August 2010

Early returns on Happ? A-plus.

When the Astros were in Philadelphia on the last road trip, I learned from a local reporter that when the big trade went down — the one that sent Roy Oswalt to Philly in exchange for J.A. Happ and others — the Phillies players didn’t want to talk about it with the media.

The players were upset to lose Happ, and they were wary of sounding like it was a slam on Oswalt. It wasn’t. They were happy to have him on their team, but they were saddened to lose Happ, a pitcher whom most of his former teammates saw as a future top-of-the-rotation mainstay. They knew what they were losing. One month later, it’s becoming clear that Philly’s loss was Houston’s gain. In a big way.

Happ isn’t going to overpower hitters, but clearly, he knows how to confuse them. Other than one abysmal start in St. Louis — his second start as an Astro — Happ has been, for lack of a better term, nails. He tossed a two-hit shutout against the same St. Louis club on Monday, lowering his ERA at Minute Maid Park to 0.84. He’s the only pitcher in stadium history to make at least five starts without recording a loss, and his ERA this season is 2.89.

Happ is 27 and under club control through 2014. He’ll begin his arbitration years in 2012. In other words, the Astros have him for a long time, and when you’re in the process of revamping your organization, it’s essential to reload with young pitchers who will be around for a while. The starting rotation has posted a 2.27 ERA over the last 21 games, and Happ has been a big part of it.

A lot will have to go right in order for the Astros to a force in the NL Central next year, but when you have a strong starting staff, you have a chance. The Astros, at the very least, have that.

Other notes from the win:

Carlos Lee picked up an RBI Monday, giving him 29 RBI in his last 30 games since July 28. Since that date, Lee leads all Major Leaguers in RBIs immediately ahead of Carlos Gonzalez (28) and Casey McGehee (28).

Michael Bourn extended his hitting streak to nine games by going 1-for-4. The streak dates back to Aug. 22, during which he’s hit .368 with five stolen bases and three RBIs.

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Calling all heroes

The Astros are honoring all local police forces, fire stations and EMS teams as well as those serving in the United States Armed Forces during 9/11 Heroes Night at Minute Maid Park prior to the Astros vs. Pirates game.

The Astros are also offering a special discount to all local heroes and their guests. Fans can visit www.astros.com/heroes to take advantage of this offer.

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29-95.com night

Join the Astros for 29-95.com Night at Minute Maid Park on Friday, September 17. For just $29.95, you can score a package that includes a seat on the FiveSeven Patio to watch the Astros take on the Reds, a slider trio (burger, chicken and pulled pork), french fries and your choice of beverage.

After the game, you can enjoy live music from Robert Ellis and The Boys in the FiveSeven Grille. Plus, each 29-95.com member will receive an Astros cap and $3.75 draft beer and margarita specials.

Tickets and food and beverage vouchers will be mailed upon receipt of purchase on or before Friday, Sept. 10. Packages purchased after Sept. 10 can be picked up at the Minute Maid Park Box Office, located along Texas Avenue, on Sept. 17. Box Office will open at 9:00 a.m.

Click here to order tickets: http://houston.astros.mlb.com/hou/ticketing/2995.jsp

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It’s always nice when Craig Biggio drops by the ballpark, but it’s especially appreciated by your friendly neighborhood blogger, for photo opp purposes. Enjoy the sights:

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Bagwell and Biggio together always creates a bit of a stir.

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Bourn

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Chris Johnson

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Jason Michaels, Geoff Blum

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Carlos Lee

 

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Hunter Pence

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Lyles as a September callup? I vote no.

General manager Ed Wade does not anticipate calling up very many players once rosters expand on Sept. 1, and while he has a general idea of whom he might have in mind for promotions, I sincerely hope he does not summon Jordan Lyles.

Don’t get me wrong — I believe Lyles is the real deal and could be a long-term fixture at the top of this rotation. But by the time the Triple-A season is over he’ll have thrown somewhere in neighborhood of 160 innings, and for a 19-year-old kid in just his third professional season (and his second full one), that is more than enough.

