July 2010

Dissecting the last 48 hours. A new era has begun.

The last 48 hours have been incredibly sad, incredibly eventful, and unbelievably exhausting. So rather than try to come up with an organized way to address the many topics I’d like to talk about, this is going to be more of a random, rambling disorderly blog, which best matches my personality anyway. Here goes.

The trade timeline

Had the Astros acknowledged that they traded Lance Berkman to the Yankees at any point before 12:30 p.m. CT Saturday, they would have been hit with a heavy fine from the Commissioner’s Office. They asked Berkman to adhere to that deadline as well, which he did. He was extremely forthcoming during two separate sessions with the media before and after batting practice Friday, but he never acknowledged that he had already approved a deal and was indeed going to the Yankees.

That said, Friday was complete chaos. During the game, as many of you know by now, the news about the trade was all over the place, with reports emerging mostly from New York that included all of the details — the players the Astros were getting in return, the money the Astros were absorbing, the whole deal.

By the time the game was over, the stories were written and the deal was done and there was nothing left to announce until Saturday, when the trade everyone already knew about became official by the Commissioner’s Office.

This made the postgame situation on Friday extremely difficult. Inside the clubhouse, Berkman was dressed in his street clothes and on his way out, for good. He said his goodbyes to his teammates and then he was gone, before the media was allowed in. This was problematic for reporters, but really was the only option, because again, Berkman could not acknowledge that he was catching the first flight out in the morning to Tampa to join the Yankees.

On Saturday, the Astros scheduled a conference call with Berkman, which followed Brett Wallace’s press conference (which followed Ed Wade’s press conference. Busy day.) Berkman first apologized for slipping out of the clubhouse the night before but asked that they understand that he just couldn’t speak about the trade until it was official.

The media had recorders and mikes around the phone, and the whole thing had a very Charlie’s Angels feel to it, which made me laugh and prompted me to take this picture. Just so you can envision what I’m talking about:

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Berkman said he would have probably accepted trade to Texas and St. Louis, and he would have “thought about” Tampa and San Diego. Basically, Wade approached him a couple of days ago and told him there was a chance they might have an opportunity to trade him. Rather than waste his time negotiating with teams Puma wouldn’t approve, Wade gave Berkman eight teams and asked him to name which ones he’d give the green light to. He said no to the Angels and White Sox, and probably a couple of others.

Here are a few more items and quotes that emerged from the conference call (those of you who follow me on Twitter have already seen some of this, but bear with me):

“I keep looking down and seeing navy blue. It’s very strange. It’s like the first day I was with the Astros. You walk in the clubhouse, Bagwell and Biggio are there and you’re kind of nervous and not sure how it’s going to go. But it’s weird to have this at 34 after 11 years in the big leagues.”

On his emotions after he left the Astros clubhouse for the last time: “I almost started bawling on my way home last night.”

On understanding why he was traded: “A big reason why the organization is where it is is because of me. I haven’t played well.”

On getting a new start: “I’m at the point of my career where I either need to retire or light the fire again. This is almost a litmus test for me.”

On breaking the news of the trade to his (somewhat disinterested) daughters: “After I told them, my middle daughter said, “Can I hold the baby?”

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Now for the big question…will Berkman return to the Astros in 2011?

I loved that Puma told the media on Friday that his one requirement is that his new team NOT pick up the ’11 option on his contract so that he can possibly return to Houston next season.

During his conference call, Berkman reiterated his desire to at least explore that avenue. Wade was asked about it during his media session and said simply: “He has alluded to that. We’ve got to get through where we are now. He’s joining a rock star band (Yankees) that gets a lot of attention. He might fall in love with that. I can’t go further than that because he is now another team’s player.”

Now, keeping in mind that I a) have no idea if Wallace will work out as the Astros’ new first baseman and b) have no idea how Puma will perform in the next two months, here are my thoughts, as of Saturday, July 31, 2010…

I compare this to the first year of college. When you leave home for the first time, you’re a little scared, a little apprehensive, a little homesick. The only life you know is your high school life and your high school friends and your parents, and while college is eventually great, it isn’t necessarily so right away, because everything is so unfamiliar.

So in the first couple of weeks, or months, you might make a few extra trips home, see old friends, hang out with the family. But soon, unfamiliar surroundings of college life become familiar and enjoyable, you make new friends and you adapt to a new life. And you feel less and less of a tug to visit the old haunts from your hometown.

Berkman fully admitted the idea of leaving the Astros and joining a new team made him “nervous.” I believe him when he said he’s sad to leave and that he will miss the Astros and that Houston will always be home to him. But he’s leaving here and heading to a great team, to play in a packed ballpark every night, where every game matters. And the Yankees win. A lot. And once he gets a taste of winning again, I sincerely doubt he’ll long to be back here when it’s over.

The Astros are clearly moving in a new direction and this process is going to take a while. The losing is what wore on Berkman to begin with and I cannot envision him wanting to return to it, especially if it’s in a supportive role as a backup to Wallace.

But we’ll see.

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Did the Astros get enough in return?

As the news of the trade was breaking, we heard from New York and national writers that the Astros were picking up a lot of Berkman’s salary and not getting top prospects in return. Clearly, that wasn’t what anyone on this side of things wanted to hear. And I, like you, wondered, what the heck were the Astros thinking?

Then I looked at the players the Astros received and they both seemed to have potential — 25-year-old Mark Melancon, who has had brief stints in the big leagues, could fit in as a middle reliever, while 21-year-old Jimmy Paredes is a switch-hitting infielder who appears to have good speed and a decent average. Are they top prospects? No. Can they be contributors? Of course.

