April 2010

Note to self: More pictures of Pence in plaid pastels.

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Plenty of reactions poured in after we posted this picture on Twitter of Hunter Pence and his stylish sport coat he wore to the Pink in the Park Brunch and Bazaar on Thursday:

Many of you liked it, many did not. But I was struck by the number of comments that arrived in the form of “So-and-so called. He wants his blazer back.”

The complete listing of so-and-so’s:

Milo.
Craig Sager.
Tim Meadows (so he has something to wear in The Ladies Man 2).
Walt Frazier.
Buddy Holly.
The 1970s
Jim Deshaies (who has a similar eyesore called the “Guaranteed Win Jacket”).
Deion Sanders.

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Braves closer Billy Wagner has been gone from the Astros for seven years, but he still has close ties to several in the organization. As he made his rounds through Astros territory during batting practice Friday, he said to former teammate and current hitting coach Sean Berry, “I announced my retirement today. I’m done.”

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I thought he was kidding, and I’m pretty sure Sean did too, initially. Apparently, Billy’s serious. He told Bobby Cox he’s done after this year, regardless of whether he reaches his goal of 400 saves (he’s currently sitting on 387).

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While I’ve been all over the country throughout my years working for or covering the Astros, I haven’t done a whole lot of international travel. In fact, most of my times crossing any  borders have been work-related, and very sporadic — a few roadies to Montreal in the late 1990s and Spring Training exhibition trips to Venezuela (2001) and Mexico City (2004).

I’m about to add the Dominican Republic to the list and even though it’ll be a really quick trip, I’m looking forward to finally seeing it for myself.

The Astros are officially opening their brand new Dominican Academy in Boca Chica on May 10, and I’ll be tagging along with the front office contingent for the ribbon-cutting ceremony and celebration. The Academy has been up and running for a while, with approximately 35 players currently preparing for their season, which is scheduled to begin at the end of May.

At the opener, the Astros will play the Phillies’ Dominican Summer League club in a five-inning exhibition game following the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Not sure how much live Tweeting I’ll be able to do down there from my cell phone, but we’ll post plenty of pictures and videos in the blog soon after our return later that evening.

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Injury update:

Chris Johnson (strained rib cage) has been hitting off a tee and hopes to start hitting in the cage in the near future. He still feels the pull in his midsection but says he’s making decent progress. Johnson is eligible to come off the DL on May 4.

Lance Berkman was held out of Friday’s game after tweaking his groin during his last at-bat on Thursday. Manager Brad Mills is hopeful Puma will be able to play Saturday. With two day games scheduled for this road trip, Mills opted to give Berkman the night game off with hopes he can finish out the series in Atlanta.

Wandy Rodriguez tested out his sore back with a short throwing session with pitching coach Brad Arnsberg before batting practice and appears to be on track to start Saturday. Wandy was scratched from the opener in Atlanta when he came down with back spasms before the final game of the homestand.

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Sights from a beautiful spring evening at Turner Field:

Michael Bourn, Hunter Pence

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Pedro Feliz, Tommy Manzella

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The gigantic JumboTron in the outfield

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Lee leans.

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Pitchers stretch.

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Humberto Quintero.  

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Astros players, their wives and moms wear Pink in the Park.

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When Brad Mills was hired by the Astros last year, a Boston writer friend of mine predicted that Red Sox manager Terry Francona “will be lost without him.”

Not that Francona wouldn’t be able to manage the team without Mills, but when it came to keeping things organized in a nice, orderly fashion, it was, loosely estimated, 99 percent Mills’ doing and one percent Francona’s.

So it came as no surprise when Ronda Mills revealed on Thursday that at home, her husband is the “family list-maker.” And, she added, “He likes to stick to the list.”

Ronda Mills enjoyed her first introduction to a portion of the Astros fan base when she sat down with Brad Mills and Lance Berkman for a question-and-answer session at the annual Pink in the Park Bazaar and Luncheon at Union Station. The event, attended by more than 300 patrons, raised money for The Methodist Cancer Center and the Houston affiliate of Susan G. Komen For The Cure through the Astros In Action Foundation.

The festivities began with a shopping bazaar on the main concourse at Minute Maid Park, featuring numerous local boutiques and unique fashion designers. The luncheon that followed included a get-to-know-you session with the skipper and his wife, moderated by the always-entertaining Berkman.

Most agreed that Ronda Mills stole the show by providing funny anecdotal information about her husband, whom the city of Houston is still getting to know. It also helped the Puma was the one asking the questions. As expected, he interjected his own comments, Phil Donahue style. (Lance: “How did you and Brad meet?” Ronda: “I noticed Brad in the second or third grade…” Lance: “Did he have hair?”)