I like what the Astros have been doing lately and the influx of young players has sparked an optimism among fans and the front office not felt in about two years. But bringing Lyles to the big leagues is not necessary, and it is not in the best interests of the player or the organization.

When it comes to prized arms, especially those belonging to pitchers not yet 21 years old, I’d rather be overly cautious than risk a needless injury. Lyles is still developing physically and I’d rather see him finish out the season in Round Rock, rest his arm over the winter and attend big league Spring Training camp next year.

If the Astros wanted to bring him up in September just to give him some exposure to the big leagues so he’s not so overwhelmed when his time does come, I have no problem with that. I don’t think it’s necessary, but being in this environment for a few weeks can’t hurt. Pitching him too much, however, can, and it’s my hope the club errs on the side of caution and just says no.

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I left tickets for some friends on Friday for the Astros-Mets opener at Citi Field and heard some interesting feedback after the game that I wasn’t expecting. These particular friends are die-hard Yankees fans, complete with the season tickets, the dog named “Jeets” and the desire to name their first, second and eighth born kids after Paul O’Neill. But being baseball fans in general, they also wanted to check out the Mets’ new ballpark. Off they went on the 7 train to Flushing, mentioning more than once that they hoped their deceased relatives weren’t watching for fear they might do that whole rolling over in their graves thing.

And you know what? After the game, they said they liked Citi Field more than Yankee Stadium. Citi Field felt like a ballpark, whereas when they go to Yankee Stadium, they feel like they’re being swallowed by a bunch of corporate hoo-ha.

At Citi Field, the atmosphere is cozy, the concourses are comfortable and the beer is $2 cheaper than at Yankee Stadium. Of course, it helped that their seats were really close to the field and that one of my friends was only about 15 feet away from Jeff Bagwell, his man-crush of 14 years. But for the most part, they appreciated Citi Field being simply a more comfortable, laid-back place to watch a ballgame.

I saw perfection when I visited Yankee Stadium for the first time, whereas at Citi Field, the primary emotion is confusion (it’s easy to get turned around here). My friends’ observations are a nice reminder that baseball fans really do like coming to a ballpark simply to watch a game. Sometimes, less is more.

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Random images from a weekend at Citi Field:

You can always count on Chris Johnson to have some kind of reaction to the camera pointing at him..

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Think ballplayers aren’t superstitious? After wearing these sunglasses while sitting at his locker one day, the Astros won. So now, wearing sunglasses inside (and out) is a pretty regular pregame routine.

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Hunter Pence takes a water break before heading back onto the field during batting practice.

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The view of Citi Field from the press box.

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Astros lineup 8/27 at Mets. First pitch 6:10 p.m. CT

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Will Jeff Bagwell return as hitting coach next year?

 

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I get this question a lot and I can honestly tell you that he has not made a decision.

I’m assuming Bagwell will be welcomed back by the front office if he does want to continue coaching, but at this point, I’d say the odds of him wanting to return are 50-50. He’s enjoying the experience and is making a difference with both the young and veteran hitters, but the decision will be based on whether he can stand to be away from his kids. Right now, he can’t.

Baseball is not a part-time deal. If you’re in, you’re in for the long haul and you will have little to no time to do anything else for the better part of 7 1/2 months. For a coach, it means arriving to Spring Training around Feb. 12 and once your kids are of school age, you’ll see them only for one week out of the six-plus you’ll be in Florida.

When the season starts, coaches are at the ballpark by early afternoon and don’t leave until around 11 at night. And then there’s the road, obviously, where you barely get to see your family at all.

Coaches coach because they love it. For many, baseball is all they know. Most coaches and managers are retired players and can’t imagine doing anything else for as long as they want to work. With the exception of a few current coaches who made bazillions as players, most have to work, and therefore, the sacrifices they make in their personal lives is just part of it. It’s understood and it’s accepted.

For Bagwell, it’s different. He likes being involved with the game and had been looking to do more with the organization when the hitting coach job became available. But he doesn’t need the money and he’s been happy in retirement. His kids are nine and seven and do not remember him being away when he was still an active player. You don’t just miss some of your kids’ activities when you’re in baseball. You miss ALL of them.