But was it enough to merit trading Berkman? Well…

If we’re talking about the Berkman who hit 45 homers and drove in 136 runs, as he did in 2006, then no. But obviously, we aren’t talking about that Berkman. We’re talking about the 2010 Berkman and the reality is that he’s hitting .245 and is on pace for the lowest home run and RBI totals of his career. He’s hitting .188 versus lefties and, well, he’s not getting any younger.

In Houston, Berkman is an icon and one of the best hitters to ever play for this organization. To the rest of the league, he’s a hitter who can still make pitchers uncomfortable, draws walks and can hit one out from time to time. But he’s not the player he used to be, and the player he is today isn’t going to bring you back that much in return.

The Astros knew they weren’t going to pick up his ’11 option and they also had concluded they were not going to offer him salary arbitration. That meant that if he signed with another team, which he probably would have, they would have gotten nothing for him. This way, they got something, along with a little payroll relief ($3 million).

And that’s why he’s a Yankee.

Eventually, my stomach will stop turning when I say that.

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In the last two days the Astros have traded two of the best players in franchise history and no matter who you got in return, or how much sense it made, or how much we all know it was time for one or both to move on, the process of losing them is painful. I’ve heard from a lot of you who have said, “this stinks.” And yes, anyway you dissect it, it does. The moves were necessary. They’ll help the team in the long run. Soon, we’ll be used to them not being here. But yea, right now, this totally stinks.

When I talked to Roy and Lance, I thanked them both for the laughs. They were always professional and helpful, but they are also really funny. And when you work almost every day for the better part of 7 1/2 months, you need some comic relief.

Like when Oswalt was over-the-moon excited (seriously) to be paired up with Minnie Mouse during the Disney parade during Spring Training:

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(And when Lance, appropriately, was teamed up with Goofy):

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I end this blog with my favorite picture, I title Puma being Puma:

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A tip of the cap to both, and a hearty thanks for the memories.

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The Phillies trade got a lot more interesting when the Blue Jays jumped in.

Got this tweet from @comahan13:

“Wow they flipped Gose for Wallace? That’s a great move if it’s true, and almost single-handedly changes my opinion of all this.”

That was exactly my reaction when I heard the Astros traded one of the Phillies prospects they acquired for Roy Oswalt for a 6-foot-2, 205-pound first baseman — a former No. 1 draft pick whose future is at first base.

My original reaction to the players the Astros acquired in the Oswalt trade wasn’t so enthusiastic. I was glad they received J.A. (pronounced “Jay”) Happ, a bona fide Major League ready pitcher, but when I looked at outfielder Anthony Gose’s credentials, he seemed so much like Michael Bourn and Minor League outfielder Jay Austin and I was wholly disappointed that the Astros did not go for a slugging infielder, something sorely lacking in the upper levels of their farm system.

Then the Astros flipped Gose to Toronto for infielder Brett Wallace, a power-hitting corner infielder. He appears to be a blue-chip offensive player who hasn’t established himself at a particular position, and he’ll report to Round Rock immediately to begin honing his skills at first base.

The other prospect in the deal, shortstop Jonathan Villar, will go to Class A Lancaster. He was described by general manager Ed Wade as having “very significant tools — speed, good hands, above average arm. Good instincts to hit.” Villar is a step behind ’09 first-round pick Jiovanni Mier, who’s playing at Class A Lexington.

I received a lot of questions from you throughout the day on Thursday, so let’s get cracking…

Q: Looking at the season Wallace is having at AAA it looks like a great trade. Any idea why Jays would trade Wallace for Gose?

My take: It comes down to the individual needs of an organization. Some teams have a surplus of players at one position and can use that to replenish another area that isn’t so strong. I’m not an expert on the strengths and deficiencies of very Major League team, but it appears the Jays had a need for a speedy top-of-the-order outfielder, and the Astros already have that in Bourn and Austin.

Q: If Wallace is all that, why is he on his fourth organization?

My take: Valid concern. But if you look at the transactions, he’s been in the middle of some pretty big deals. The Cardinals drafted Wallace as their first-rounder in ’08 as a third baseman, but over the course of his first season, it became pretty obvious he didn’t have much of a future at that position. First base better suited him, but he was obviously blocked by the best hitter in the game and one who isn’t going anywhere for a long, long, time in Albert Pujols. So Wallace became both expendable and a huge trading chip for the Cardinals, who included him in a package to get Matt Holliday from the Athletics.

Wallace was then traded to the Blue Jays for Michael Taylor, who had just been traded to Toronto as part of the Roy Halladay trade.

So, in essence, Wallace isn’t so much someone that teams want to get rid of as much as someone who helps them fill important needs elsewhere. From what I’ve been told by friends who cover some of the other organizations Wallace has played for, he’s the real deal offensively. Projects to hit for a high average and most importantly, he has power. The knock on him is his defense, which Wade acknowledged during Thursday’s press conference: “There’s some finishing school left to be attended on Brett’s part. There are some rough edges to clean up. This is a pretty special bat as far as we’re concerned. He needs to learn his position. That’s why we have player development system, to help these guys in all phases of the game.”

Q: What does this mean for Lance Berkman? Are the Astros going to try to move him for prospects?

My take: While I do not believe this necessarily pushes Lance out the door this season, this definitely protects them for 2011 and beyond. Berkman has a $15 million club option for ’11 (with a $2 million buyout), and judging from his offensive production this year, it would be hard to imagine the Astros picking up that option. In fact, you can pretty much bet they won’t. So either they try to re-sign Berkman at a lower cost after this season, or they find someone more economical to take over at first base. Wallace gives them that option.