To further illustrate her husband being a stickler for detail, Ronda recalled his gift to her for one of their anniversaries, early in their marriage.

“He took me this fancy restaurant and he brought this gold box out,” Ronda said. “I couldn’t wait to see what it was. I opened the box and it was a 10-year planner, with 10-minutes increments.”

The Millses indeed have a long history together. They first met as kids growing up in California.

“Our families were friends,” Ronda said. “Our parents knew each other well.” Berkman: “So this was an arranged marriage?”

Ronda, who stands nearly six feet tall, had her eye on Brad from the get-go, but the problem was, her eye and his eye didn’t quite meet. She was several heads taller than him when they were in junior high, and she remembers saying to her mother, “Do you think he’s ever going to grow?”

When they got to high school, “I noticed he’d grown as tall as me,” Ronda said. “And we’ll be married 32 years in August.”

Berkman also interviewed Chris Sampson, his wife, Heather, and his mom, Linda.

“When I met Chris, I turned to a friend and said, ‘That’s my husband. That’s who I’m going to marry,'” Heather recalled.

“That’s what Cara (his wife) said about me,” Berkman barbed. “I said, ‘Woman, back off.'”

Watch the video highlights here.

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The Methodist Hospital is offering an incentive for women to remain diligent about receiving mammograms. Schedule and complete your mammogram in May at any Methodist hospital location or the Methodist Breast Imaging Center at Upper Kirby and receive a complimentary Astros pink mesh jersey.

Also, The Methodist Breast Imaging Center at Upper Kirby offers mammogram parties for groups of six or more women to undergo their annual screenings in an after-hours, spa-like atmosphere. Along with mammograms, parties include complimentary spa treatments by Chrysalis, refreshments and giveaways. Learn more at methodistbreastimaging.com, or call 713-441-9740.

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Mother’s Day is still a couple of weeks away, but it’s never too early to celebrate Mom…enjoy the pictures from Thursday’s event.

Puma and the Millses

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The Pumas, also known as Lance and Cara Berkman.

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Michael Bourn and his mother, Carrie.

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Bud Norris.

 

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Ed Wade, Brad Mills

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Chris Sampson, Cory Sullivan, Tommy Manzella, JR Towles

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Jeff and Kerry Fulchino.

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Gloria Moore (Jason Michaels’ mother-in-law), Milo Hamilton, Pamela Michaels)

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Pamela and Jason Michaels, Gloria Moore.

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Paola and Felipe Paulino

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Humberto and Michelle Quintero, and Humberto’s mother, Nelly.

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Chris and Heather Sampson, right, with their moms, Lindsay and Linda.

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Brittany and JR Towles and JR’s mom, Ellie.

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Wandy Rodriguez, Sammy Gervacio.

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Roy counts his blessings after sifting through the rubble.

The only thing that matters is that Roy Oswalt’s family is safe, that the closet his mom hid in stayed intact as the rest of the house was blown to smithereenes, that his children were with him in Houston when the tornado blew through Choctaw County and that his dad was out of town on a hunting trip, out of harm’s way.

The only things that were lost were material things, and material things, no matter how valuable, just don’t matter. I kept reminding myself of that when Roy spoke eloquently about arriving to his hometown of Weir, Miss., last Saturday to find that the home he grew up in — located about a half-mile from the home he’s raising his family in today — is gone.

I tried to remember that as he described the neighborhood where he grew up looking “like a bomb went off” — cars in trees, homes flattened to the ground — and wondering how he was going to explain this all to his two young daughters who spend as much time at their grandparents’ house as their own.

The small town of Weir, Miss., where everyone knows everyone, is eerily unrecognizable. So we have to be thankful that Roy’s mom and her dog — “I think she loves that dog more than us,” Roy laughed — are OK.

But when Roy was asked if any Astros memorabilia was lost in the tornado and he revealed his 2005 NLCS MVP trophy is now in pieces, likely scattered over hundreds of yards of land, my heart sank. I remember Roy receiving the trophy and promptly handing it to his dad, Billy, who clutched it with pride and beamed as his son credited him for everything good that has happened to him in baseball.

“Just the way he believed in me,” Oswalt said the night the Astros won the pennant. “Growing up, people used to come by and ask why he spent so much time with me out in the yard throwing the ball. Hopefully, those guys are watching this on TV today and now they understand.”

“Never in my wildest imagination did I expect to see a day like this one,” Billy added, holding the trophy to his chest. “I can’t tell you how proud I am.”