I remember talking with Chris Johnson during Spring Training, the day that his dad, Ron, was going to be coaching third base for the Red Sox during Boston’s visit to Kissimmee. I asked Chris if he was looking forward to being on the field with his dad and he said something to the tune of, “This is only the third time he’s seen me play baseball since I was in high school, so, yea.”

I would imagine Bagwell won’t have made his decision by the time the season ends. I expect him to mull it over for a while, but he’ll have to let the team know in somewhat of a timely fashion so they can start looking for a replacement if he decides not to return. So when you ask “Is Bagwell coming back next year,” we’re being completely honest when we say we don’t know. We don’t know, and Bags doesn’t either. Stay tuned.

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Speaking of Bags, it’s always a hoot to see him and Larry Andersen reminisce about the Houston-Boston swap that is now known as the second-worst trade in Red Sox history, behind only the one that sent Babe Ruth to the Yankees. By eavesdropping on the conversation this morning, I was reminded that this Aug. 31 will be the 20-year anniversary of the trade that sent Andersen, then a veteran reliever, to the Red Sox for Bagwell, a little-known Double-A third baseman.

(I think my favorite part of the story is Peter Gammons‘ reaction — after the Red Sox PR people passed around the press release announcing the trade, a disgusted Gammons ripped it into shreds and walked home in a huff).

I appreciate Bagwell and Andersen reminiscing long enough for us to do what we do best — sneak up on people when they’re not looking, snap candid photos and be a perennial annoying presence in the clubhouse on a semi-regular basis:

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On that note, enjoy these images from a productive week at Citizens Bank Park:

Two Jasons, Bourgeois and Castro.

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Castro and his class clown teammate, Chris Johnson.

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Press box view of the Phillies gorgeous ballpark.

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Fun Astros fans

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Astros lineup 8/26 at Phillies. First pitch 12:15 CT.

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Random musings from an interesting week in Philly.

Geoff Blum’s neck issues became worse overnight and he’s on his way home for an examination by a neck specialist. He arrived early to the clubhouse on Wednesday and said to manager Brad Mills, “It’s worse today than yesterday. I can hardly move it.”

While I admire Blum for pushing through the aches and wanting to be there for his teammates, the club, and Blum, need to be thinking bigger picture. Blum’s contract has a mutual option for 2011, and the Astros need him. Blum is a role player, yes, but he’s a tremendous presence in the clubhouse and the absolute perfect veteran to help transition this club from what it was to what it is — young, inexperienced and peppered with some pretty decent players.

Blum handles the ups and downs of a baseball season better than anyone on this team. Combine that quality with the elements of his game that make him so valuable — his ability to come through with the clutch hit off the bench late in games, his versatility that allows him to play all over the infield — and Blum’s definitely someone who needs to be around next season. But he also needs to be healthy, so there’s no need to push through anything in a non-playoff season.

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As you can imagine, there was plenty of chatter in both clubhouses today about Tuesday’s five-hour, 20-minute 16-inning game between the Astros and Phillies. Lots of strange twists and turns made this one of the most entertaining games I can remember, especially since it involved Roy Oswalt coming in to face his teammates…as a left fielder.

I snuck over to the Phillies’ clubhouse while the Astros were taking batting practice to say hi to Oswalt and Brad Lidge, whose lockers are coincidentally right next to each other. I asked Roy why it took so long for the Phillies to get back on the field after Ryan Howard was ejected (which left them with no position players to replace Howard at first). According to Roy, he first had to run to the clubhouse to put on a jersey and a pair of spikes, which took a minute. He also was in a bit of a foot race with fellow starting pitcher Joe Blanton, the other option to play defensively that inning.

Oswalt said he beat Blanton back to the dugout and said to Charlie Manuel, “I’m ready.” Manuel said, “Where do you want to play? First base?” Oswalt said. “No. Left field.”