There has been speculation that now that they have Wallace, the Astros will try to trade Berkman between now and Saturday’s trade deadline in an effort to get something, anything, for him. There is a report that the White Sox might be interested. We’ll see. Like Oswalt, Berkman has a full no-trade clause and I haven’t been given any indication he’s anxious to get out of here just yet. That said, there’s plenty of time between now and Saturday at 3 CT, so we’ll just have to wait and see on that one.

Q: I know it’s part of the business, but how do you deal with the trade of someone you’ve covered for years?

My take: It depends on the player to be honest. This one is sad for me because I’ve known Oswalt since the day he was called up nearly 10 years ago, and we’ve been close friends for most of that stretch. At the same time, this trade was inevitable and I’ve had it in my mind for so long that he’ll eventually be moving on — longer than anyone can imagine — that as I sit here in the press box a couple of hours after the trade was finalized, I’m kind of numb to it. It wasn’t a matter of “if” on Roy, it was a matter of “when.”

Over the years, saying goodbye to players gets easier, because you learn it’s just part of the business. I remember being pretty upset when the Astros traded Mike Hampton after the ’99 season and Jose Lima in 2001 and really, really bummed when the offseason of 2003 produced trades of two of my all-time favorites in Billy Wagner and Geoff Blum. And obviously, Craig Biggio’s last game in ’07 and Brad Ausmus’ last game in ’08 were sad, sad, sad. But for the most part, you get used to the revolving door of players that come in and out of the organization and if you stick around as long as I have, your favorite players eventually reappear as coaches and broadcasters, so there’s always that to look forward to.

Q: So does Milo call J.A. Happ “Happie?”

My take: After consulting with Baggy, Millsie, Keppie, Blummy and Bournie, put me down for “yes.”

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Randoms:

* Happ finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting by the baseball writers in 2009 after posting a 12-4 record and a 2.93 ERA over 35 appearances (24 starts).

* Happ, a former Phillies third-round pick, was on the disabled list this season with a flexor strain, but was activated about a week ago after making five rehab starts.

* Happ will start Friday’s game against the Brewers at Minute Maid Park.

* Villar hit .272 over 100 games at Class A this season with 18 doubles, four triples, two home runs and 38 stolen bases. He was signed by the Phillies as a non-drafted free agent in 2008 and has tallied 82 stolen bases over 204 career games, mostly as a shortstop.

* Wallace played in the Futures Game during All-Star Week in 2009 and was named to the Arizona Fall League All-Prospect team in ’08. He played college baseball at Arizona State University and was named Pac-10 Player of the Year in both 2007 and 2008. In ’07, he captured the conference’s Triple Crown, hitting .423 with 16 home runs and 78 RBIs while leading his club to the College World Series.

Where will Oswalt go? Not even he knows.

There are two times of the year that baseball beat reporters looks forward to the least: the Winter Meetings, and the couple of weeks leading up to the non-waiver trading deadline.

The Winter Meetings are probably the least painful of the two, only because they’re quicker. You arrive on Sunday, you leave on Thursday and with the exception of the few who cover the more proactive teams, you usually hang around the lobby all day only to be told by your general manager at the end: “We didn’t make any moves.” It’s mind-numbingly boring, but it goes pretty quickly.

The trade deadline is far more excruciating, because it drags on and on and on, and if you happen to cover one of the teams that is looking to deal a prized player, you have to wade through the daily reports, sift through the rumor mill and separate fact from fiction in order to get to something that resembles the truth. There are accurate reports out there, of course, but also a handful more that are some variation of false, or exaggerated, or, some cases, greatly understated.

I’m fairly certain those covering the Astros beat will be glad when Aug. 1 arrives. The trade deadline is Saturday (July 31) at 3 p.m. CT, and most likely, the Roy Oswalt saga won’t end long before then.

If you believe everything that’s being reported out there, Oswalt:

1. Will not approve the trade unless the team he’s going to picks up his $16 million club option for ’12;

2. Is willing to restructure the contract to make that $16 million club option for ’12 a more reasonable undertaking for the new club by deferring money;

3. Will not let the $16 million club option stand in the way of being traded and is OK with the club not picking up the option;

4. Won’t approve a trade to the Phillies;

5. Will approve a trade to the Phillies;

6. Won’t approve a trade to anyone but the Cardinals;

7. Will go to any team that he deems a sure-fire World Series contender;

8. Will only accept a trade if the new team has Evian water, yellow M&Ms, seedless red grapes and umbrella drinks waiting at his locker on days he pitches*;

9. Won’t go to either New York team because the Big Apple is a little too much for this southern down-home guy;

10. Would prefer the Yankees to anyone but probably won’t end up there because the Yankees aren’t interested;

11. Isn’t going to be traded anywhere, because the Astros’ demands are too high.

(*Kidding on No. 8. Just wanted to see if you were paying attention.)

I have said from the beginning that I’m not buying the ’12 option being a deal-breaker. If he wants out as badly as we think he does, would he honestly say no just because the new team won’t commit to picking up an option for a season he may or may not pitch (he’s long maintained he’d like to hang it up after ’11)?

To me, the biggest hurdle as we near the non-waiver finish line is the need to get Oswalt’s approval before a trade can be made. We’ve referred back to the Randy Johnson trade in ’98 a lot lately for obvious reasons, but there are glaring differences — mainly, that Johnson did not have a no-trade clause and therefore did not need to be consulted before the deal was made. The Mariners were in the middle of a game and someone came over to him in the dugout, tapped him on the shoulder and said, “you’re going to Houston.”