Again, things were lost, not lives. That’s what matters. But some losses — childhood pictures, wedding albums, and a gift from son to father — simply hurt more than others.

Watch Oswalt talk about his trip home here.

Read the MLB.com story here.

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On a lighter note…

I was reminded of a funny story Roy’s agent, Bob Garber, recently told me about that pennant-clinching night.

Once the celebration subsided and the party cleared out, Bob and Billy headed to the car they rented in a parking lot around Busch Stadium. They had the trophy, of course, and had no choice but to carry it with them. As they walked through legions of Cardinals fans, carrying this big, shiny trophy, they realized they could be asking for trouble. But no one bothered them.

They got plenty of weird looks, but they were more of the “wait…is that…nah, couldn’t be” variety.

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Pink in the Park

The Astros went all out for Mother’s Day last year, and they’re currently gearing up for a repeat performance.

Thursday will kick of the team’s annual Pink on the Park campaign to raise awareness and funds for breast cancer research, beginning with the signature event, the Pink in the Park Brunch and Bazaar presented by Minute Maid.

The event will raise funds for The Methodist Cancer Center and the Houston Affiliate of Susan G. Komen For The Cure. It’s also a great opportunity to see players hanging out with their moms.

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The brunch and bazaar will feature members of the Astros team, their wives and mothers and will be hosted by Honorary Chairs Cara Berkman and Cynthia Berkman. The event will be held in Union Station at Minute Maid Park. The bazaar, sponsored by Team Scotti, opens for shopping at 10:00 a.m. and will remain open until 2:30 p.m. A portion of the proceeds from sales at the bazaar will also benefit breast cancer research. The program, including a raffle and brunch, will begin at 12:30 p.m. A VIP reception will follow the brunch and is sponsored by Kraft Foods and H-E-B.

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Tickets to the Pink In the Park Brunch and Bazaar may be purchased by calling the Astros In Action Foundation at 713-259-8979 or by visiting astros.com.

Individual tickets are available for $250 and new this year, bazaar shopping only tickets are available for $50.

Other pink activities will also take place from May 3-9. For a complete listing, click here.

Among the highlights:

Monday, May 3:

Tee Time Ladies Golf Outing presented by Minute Maid. This “women-only” affair will be a shotgun start golf tournament held at Redstone Golf Club, Members Course.

Friday, May 7

* Pink Astros cap giveaway to the first 10,000 fans, courtesy of AT&T
* Pink themed Friday Night Fireworks with a special salute to women
* Girls Night Out, presented by Sunny 99.1. Ladies can enjoy the Astros game together with Sunny 99.1 personality Dana Tyson in a special View Deck I seating section for only $9.91 per ticket.
* Pink pampering expo with vendors from various spas and boutiques will be in Conoco Alley
* Pre-game seminars and discussions featuring Astros wives (“Behind Every Man…”) and Astros staff (“Women in Baseball”) will be held in the Union Station Atrium.

Saturday, May 8
* Pink Astros tote bag given to the first 10,000 fans, compliments of The Methodist Hospital System
* Wine and Cheese Night at Minute Maid Park will be held prior to the game from 4:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. in the Union Station Lobby and will feature Master Sommelier Guy Stout.
* Ticket packages are available for $40 or $60 and include a game ticket, event ticket (two wine pours, wine class, and wine charm).
* A portion of the proceeds from the event and from a special silent auction will benefit breast cancer research.

Sunday, May 9 - Mothers Day
* Pink Astros tee shirt to first 10,000 women 15 and older, provided by KRAFT and H-E-B.
* The Astros will honor a local breast cancer survivor as the team’s Honorary Bat Girl in a pre-game ceremony.
* Astros players will wear a pink ribbon patch and pink wristbands during the game. In addition, a few players will use pink bats during the game which will later be auctioned to raise funds for the cause.
* Astros are donating 200 tickets to the Houston Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure for breast cancer survivors and supporters.
* All mothers will be invited to run the bases with their kids following the game.

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On Girl Guides, baseball, Wal-Mart and Marshmallow in a Jar.

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When a large contingent of Girl Guides from the United Kingdom stopped off in Houston to change planes following their trip to Costa Rica, few could have imagined that a week later, they’d still be hanging out in the Bayou City.

They were among the thousands with nowhere to go after ash from a volcanic eruption in Iceland enveloped most of the skies above Europe and halted air traffic indefinitely. Some would say this group was “stranded,” but these girls had no trouble turning a major inconvenience into an activity-filled adventure.

