for a young fan before the game.

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Jose Cruz and Kazuo Matsui chat before the game.

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Hunter Pence, during the anthem.

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A win is a win is a win…

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March 3 notes: Bagwell in camp, intrasquad game, Puma update.

The clubhouse was a little livelier than usual Wednesday morning, probably because it was the last day of workouts before the Grapefruit League games begin. It’s not that players get overly excited about Spring Training games — in fact, after about 15 of those they’ll be itching to get finished with the schedule and start playing some “meaningful” baseball. But after nearly two weeks of throwing side sessions, taking batting practice, practicing pickoffs, rundowns, pop flies, plays at the plate and hitting the cutoff man, it’s probably not a stretch to assume the players are ready to mix things up a bit.

Manager Brad Mills posted his lineup for the Astros-Nationals game on Thursday:

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I’ve already had some questions about the decision to catch J.R. Towles and use Jason Castro as the DH, but I wouldn’t read too much into it. Mills said that most of the DH playing time will go to the catchers, which will allow for Humberto Quintero, Towles and Castro to continue to receive at-bats even when they’re not behind the plate. Considering the starting catcher position is wide open this spring, that’s a sound move.

Lance Berkman’s bruised left knee is feeling better, but the first baseman won’t play in Thursday’s game and his status for Friday is still TBD. Mills said he’s waiting to see if Berkman can DH for that game in Lakeland, or if he can play his position. Mills has Towles on the radar to DH, while Quintero will DH during the “B” game in Lakeland. Felipe Paulino, a sixth candidate for a starting position, is slated to start that game.

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The clubhouse wasn’t the only lively place Wednesday morning. The coaches’ locker room was jumping as well, mainly because of the addition of Jeff Bagwell (along with some interesting story-telling by Enos Cabell, parts of which regrettably filtered into the hallway where I was eaves-dropping).

Bagwell will be with the Astros for three days and will return again at the end of March for about a week. He’s still recovering from shoulder surgery and other than going completely out of his mind not being able to work out, he seems to be doing well. He spent most of the morning shaking hands with people with his left hand, to avoid any unnecessary tugging of his right arm which could irritate the shoulder.

To avoid any mishaps, he held a coffee cup in his right hand for most of the morning. Here he is having a coffee toast with Hunter Pence around 9 a.m.:

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The Astros played an intrasquad game Wednesday as a final tuneup before Thursday’s Grapefruit opener. This was mainly for the pitchers, which is why most of the regular position players didn’t play. Instead, several Minor League players and non-starters comprised the rosters for “Meacham’s Mashers” and “Clark’s Crushers,” named after the two coaches who managed this game — first base coach Bobby Meacham and third base coach Dave Clark.

The wind was blowing out at about a 20 mph clip, which might explain why the final score was 16-13 (in favor of Meacham’s Mashers.)

For a behind-the-scenes peek at the Intrasquad “draft,” click here. You’ll find footage of a lot of banter between coaches as Meacham and Clark picked their teams.

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Thanks to the more than 500 of you who have hopped onto our Astros Witticism Twitter account, aptly named PumaOneLiners. As the season goes on, we hope to use that as a landing spot to showcase the more humorous side of baseball players, even though we also plan to use it as a way to communicate postgame quotes once the regular season begins.

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Images from spring training workouts on a cold, windy Wednesday morning:

 Puma, Blum, Sean Berry.

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Pedro Feliz

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Wandy Rodriguez, Roy Oswalt

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Bagwell

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Bagwell with minor league field coordinator Dick Scott.

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Introducing…PumaOneLiners.

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Major League Baseball players come in all shapes and sizes. They have an array of personalities, from serious and reserved to fun-loving and carefree. There are the intellectuals and the pranksters, the high-intensity veterans and the high-energy rookies.

We watch them play every day, and sometimes it’s hard to remember they’re not robots, but instead, people with thoughts, interests, families and insights, just like the rest of us.

With that, we introduce you to a new Twitter account to follow: PumaOneLiners. This will be solely dedicated to quotes from your Astros, ranging from the funny witticisms to postgame comments from the clubhouse and anything we pick up in between.

It’s obviously named after our resident hilariously funny superstar, Lance Berkman, who named himself Big Puma a few years ago when he grew tired of the “Fat Elvis” label. By naming the Twitter account after Puma, we’re saluting our beloved first baseman and all of the laughs he’s provided over the years. But PumaOneLiners won’t be limited to just Berkman witticisms. We’ll draw from everyone — the players, manager, coaches and, of course, our broadcasters, whose senses of humor are displayed nightly on the airwaves.

Through Twitter and Facebook and Astros.com, we have endless avenues to give you minute-by-minute insider access to all things Houston Astros. We hope you’ll find PumaOneLiners equal parts entertaining and revealing. Hop on, and enjoy the ride!

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