The trade deadline this year is three hours before gametime, so it’s not as if Oswalt will have to be pulled from the dugout for a consultation. But if the Astros take this down to the wire and make an 11th hour deal, that might not give Oswalt any time to think it over. Will he need time to ponder? Who knows. But it’ll be interesting to see how this ends, and given all of the moving parts involved, it wouldn’t shock me if Oswalt was still here on Aug. 1.

Oswalt tells reporters affirmatively: “location doesn’t matter.”

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Family Day

The Astros held their annual Family Day on Sunday before the finale with the Reds, a session I call “An Hour of Chaos” — the good kind of chaos, where little kids are given free reign of the field. (Although I’m assuming Family Day isn’t such a happy day for the grounds crew.)

Family Day is pretty simple: players families come to the ballpark early and the kids run around the field for an hour, play whiffle ball, run the bases and pose for family pictures. Junction Jack, not surprisingly, is a pretty popular guy at this event.

Some images from the event:

Bryson Bourn hangs out with Bud Norris before heading out for family day.

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The Bourns.

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The Blum girls — Mia, Ava, Audrey and Kayla, are fired up to see Junction Jack.

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The Michaels family: Jason, Pamela and Payton.  

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Carlos Lee was having a nice family moment with his wife and kids…

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…and then one of his sons started pounding him with an inflatable baseball bat.

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The littlest Puma, Abigail Berkman, makes her Minute Maid Park debut.

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First base coach Bobby Meacham and his granddaughter.

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Brett Myers pitches to his son.

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Oswalt hangs out with his daughters.

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Berkman and his daughter, Carly.

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Hunter Pence is tweeting, just in time for a long homestand.

 

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A couple of months ago, Chris Sampson (@csampson43) jumped into the Twitter craze, and on Thursday, the Astros added one more tweeter to the list — outfielder and fan fave Hunter Pence.

You can follow Pence at @HunterPence9, and he also invites you to check out his Facebook fan page at http://www.facebook.com/hunterpence9.

Astros players pretty much fall three categories: 1) Those who don’t really understand social media and aren’t interested; 2) Those who do understand social media but still aren’t interested; and 3) Those who understand social media, like it, and want to participate. Pence definitely falls into the third category and I’m glad he’s on board. Not only is he one of the Astros’ most popular players, he’s also a fun guy and loves engaging the fans. So really, in that respect, Twitter and Facebook are tailor-made for people just like him.

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Turn Back the Clock

The Astros have completed a 3-3 road trip and will open an extended homestand on Friday, beginning with a three-game set with the Reds. Saturday’s game will be another Throwback day, this one harkening back to the 1980’s. The Astros will wear the shoulder rainbow jerseys during the game, and the fans will receive a Throwback Jersey t-shirt, courtesy of ABC Pest Pool & Lawn.

Additionally, tickets will be cheap, cheap, cheap. View Deck II and Outfield Deck seats will be only $5.

I indicated in a past blog that there would be an autograph session with members of the ’89 team, but that was cancelled because of a low number of players who were available that day.

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LIVESTRONG

The Astros have teamed up with LIVESTRONG and the Methodist Cancer Center to host Cancer Survivors Day During the 1:05 p.m. game vs. the Reds on Sunday  (July 25). Cancer Survivor Day, the first Astros game of its kind, will celebrate the lives of those affected by cancer while generating needed funds for cancer research.

A portion of the ticket sales purchased through the link www.astros.com/survivor will benefit LIVESTRONG and the Methodist Cancer Center. Groups of 20 or more that would like to attend the game and support the cause should contact Joe Schiavi at 713-259-8314 or jschiavi@astros.com.

In addition, the first 10,000 fans at the game will receive a free LIVESTRONG bracelet courtesy of LIVESTRONG. All fans are encouraged to show their support by wearing yellow.

In America alone, there are over 11 million people living with a history of cancer. Individuals that have survived a cancer diagnosis are invited to share their victory story and by doing so have the chance to be selected to be part of this special day. Fans may e-mail their stories or those of their loved ones to Nicky Patriarca, one of the Astros Cancer Survivors Day coordinators, at npatriarca@astros.com.

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Whataburger signing

Second baseman Jeff Keppinger will meet fans and sign autographs at the Whataburger restaurant located at 23540 Westheimer Parkway, Katy, TX 77494 from 11:00 a.m. to noon on July 27.

The appearance, part of the Whataburger Ultimate “Whatafan” promotion, gives fans the chance to register to win the title of Ultimate “Whatafan.” The Ultimate “Whatafan” will win suite tickets, autographed jerseys and caps from the Astros, Round Rock Express and Corpus Christi Hooks, an on-field batting practice visit, the chance to participate in a pre-game ceremony and an opportunity to throw out a ceremonial first pitch.

Mills sports a new lineup, and the Astros hit and hit. And hit.

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Brad Mills altered his lineup somewhat drastically on Monday for the series opener with the Cubs, and the Astros went out and made him look pretty smart when they hit up the Cubs for eight runs in the first three innings. I doubt even Mills had that barrage in mind when he dropped Jeff Keppinger to the six-hole and flip-flopped Hunter Pence and Carlos Lee, who hit fourth and fifth respectively.

Mills’ line of thinking: Keppinger has been the Astros’ most consistent hitter, but his high on-base percentage has, for most the season, gone for naught as the No. 2 hitter, because the middle of the order has not produced consistently (putting it mildly). So, by moving Keppinger down in the order to hit directly behind Lee, Mills was hoping Lee (and to a degree, Pence) would see better pitches. Mills figured if Keppinger continued to get on base at the same pace he has for most of the year, why not see if those hits can turn into RBIs as well.