“When we initially landed, spirits were a bit low, because we had had such an amazing trip in Costa Rica,” Girl Guide leader Margaret Hillyer said. “But when we contacted the Girl Scouts, our feet haven’t touched the floor. We said we were on ultimate adventure Costa Rica, now we’re on ultimate adventure Texas.”

They got in touch with the San Jacinto Girl Scouts, their counterparts in Houston, and, as one Girl Guide phrased it, “It’s been southern hospitality at its best.”

The group has been everywhere: museums, parks, Moody Gardens and, best of all (seriously), Wal-Mart. Apparently, they don’t have many supercenters on the other side of the pond, and the girls spent  one day shopping their way through the aisles for SIX hours.

“We were tired by the time we got to the shoes,” one Girl Guide said. “So we rested, then off we went again.”

They were enthralled by Marshmallow in a Jar and Easy Cheese and marveled that “everything’s bigger here.”

What does this have to do with baseball? Lots, when you consider that once the Astros got wind of the Girl Guides’ excellent adventure, they wanted to be part of it. So they donated tickets for Friday’s game to the Girl Guides and the 100 volunteers and escorts from the Houston-based Girl Scouts.

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Girl Guides with Chris Sampson

The 16 stranded Girl Guides and their chaperones were treated to batting practice, where they were presented with red Astros caps and introduced to players.

None of them had ever seen a baseball game, but they did their best to do their homework as they made their way through the city as tourists earlier in the week.

“We’d ask people, ‘do you know anything about baseball?'” one Girl Guide said. By the time they arrived to Minute Maid Park, they knew Hunter Pence and Lance Berkman were the two superstar players, and Roy Oswalt, that night’s pitcher, was one of the best in baseball.

During the game, they were interviewed by FS Houston’s Patti Smith and were treated to an Astros win. Not bad for their first time in a Major League Baseball ballpark.

“We loved having them here,” San Jacinto Girl Scout leader Gina Murphy said. “We’re going to miss them when they leave.”

While it’s highly unlikely the Girl Guides will shed a tear when their planes finally do take off for home Monday and Tuesday, they will leave with a new appreciation for the United States, and more specifically, for their new friends in Texas.

“Everyone’s been so lovely,” said Elizabeth McLachlan, who celebrated her 18th birthday at the ballpark. “We just can’t believe how wonderful it’s been.”

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Have you hugged your recycle bin today?

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Earth Day has been around for 40 years, but being truly environmentally observant is a relatively new phenomenon for most of us. “Going Green,” of course, is a hip, somewhat new trend, one that the Astros embraced a few years ago and continue to observe today.

The Astros wore green caps during their game with the Marlins, but the true Earth Day celebration began several hours earlier when Geoff Blum, popular television announcers Jim Deshaies and Bill Brown and crews from both the Astros and FS Houston teamed with second graders from Foerster Elementary School to plant seeds in a nearby garden.

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Blum, Brownie

The morning was spent working several garden beds at the Westbury Community Garden, adding soil and fertilizer and planting seeds that will become fruits and vegetables. Those items will eventually be distributed to Westbury residents and surrounding communities.

After raking several pounds of soil with Brownie and ribbing J.D. for wearing the wrong kind of shoes, Blum got down and dirty, planting seeds alongside the kids while simultaneously posing for photos and signing autographs.

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Deshaies

“It’s a lot of fun to be a part of it,” Blum said. “You go to some of these communities and you think it’s pretty much hopeless, and then all of a sudden, there’s this gorgeous oasis of fruits and vegetables and things and the kids are out here having a blast.
 
“They’re realizing the importance of what growing food is. The fact that these kids get to plant the seeds, watch them grow and then harvest everything that they’ve grown, and get to enjoy it, eat it, give it back to a food bank and things like that, that’s pretty impressive.”

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Patti Smith interviews the kids

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An hour south of Westbury, another significant celebration took place when the Astros In Action Foundation and Minute Maid dedicated the newly-refurbished Columbo Field and Buccaneer Field in Galveston.

Drayton McLane, Ed Wade, Grand Slam for Youth Baseball Ambassadors Michael Bourn, and Hunter Pence and former player Jimmy Wynn took part in the ceremony, while broadcaster Milo Hamilton served as emcee.

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Hurricane Ike significantly damaged these two fields and Grand Slam for Youth Baseball, a partnership between the Astros and Minute Maid, restored them to full operation.

Island Little League’s Columbo Field received field turf reconditioning and repairs, infield reconditioning, a dugout-to-dugout warning track, re-worked batting cages and a new electronic scoreboard. 

Galveston West-Isle Little League’s Buccaneer Field received the same repairs plus the replacement of the original on-field concrete walkway with warning track material.

These fields were the eighth and ninth to be refurbished by the Astros and Minute Maid through Grand Slam for Youth Baseball – a community outreach effort that seeks to foster self-confidence, involvement, teamwork and fun among area children.

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Those weird guys on the street corner wearing Astros jerseys? They work for us.

If you’re driving around town on Friday and happen to see a couple of young guys in the old rainbow-style Astros jerseys from the ’70s, you might want to honk, wave…and collect some free stuff, courtesy of the team.

By stuff, I mean Jose Cruz autographed bobbleheads. The Astros are holding a city-wide scavenger hunt this Friday (April 23), and the first person to find our two studly rainbow jersey-toting front office workers at each location will receive a signed Cruuuuuuuuuz bobblehead and two tickets to Saturday’s game. 

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You’ll see reminders about the location and time frames on the Astros Facebook page and official team Twitter page, but here’s the full rundown as well:

Bobblehead #1: 8-9 a.m., near the Memorial Park Tennis Center
Bobblehead #2: 10-11 a.m., U of H Campus – near the University Center
Bobblehead #3: 12-1 p.m., Galleria Mall – near the Food Court
Bobblehead #4: 2-3 p.m., Hermann Park – near the reflection pool
Bobblehead #5: 4-5:00 p.m., Discovery Green Park

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Now, about the Puma…

I couldn’t think of an apropos way to say, “What were you thinking?” when I approached the Lance Berkman about his ill-fated attempt to steal third base in the sixth inning on Wednesday, so I just decided to take the blunt approach. And as always, Puma’s response was equal parts direct and thorough.

“I was thinking, ‘Nobody in the stadium expects me to steal third right there,’ he said. “It was the sixth inning, and I thought the worst case scenario was that we would end up with Carlos (Lee) on second base with two outs in the sixth, against a tough pitcher where a hit still ties the game.”

If he made it to third, Berkman reasoned, they had a chance to score an easy run against Josh Johnson, whom the Astros were having very little luck against for the majority of the right-hander’s outing.

“The thinking was sound,” Puma said. “The mind was willing. But, the body was weak. I did not realize my leg was as weak as it is.”

Berkman realized this about four steps into his journey, but of course, by then, it was too late. He had no choice but to finish what he started, and a steal attempted ended with a head-first slide that fell far short of actually reaching the base.

“If I had to do it all over again, clearly, I would not have attempted it,” Berkman said.

“His name is Puma,” Brad Mills said, “but I don’t think he demonstrated cat-like actions right there.”

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Notes from Wednesday’s win:

The Astros have extended their winning streak to four games, which ties the longest winning streak from 2009.

Astros starters have posted a 3.07 ERA with 35 strikeouts over the last seven games.

Michael Bourn is hitting .351 over this last 11 games and has walked five times in the last three.

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On Puma, Kaz and Kepp.

The only hope the Astros had on Sunday regarding Lance Berkman was that their star first baseman make it through his final rehab game at Round Rock without his knee giving him problems, such as the swelling that has caused at least two setbacks in the past. Offensive results, while mildly significant, were nowhere near the most important element to this game.

Puma ended up making everyone happy. The fans at Round Rock were treated to two doubles and a home run, and the Astros received the very good news that Puma moved around at full speed, performed at a peak level and experienced no new issues.

Assuming he’s still feeling the same in the next 36 hours, Berkman will be activated from the disabled list in time to play Tuesday when the Astros open a nine-game homestand. A corresponding roster move will likely be made sometime Tuesday morning or afternoon.

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Second base conundrum

When Brad Mills granted playing time to Jeff Keppinger during the first few games of the season, his intention was to simply give a few at-bats to a bench player, one who happens to hit left-handers very well (the Astros faced several lefties during their first two series).

But Keppinger’s bat caught fire, regardless of who he was facing, and that made it difficult — impossible, really — to take him out of the lineup. Given the Astros’ 0-8 start to the season, there was no way to justifiably sit the one hitter who didn’t go into a complete tailspin as soon as the exhibition season came to a close.

Twelve games into the season, Keppinger is giving Mills no reason to bench him. His early success is good for the team but bad for Kazuo Matsui, who appears to be in the process of losing his status as a starting second baseman.

(Several of you have asked if Matsui can be sent to the Minor Leagues when Puma comes off the DL. The answer is no — a player with more than five years in the big leagues cannot be sent down without the player consenting first. Players never would consent, so it’s a moot point.)