While I wouldn’t count on every night going as well as Monday, Mills’ logic makes sense. The only drawback is Keppinger isn’t likely to see as many good pitches in the six-hole as the two-hole, considering unproven rookies Chris Johnson and Jason Castro are hitting behind him. Kepp’s three walks Monday might be a foreshadow of things to come.

It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.

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Roy Oswalt, who needs one win to tie and two to surpass Joe Niekro’s franchise record for career wins, said before the game Monday that he believes he’ll remain on schedule and make his next start as planned. Oswalt took a ball off his ankle in Pittsburgh Sunday and was removed from the game after the fourth inning, but he said the next day he was feeling much better and didn’t foresee any further setbacks.

Oswalt, who may or may not be dealt before the 3 p.m. CT non-waiver trade deadline on July 31, is scheduled to pitch against the Reds on July 24 and the Brewers on July 30.

Read about Mills’ new lineup, Oswalt’s ankle and other news and notes in McTaggart’s notebook here.

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I put a partial percentage of Twitterverse in a confused state in the third inning after Castro hit a three-run homer to put the Astros up 8-0. My original Tweet: Castro is the first Astros catcher to homer since Brad Ausmus hit a grand slam in 2006.

Oops. While the Astros’ offense in the last five years has been nothing to write home about, especially the production coming from the catchers, let’s not get crazy. The corrected stat: Castro’s home was the first three-plus homer by an Astros catcher since Ausmus hit a grand slam on Aug. 5, 2006 at Arizona.

Other notes from Monday’s win:

Johnson recorded his first career home run and has the ball as a souvenir, thanks to it bouncing off the fence and back onto the field. CJ had three hits on the night, marking the fourth time he’s had three hits in a game.

Six of the Astros’ starting nine had multi-hit games. Wandy Rodriguez was 2-for-3, marking the first multi-hit game of his career.

The Astros scored a season-high 11 runs and a season-high 17 hits. It was the most runs for the club since it scored 14 last Aug. 12 at Florida.

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Early in July, a group of wives of past and current Major League Baseball players toured the areas along the Gulf Coast that were affected by the oil spill.

They returned with heavy hearts and a determination to spread the word to others that the spill continues to affect the lives and livelihoods of thousands in the region.

Jill Borkowski, wife of former Astros pitcher and current Minor League pitching coach Dave Borkowski, was one of 10 wives who toured the area. McTaggart wrote a thorough account of the experience, which you can read here.

The other wives involved were Elizabeth Condrey, wife of Twins pitcher Clay Condrey, Megan Thomas (former slugger Frank Thomas), Jamie Buehrle (White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle), Cass Relaford (former player Desi Relaford), Erin Romero (Phillies pitcher J.C. Romero), Julianne Gamel (Brewers third baseman Mat Gamel), Jessica Maholm (Pirates pitcher Paul Maholm), Crystal Durbin (Phillies pitcher Chad Durbin) and Anne Ogea (former pitcher Chad Ogea).

 

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You can also contribute to the Gulf Coast relief fund by texting the word RESTORE to 50555 between now and July 31. A fee of $10 will be added to your cell phone bill and will help aid the region. Half of the proceeds raised will go to the National Audubon Society, which has been helping clean oil-soaked birds, and 50 percent will be distributed to a variety of charities in the area, with the wives recommending how it should be spent.

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The Astros Wives Gala has been going strong for two decades and No. 21 will take place on Aug. 12, at the usual venue — the field of Minute Maid Park. Chaired by Morgan Keppinger and Heather Byrdak, the event will benefit the Houston Area Women’s Center and will be attended by most current players as well as a few past players.

Since the first one in 1990, the Wives Gala has raised over $3 million on behalf of the HAWC, which provides a safe place for women and children who are survivors of domestic and sexual abuse.

Tickets aren’t cheap — they start at $500 — but the cause is well worth it. And it’s a fantastic opportunity to meet and mingle with your favorite Astros. The evening, themed “A Night in Paradise,” will include a silent auction and a live auction and will be emceed by radio announcer Milo Hamilton.

For more information or to purchase tickets, please call 713-781-0053.

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(Kory and Geoff  Blum at last year’s Gala)

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The Astros have teamed up with Third Coast Sports for the fourth consecutive year to bring Faith and Family Night to Minute Maid Park following the 6:05 p.m. Astros game vs. the Milwaukee Brewers on Saturday, July 31.

Faith and Family Night tentatively includes a personal testimony from Lance Berkman, followed by a concert by the popular Christian band, Jars of Clay.

Admission to the concert is included with a valid game ticket to the game. All seating for the concert will be general admission seating along the first base side of the ballpark. The band will perform from the warning track near first base.

Fans purchasing tickets for the game must sit in their ticketed seats until the end of the game, but may then move into any available seat on the first base side of the ballpark for the concert.

For more information on the concert and discounted tickets, fans can visit www.astros.com/faithandfamily or call the Astros Ticket Office at 1-800-ASTROS2.

Pittsburgh is a great baseball destination. Heres why.

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In a blog posted about a month ago, I rated my top five favorite baseball road destinations and I think a few of you were surprised to hear that No. 4 on the list was Pittsburgh.

While I don’t aspire to live in the Steel City — the winters are brutal and the sun is an infrequent visitor pretty much from November through April — I love coming here for baseball trips. Whenever I’m asked which are the best facilities in baseball, I list three: AT&T Park in San Francisco, Minute Maid Park in Houston, and PNC Park in Pittsburgh. Most of the modern-day ballparks are unique and pleasant in their own right, but for me, these three stand out above the rest.