During his pregame session with the media, Mills declined to anoint either Matsui or Keppinger as he regular season baseman long-term — yet. He did, however, call Matsui into his office in St. Louis to talk to him about the situation, so I think, reading between lines, we can expect to see a lot more of Keppinger in the immediate future.

It’s the right thing to do for the sake of the team and when you’re 3-9, it would make no sense to play the lesser player just because he was signed as a starter and the other was, upon trading for him, viewed as a bench guy. Ed Wade gave Mills complete autonomy with decisions surrounding Matsui — meaning, Mills will do what’s best for the on-field health of the team without worrying about how much one player is being paid over the other.

Asked if Matsui was working into a utility role, Mills said this: “I don’t want to label it that way yet. We’re still just a dozen games into the season. Let’s wait and see how everything plays out. I’m congnizant to get (Matsui) out there and get him on a roll. It’s tough, but it’s tough to not get the other guy (Keppinger) out there.

“Coming out of Spring Training, I was trying to get Keppinger at-bats in first week of the season. He did so well, the other at-bats were kind of silent. As we kept him in there, he continued to play really well.”

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From the Astros’ clubhouse following their comeback win over the Cubs Sunday:

Mills:

“This is the way to go into the off day and be rewarded for it. It was a big win. It was nice that these guys can see they can win these.”

On Brian Moehler pitching an inning after a long layoff:

“It was good to get him an inning. It just shows you the pro that he is. He stays ready  every day and we were able to get him an inning and it ended up being a big inning for us.”

Jason Michaels, who led off the 10th with a double and scored the winning run:
“The Cubs, the Cardinals…these guys are ‘supposed to’ win the division. These games are always going to be good. You take two of three, enjoy it and go back to work Tuesday.”

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Pictures from the final day in Chicago:

Everyone, including Michael Bourn and Tim Byrdak, is loose during batting practice.

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Bud Norris, Brian Moehler.

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Lee, Pence, Bourn

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Myers and Pence have a quiet conversation in the dugout before BP.

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Scoreboard at Wrigley…the flags indicated the wind was blowing in. The final score did as well.

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Blum face-plants, Puma heals, Lloyd Dobler sings.

During batting practice Friday, I got to talking to Geoff Blum about what he was like as a kid, and it came as no surprise to me that even at an early age, he kept things loose and light-hearted while participating in organized sports. As a young baseball player, Blum usually found ways to keep it real, all the while cracking up his teammates, and, mostly likely, himself.

No one has been better for this Astros team during these trying times than Blum (although Cory Sullivan is definitely a close second). Realizing the worst thing a team can do right now is take itself too seriously — which usually results in over-thinking yourself right out of contention — Blum seems to always know the right time to try something goofy and stupid (in a good way) to keep things loose.

Blum’s most recent crowd-pleasing caper was probably something you have to see in person to really appreciate it, but here goes:

Pretending he wanted to lend a helping hand to the batting practice pitcher, Blum jogged up to the mound with a bag of BP balls, tripped himself (on purpose), face planted on the ground and sent a dozen baseballs flying in every direction.

He’s done this twice, the last occurring Friday morning during BP at Wrigley Field. Thinking Blum actually did trip over his own feet, the Bleacher Bums in left field let out a big roar, as did a group of six-year-old Cubs fans who were on the field to get autographs. Good stuff.
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Puma update

Lance Berkman will begin a Minor League rehab assignment on Saturday in Round Rock, the first of two expected appearances by the Big Puma this weekend. If all goes well in the first game, he’ll play again on Sunday.

Monday is a scheduled off day for the Astros, and although no one is saying it out loud, the hope is that Puma will be ready for activation from the DL when the team opens an extended homestand on Tuesday.

Puma’s injury took longer to heal than expected due to a series of setbacks, so it’s understandable why the team wants to play it conservatively. “Let’s take it a day at a time,” Mills said. “Please.”

MLB.com talked exclusively with Berkman, which you can read about here.

Also on the rehab front, Sammy Gervacio will begin a rehab assignment in Round Rock on Monday. He’s slated to pitch Monday and Wednesday.
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PumaOneLiners

Hopefully by now you’re following our Twitter account solely dedicated to one-liners from Astros players, coaches and broadcasters (the latest J.D.-ism: “The Astros were like Larry King: 0-for-8.”)

I’m always on the lookout for witticisms from people in and around the game, and thanks to Facebook, I found another one. You might remember Norm Miller, who played for the Astros from 1965-73 as part of a 10-year big league career. These days, he’s an author, having just released a book titled “To all my fans…Norm Who?”, and he’s also jumped on the Facebook bandwagon. As a result, I’ve heard from him quite a bit during the Astros dismal start to the season.