Posted above is my view from the press box at PNC. To me, it looks more like a painting. You can see everything from up here: the spacious ballpark, the downtown skyline and the yellow bridges that tower above the three rivers and connect the stadiums (Heinz Field, home to the Steelers, is just down the way).

I ventured outside PNC during batting practice on Saturday, mainly to take a few pictures of the larger-than-life statues of Pirates legends that are such a presence at this ballpark. In one corner stands Honus Wagner, in another, Willie Stargell, and just down the road from him, Roberto Clemente. I’m hearing a Bill Mazeroski statue is also in the works.

The Pirates haven’t had a winning season since 1992, and that streak is sure to continue this year. But that shouldn’t take away from the fact that the Pirates have a fantastic history, filled with Hall of Fame players, World Series titles and a sparkling downtown ballpark.

We took some behind-the-scenes video of the visitors clubhouse at PNC Park as well as the view from around the cage during batting practice.

Enjoy the tour, and the photos:

The main locker room area in the Astros’ clubhouse. It’s not the biggest in the league, but it’s plenty spacious and the players seem to like it here.
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The ballpark is surrounded by statues of Pirates greats. Here is Honus Wagner, the Hall of Fame shortstop who won eight batting titles.

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Willie Stargell, known to teammates as “Pops,” played 20 seasons with the Pirates and also played in six postseasons, including two World Series. He and former Astros manager Phil Garner were teammates during the 1979 World Championship season.

There is a rather sad history attached to this statue — the unveiling took place on April 7, 2001, two days before Stargell passed away.

You can really tell how massive these statues are when you compare them to the people standing nearby.

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The Roberto Clemente statue stands just before the Roberto Clemente bridge, which you can see in the background.

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I met these nice Astros fans near the Clemente statue. You can’t see it in this picture, but even his shoelaces were orange.

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Batting practice images: Hunter Pence.

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Jason Michaels.

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Michael Bourn.

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Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman.

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On Bagwell, Berkman, LeBron and Scott Sullivan.

Jeff Bagwell reflected upon his first day on the job as the Astros’ hitting coach with a touch of humor, threatening to pull a LeBron James while also revealing an interesting exchange with Lance Berkman.

The Astros hit enough Friday night to beat the Pirates, against whom they’re 7-0 this year, their best record against the Bucs to begin a season. Jeff Keppinger came up with a clutch homer and Humberto Quintero had two nice hits, but Berkman, who said before the game Bagwell was kind of like the dad you didn’t want to make mad, went 0-for-4.

“He disappointed me tonight,” Bagwell said, joking. “He got no hits.”

Apparently, Berkman found solace in this by bringing up a somewhat sore subject with Bagwell — his hitless streak against a former Reds right-hander named Scott Sullivan.

Sullivan had a nice career with the Reds, pitching the better part of nine seasons in middle relief. Not a headline grabber but certainly a decent pitcher in his own right. But he has one claim to fame — Bagwell absolutely, positively, could not hit him.

When side-armer Sullivan would run in from the bullpen, “I used to tell Dirk,” Bagwell said, referring to former manager Larry Dierker, “‘You’re really going to send me up there again?'”

And again, and again. In fact, Sullivan faced Bagwell more times in his career than any other player, ever.

Bagwell had 31 official plate appearances versus Sullivan, including 24 at-bats. And zero hits. If you look up “Sullivan vs. batters” on the Baseball Reference page,  every hitter whom Sullivan ever faced is listed, and Bagwell is first, because his batting average against the former Reds righty is exactly .000. Bagwell has one RBI — via a sac fly — and has drawn six walks off Sullivan, three of which were intentional.

Bagwell’s success — or lack thereof — against Sullivan was so well-known back in the day that Berkman not only still remembers, but still uses it to get Bagwell’s goat.

“He just wanted to make me feel bad,” Bagwell said. “I said, ‘That’s about as low as you can go right there.'”

This was all in jest, of course. Bagwell, who is mindful of the good work Sean Berry did during his long tenure as the Astros’ hitting coach, is doing his best to deflect the attention from himself as the Astros try to salvage what they can during the second half of the season.

But Bagwell did acknowledge his “quick” start.

“I’m retiring,” he said. “I’m 1-0. I’m leaving. I’m going to play for the Heat.”

(Bagwell talks after his first game as hitting coach…click here)

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News and notes from Astros camp:

Felipe Paulino had a setback recently and it appears the tendinitis in his shoulder has flared up again. He’s flying back to Houston to have an MRI and will not make his scheduled start against the Cubs on Tuesday.

Also, righty Brian Moehler has been placed on the 15-day DL with a strained right groin, which he suffered during his last start before the All-Star break. Moehler’s DL stint will be backdated to July 8 and he will be eligible to return on July 23, when the team returns to Houston.

That will clear a roster spot for whomever the Astros decide to start in Paulino’s place on Tuesday.

Bagwell’s been on the job one day, and already Berkman has a new batting stance.

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I kid, I kid.

But this image of Lance Berkman imitating Jeff Bagwell while taking batting practice on Thursday did make me laugh, for two reasons: 1) it was pretty much a spot-on imitation; and 2) It was good comic relief for me after sifting through a few dozen messages from fans who were concerned that Bagwell couldn’t possibly be a good hitting coach because all he was going to do is make everyone adopt that bizarre, unconventional squatty stance that worked for him many moons ago.