“I played on a team that lost 8 in a row so we flooded the field and couldn’t play for two days,” he posted. “Came back and lost number 9. Then we ran black cats out on the field, lost 10 in a row. Then we drank more beer and won. Go figure.”

Instant PumaOneLiner.

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Staying with the social networking theme, Chris Sampson has started Tweeting. His first tweet arrived after the Astros finally ended their winning streak:

“Just walked in to Mills’ office to take the gorilla off his back after congratulating him on his first win as Astros manager.”

Follow Sampson here
 
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Postgame comments from Mills after the 7-2 loss to the Cubs:

On leaving Felipe Paulino in during the seventh inning:
“He had (thrown) 86 pitches to start the inning, and he had given up four hits. He was still throwing the ball well, he just lost a little command.”

Mills saw some progress from the hitters:
“There were a lot of balls hit on the button today. Good at-bats by Carlos (Lee). He hit the ball hard. Keppinger continues to swing the bat well. Good at-bats from CJ (Chris Johnson), too.”

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Lloyd, Lloyd all null and void

Since Harry Caray passed away more than a decade ago, the Cubs have continued their long-standing tradition of hosting a celebrity conductor to lead the crowd in “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch. Over the years, a few big names have been scheduled during the Astros’ series (Jeff Gordon comes to mind), but for the most part, to be frank, the guests have been kind of, well, lame, from an out-of-towner’s perspective.

We enjoyed a dramatic reversal of fortune on Friday, however, when actor John Cusack made an appearance in the broadcast booth to conduct the sing-a-long. I enjoyed exchanging some of the more well-remembered lines from the classic ’80s flick “Say Anything” with a lot of you on Twitter during the game that day (“I gave her my heart. She gave me a pen”) and I admit I got a little camera happy when Cusack, a.k.a as the forlorn but lovable Lloyd Dobler, showed up in the booth.

The best part of this picture is JD peering in the background…
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Other shots from an unseasonably warm and beautiful April afternoon at Wrigley:

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That’s actor/musician Jared Leto. Kind of hard to miss him in a crowd.

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Dealing with a losing streak, then celebrating a win.

It started with Geoff Blum sprinkling little white pills in the bat bags of his teammates.

“Advil,” he said.

That’s what happens when your team adds another loss to the win column, making it eight straight. You go into the clubhouse, remove your uniform, retreat into the training room and grab a Jumbo-sized bottle of ibuprofen.

A few pills here, another couple there. Sure, it sounds ridiculous, but so was this season-opening team-wide tumble. What cures a headache could very well do the same for a collective .223 batting average, no?

The clubhouse scene the next morning was pretty standard — players milling around, players hitting in the cages, players eating breakfast.

Players grooving out to the musical stylings of boy bands NSYNC and Backstreet Boys.

For the first minute or so, there was a station-to-station denial that anyone dared to like the music or know the lyrics — “Who the heck has Justin Timberlake on their iPod?” Jason Michaels: “Me, dude. Greatest hits. If you’re going to do it, go all out.” But before long, heads were bobbing, toes were tapping and Blum was doing that “running man” dance move that was so popular in the early early ’90s.

“How can you not feel it?” he asked, all the while keeping rhythm during “I Want it That Way.”

Minutes later, Cory Sullivan laid his bat on a towel in the middle of the clubhouse, covered it with another towel and said, “The bats need to rest. They’ll be ready by gametime.” Soon, Sullivan’s bats had company — Blum’s bat, Michaels’ bat, Chris Johnson’s, and on and on. I heard later that Humberto Quintero brought all five of his over to join the slumber party.

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No one will ever know if wacky clubhouse hijinks played a role in their reversal of fortune, but the Astros won handily that afternoon, beating the Cardinals 5-1. This win was important, obviously, seeing it was the team’s first win of 2010 and Brad Mills’ first win as a big league manager.

Chris Sampson, who contribute two scoreless innings, walked into Mills’ office, offered congratulations and gestured dramatically as he simulated knocking that proverbial gorilla off Mills’ back.

Yesterday, I blogged that the demeanor in the clubhouse is pretty much the same, win or lose, night after night. This is true, but there are exceptions. Thursday was an exception. Mills was hugely relieved, as were the players. The 1983 record is safe, and the burden of a winless season has been lifted.

The music in the clubhouse postgame? “Bye bye bye.”

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The press box at Busch Stadium is way, way up there. It’s ideal if you’re not trying to cover a game or take pictures. But I did want to capture some images of the big win, even if they’re grainy. Enjoy.

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More Astros potpourri: why an offday in the middle of a series?

The Astros have a weird schedule this week — only one night game in six days, and an off day right in the middle of the St. Louis series. I’ve received a lot of questions about that, and the explanation is simple: when teams in cold weather cities with open-roofed stadiums have their Opening Day, the next day is usually an offday just in case their Opener gets rained out. Obviously, most Opening Days sell out, so rather than deprive the fans of the game and the club of the gate, everything just shifts to the next day.

It’s 80 degrees and perfectly sunny in St. Louis today (and all week), so tomorrow will be a full day off (yay!). That said, I’m hearing that Brad Mills has reserved the field at Busch Stadium for about an hour for a voluntary workout, and I’m guessing he’ll get a decent showing. The hotel is located near the ballpark, there’s nothing else to do in downtown St. Louis and the way things are going, I would imagine quite a few hitters would like to get in a handful of swings while still enjoying a mental day off.
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Every day when we talk to Mills, we ask for a Puma update with hopes that a return to the field is imminent. So far, no luck. Lance Berkman spent part of his morning rehabbing in Houston, and he’ll continue to do so while the Astros are out of town.

As far as when he’ll be activated from the disabled list, your guess is as good as mine.

“There’s no timetable set forth at all,” Mills said. “When he does finally come back we need him 100 percent to where he’s ready to play every day instead of maybe play for a week and he’s so sore that he has to sit out four or five days or DL him another 15. We don’t want that to happen.”

Making progress without setbacks has been the main issue.

“Some days he comes in and feels real good and they’ll try to increase the activity and all of a sudden, it’s not there,” Mills said. “We’re looking for a little stability in the process, in the program, where he feels good.”

During Monday’s game, we received word Puma did some light running, received treatment and also did some quadriceps strengthening exercises.

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While I’m sure a million different thoughts and emotions are swimming inside of Mills right now, the most important thing he can do for his team is maintain a steady demeanor throughout all of this losing. He and his coaching staff must be a stabilizing force at all times, but especially now, when it’s easy for players to start thinking too much, overanalyzing and psyching themselves out as they try to do their jobs.

“We keep working with them and talking to them and making sure their minds are in the right spot,” Mills said. “And that their minds aren’t getting too heavy or bogged down with what they’re going through, to allow them to free them up to be able to function properly.”

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Meanwhile, my favorite segment of the Astros game notes is back: birthday listings. Not only does the incomparable PR staff inform us when a player or coach has a birthday, but we’re also provided with what other famous people share that birthday.

On Tuesday, Hunter Pence turns 27, and we now know that he shares his birthday with R&B singer Al Green, actor Rick Schroder and the third U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson.

Actually, in the game notes, next to Schroder’s name is the title “‘Lonesome Dove’ actor.” Come on. That’s like identifying Rob Lowe with his role in “The West Wing.” Rick Schroder will forever be Ricky Schroder of Silver Spoons, even if he’s spent the last 25 years trying to make people forget that part of his career.

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During Jeff Bagwell’s recent pow wow with the media, he was asked what he thought of Bud Norris’ future as a starting pitcher. I thought I’d pass those thoughts along to you:

“Bud has great stuff,” Bagwell said. “He’s got a personality that maybe his teammates don’t like (laughs), but I love. Bud is off the wall, and he’s not arrogant, but he believes in his ability. And he has tons of ability. He has a chance to be in our organization and pitch and be upward of one-two in our rotation for years to come.

“I’m excited about Bud. I truly love him. I think he’s going to do great, I really do. I remember back in 2001, we had Roy (Oswalt), Wade (Miller), Carlos Hernandez and (Tim) Redding. I remember sitting there talking to Bidge and saying, ‘We have a chance to be good for a while.’ These are the young kids that have to come up. In today’s game, it’s very hard to go out and pay for pitching, because pitching costs so much money. If we develop our own guys, we’ll have time to keep them in our own nest.”

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From the manager’s session after the Astros’ loss in St. Louis Monday:

Mills, asked if it’s too early to get frustrated with the lack of offense:

“You an definitely be frustrated after one game when you struggle to score. Now that it’s adding up, I think it’s OK to be frustrated a little bit.”

On pulling Wandy in the fifth inning, after 65 pitches:

“He’s fine. At that point, being down like we were, we had to go with matchups.”

(Side note: Wandy said he felt a little shoulder soreness during this game but does not feel it will affect him moving forward.)

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