The Bagwell squat isn’t making a resurgence, thankfully, but it’s good to see the old first baseman back in uniform. Bagwell stood behind the cage on Thursday and watched batting practice, chatted with the players and pulled a few to the side for one-on-one talks. In other words, it was a pretty typical day in the life of a hitting coach, but one that drew a bit more attention considering where Bags fits into the history of this franchise.

Watch video of the Astros’ workout and Bagwell’s first day on the job here.

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A quick note on retired numbers: A former player whose number is retired but who comes back to the organization as uniformed personnel is permitted to wear his number. Jose Cruz wore No. 25 when he returned to coach, and Bagwell will wear his No. 5.

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It was a pretty lively, loose group that worked out at PNC Park on Thursday. About half the players met the team in Pittsburgh from wherever they spent their All-Star break, and everyone made it on time — except for Carlos Lee. Citing flight problems out of Panama, Lee missed the workout. Michael Bourn was also not in attendance, but that was arranged by the club. Bourn spent three days at the All-Star Game and was given Thursday off to rest.

Lee’s absence is considered “unexcused,” although the workout was not mandatory. As Chronicle beat writer Bernardo Fallas tweeted Thursday night, “GM Ed Wade said he was disappointed…Needless to say, the absence, which we’ll deem unexcused, threatens Carlos Lee’s role as starter for Fri.’s series opener vs. Bucs.”

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From the workout:

Bagwell, Pence 

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Jason Castro.

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Chris Johnson.

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Geoff Blum, Tommy Manzella.

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Hunter Pence.

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Warm-ups can often look like dancing when captured with a still camera.

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Astros quietly sign a coveted young outfield prospect.

I’ll admit when I first looked at the announcement that the Astros signed a 16-year-old Dominican outfielder, I glanced over the release, tweeted the information and then moved on with my day. Not that I wasn’t interested; it’s just that we hear about a lot of Minor League signings and with so much activity to keep track of on a typical game day, these types of announcements usually don’t take center stage.

Then I looked closer, both at the team’s comments about this kid — 6-foot-4, left-handed hitting right fielder Ariel Ovando — and the money they paid him to sign, and I realized this is way more significant than I originally thought.

I’ve heard from reliable club insiders that Baseball America’s quote of a $2.6-$2.8 million is accurate. Translated to the June First-Year Player Draft, that’s first-rounder money.

There are no guarantees, of course, but to give a kid who doesn’t turn 17 until Sept. 15 that kind of dough, he must be some kind of special. (Side note: Latin players are eligible to be signed if they are 16 years old by July 2, and will attain age 17 prior to September 1 of such effective season.)

Here are various scouting reports from the Astros folks who did their homework on the kid:

Felix Francisco, Special Asst. to the G.M./Latin American Operations (and who signed Ovando):  Darryl Strawberry type body.  Large frame.  Long arms and legs with a lot of room to fill out.  Everyday right fielder with the ability to hit for average and power.  Ball carries off bat.  Will be an above average right fielder with an average to above-average arm.  Smart kid who has a clear goal in life and is dedicated.

Clarence Johns, Eastern Regional Supervisor:  2XL frame.  Long, lanky features.  High waist with extra long arms and legs.  Has the frame of Fred McGriff with the long arms and legs of Darryl Strawberry.  Will be a middle of the order bat with 30 plus home runs and 100 RBI potential.  Will drive the ball to all fields.  Future strong defender with arm strength to hold runners in check.  Makes solid contact with ease.  Plays the game with confidence and youthful exuberance.  Very engaging personality.  Reminiscent of Jason Heyward (Braves) and Dominic Brown (Phillies) as amateurs.

Bobby Heck, Assistant G.M./ Scouting Director:  Impact player.  Large, lean and loose frame. Broad, sloped shoulders.  High, trim waist.  Body similar to Carlos Delgado.  Will hit 3-4 in a lineup.  Advanced hitter for age.  Quiet confidence with a boyish smile.  Will be a big man.  Easy, fast bat with hitter’s hands.  Reminds me of Jason Heyward, Fred McGriff and Carlos Delgado.

Ricky Bennett, Assistant G.M./Player Development Director:  Tall, athletic frame, good build with room to fill out; body type similar to Cliff Floyd.  Corner OF with power to all fields.  Good bat speed and plate coverage.  Ball jumps off bat and has 25-30 home run type power. 

Ovando is expected to spend this season at the Astros’ Latin American complex in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic. He will then participate in the Instructional League in Kissimmee, Fla., in September.

Funny anecdote about projecting where players will hit in the order: When Heck was with the Brewers and his group was contemplating drafting Ryan Braun, there was some consternation about what position Braun would play. Heck put the kibosh on that topic with this statement: “He’ll play third or fourth. As in, in the lineup.” Looks like that one worked out pretty well.

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Astros Throwback night

The Astros continue their season-long celebration of their 45th anniversary with another Throwback Night, scheduled for Saturday, July 24. They’ll wear the shoulder rainbow jerseys during the game versus the Reds that night, and the first 10,000 fans will receive a Throwback Jersey t-shirt, courtesy of ABC Pest Pool & Lawn.

You can get cheap tickets to the game, too. View Deck II and Outfield Deck seats will be just $5.

I’m hearing that players from that ’89 team will be signing autographs that night as well. I’ll give you the list of names as soon as I get it.

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Bayou Bash

The Astros will host their annual Bayou Bash this Saturday (July 10) at Minute Maid Park, where you can take in the Astros-Cardinals game and also sample a slew of delicious food and drinks and take in some live music as well.

The event is open to the ticketed public, and food/drink sampling tickets will be available for $20. Let’s get right to it…here’s what’s on tap (literally):

Budweiser
Bud Light
Bud Light Lime
Shock Top
Landshark
ZiegenBock
Tiger
Beach Bum Blonde ale
St. Arnolds Amber
St. Arnolds Lawnmower
Corona
Modelo Especial

The special pregame event includes:
* Live Zydeco band and Cajun Art Gallery in Union Station
* Louisiana vendor expo in Conoco Alley
* Cajun food offerings at Lefty’s Restaurant in Union Station
* Beer sampling in the Union Station Lobby and passport that allows up to two food samplings and 12 two-ounce beer samples
* Full plates of food and full 12-ounce beers will also be available for purchase
* Cajun cuisine options in Lefty’s Restaurant include:
* Gulf Coast “Brown Roux” Seafood Gumbo with White Rice
* Chicken and Sausage Jambalaya
* Spicy Fried Boudin Balls with Creole Remoulade Dipping Sauce
* Spiced Stewed Okra and Tomato over Old Bay White Rice

If you already have a ticket to the game, you can purchase food/drink vouchers for $20 and get access to the pregame event in Union Station and Lefty’s Restaurant. For more info, click here.

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Auction items up for bid

Every Friday and Saturday home game, the Astros In Action Foundation hosts a silent auction featuring some very unique autographed Astros items including bats, baseballs, batting gloves and jerseys.

This weekend, the following items will be up for bid:

Jeff Bagwell Autographed Authenticated Baseball (bidding starts at $125)
Pedro Feliz #77 Autographed Authenticated Batting Practice Jersey (bidding starts at $125)
Jackie Robinson Day Game Used Jersey Autographed by 2010 All-Star Michael Bourn (bidding starts at $250)

To bid on these items this weekend, click here.

 

Walk up music: bubblegum pop, with a huge helping of cheese.

Sun-kissed skin so hot it would melt a popsicle.

Milkshakes that bring all the boys to the yard.

Walk-up music so off-the-charts cheesy that if you’re not a 14 year old high school girl, you might wonder what’s gotten into the Astros hitters.

Being cool is so 2009. The name of the game these days is bubblegum pop music, and the hokier, the better. And if the song is just cheesy enough, an Astros hitter might just pick it as his walk up music when it’s his turn to bat.

At least that’s what Hunter Pence is hoping. He recently changed his walk-up music to “California Gurls” by Katy Perry. Now, being a child of the 80s who dropped out of the pop music scene sometime around 1994, I had never heard the song, and the only reason I know who Katy Perry is is because she’s engaged to that funny guy from Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

So I checked out “California Gurls” on iTunes and now I understand — after hearing that whole “melt a popsicle” chorus — what Pence was talking about when he described his recent taste in music as, “As cheese as we can get. And it doesn’t get any cheesier than that.”

(Watch Pence and friends break it down in this home video)

Teeny-bopper pop music is making a comeback, at least in certain annals of Major League Baseball. Pence suspects the trend began when Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki chose Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A” as his walkup music not long ago. At first, it prompted some raised eyebrows and a little confusion around the league. After the initial reaction, however, it just made people laugh. And it presumably kept things loose among the Rockies’ players, which is what Pence is going for.

Pence isn’t the only one who’s jumped on the bandwagon. He dared Geoff Blum to follow suit, and Blum, not one to shy away from a challenge, readily accepted.

That’s why you’re most likely to hear La Roux’s “Bulletproof” when he bats.

“It’s got a pretty cheesy beat to it, and some goofy lyrics,” Blum said. “It seems to be kind of catchy, and we won some games with it and that kind of helps.”

Chris Johnson jumped into the fray as well, but for him, mixing in a steady diet of cheesy music didn’t require much of an adjustment. He likes that kind of stuff anyway. So when he hears Kellis’s “Milkshake” (‘My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard. And their like it’s better than yours,’) as he strides the plate, you can bet he’s focused.

“It’s got a good rhythm and it gets me ready to hit,” he said.

So the cheesier, the better?

“I guess,” he said. “Those are just the songs I like. I have all three of those songs on my iPod. Miley Cyrus is on my iPod. I guess if that makes me a cheese ball…that’s me.”

While plenty of Astros still prefer to hear the standard far of masculine metal-head head-****** tunes, plenty more aren’t afraid to laugh at themselves a little while trying to win a few ballgames.

“The bigger goof you can be, the cooler you are?” Blum asked. “If that’s the case, then we’re going to pretty rad.”

Here’s the somewhat complete list of the walkup music choices of your Astros:

Pitcher Intros:
Matt Lindstrom: “Dangerous Waters” by Non-Point
Brett Myers: “Miracle” by Non-Point
Roy Oswalt: “I Stand Alone” by Godsmack
Brian Moehler: “Big Gun” by AC DC
Bud Norris: “Hero” by N.A.S.
Felipe Paulino: “Rusty Cage” by Soundgarten
Wandy Rodriguez: “TNT” by AC DC
Chris Sampson: “Dukes of Hazzard” by Waylon Jennings

Batter Intros:
Hunter Pence: “California Gurls” by Katy Perry
Chris Johnson: “Milkshake” by Kellis
Geoff Blum: “Bulletproof” by La Roux
Lance Berkman: “Seventeen” by Tim McGraw
Michael Bourn: “Showtime” by Young Jeezy
Carlos Lee: “Noche De Entierro” by Daddy Yankee
Tommy Manzella: “Stranglehold” by Ted Nugent
Jason Michaels: “The Big Show” by WWF: The Music
Roy Oswalt: “Whistling Dixie” by Randy Houser

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