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I was glad to see Oswalt heading that direction, mainly because I wanted to see him run down a fly ball with that special, unique Oswalt sprint. For those of you who have watched Oswalt run down the first base line many times over the years, you know what I’m talking about. He has a funny way of running — he’s completely upright to where he almost looks like he has a board attached to his back, and he takes short, choppy strides, as if his legs were half as long as they are. It’s quite entertaining and I really wanted to see him chase a ball near the line, just for comedic purposes.

Roy did have to run to make a catch, but it wasn’t as entertaining as I’d hoped, seeing he didn’t have to go very far. Still, his appearance in the game was THE hot topic in both clubhouses the next day, as was the camera shot capturing Blum and Jeff Bagwell clapping along with the crowd during the “Let’s Go Oswalt” chant.

“Had to,” Bagwell said. “I knew he wasn’t getting a hit.”

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Had the game continued past the 16th inning, Wednesday’s starter, J.A. Happ, was next in line to pitch.

“It was after midnight and he was scheduled to pitch today anyway,” Mills quipped.

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You have to hand it Humberto Quintero, who executed his Major League-leading sixth pickoff play when he barely nabbed Ben Francisco at third base in the seventh inning.

Quintero noticed Francisco had turned his back to him for just a brief moment, probably because Francisco thought Quintero was changing out the baseball with the umpire. Instead, Q fired down to third, and Chris Johnson touched Francisco just before he put his foot back on the bag. It was a gutsy call by the umpire, but replays showed it was the right call.

Pretty crafty on Q’s part.

Astros lineup 8/25 at Phillies.

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And now playing left field, hitting cleanup, Roy Oswalt.

Roy Oswalt pitched the day before the Astros arrived to Philadelphia for their four-game set with the Phillies, so everyone naturally assumed that the right-hander would not be playing against his former team this time around.

But after Ryan Howard was called out on a check swing in the 14th inning, and after he went ballistic, and after he was ejected by third base umpire Scott Barry and after he had to be restrained from chasing after Barry, the Phillies found themselves in a bit of a pickle: they were out of position players and had no one to replace Howard at first base.

For several minutes no Phillies players were on the field. They were still in the dugout, and for a split second I thought, are they protesting the Howard ejection? Soon it became pretty apparent that they were waiting for manager Charlie Manuel to decide which of his very limited options would be the best to play defense in the top of the 15th.

About a minute later, a ripple went through the crowd and filtered up to the press box as everyone realized that it was Oswalt emerging from the dugout, and he was headed to left field.

Two things struck me at that moment: 1) this had instantly turned into one of the greatest games I’ve ever witnessed and 2) the ballpark was still nearly three-fourths full of Phillies fans, despite the late hour and length of the game. A thunderous cheer erupted as Oswalt ran to his position in left field, and soon, the crowd was chanting “Let’s Go Oswalt.”

As if truly scripted, the first ball (hit by Jason Castro) went right to Oswalt. He fielded it cleanly, threw it back to the infield and cracked a smile as he received a standing ovation from the crowd. All of the Astros players were pressed up against the railing in their dugout, clearly amused by this strange twist of events involving their former teammate.

Oswalt was inserted into the cleanup spot and was due to hit fifth in the 16th inning. Jeff Fulchino recorded two quick outs, but he walked Placido Polanco, bringing Chase Utley to the plate. Clearly, with two outs and Oswalt on deck, the only option was to put the tying run on base and walk Utley. And even though that made perfect sense, I couldn’t help but wonder if the adrenaline rush Oswalt surely was feeling at that moment was going to give him enough oomph to hit one out of the park.

It wasn’t. Oswalt grounded out, and the Astros won the game, 4-2. It took five hours and 20 minutes, 15 pitchers and 533 pitches, and I have a feeling we’re going to be talking about this one for a long time.

Facts and figures from the win:

It was the longest game of the season for both teams. It was also the longest game at Citizens Bank Park since July 2, 2004, when the Orioles and Phillies played 16 innings.

The last time the Astros played a game this long was July 6, 2008, when they lost to the Braves in Atlanta in 16 innings.

The Astros are 7-4 in extra innings this year.

Wilton Lopez’s career-best scoreless streak ended at 20 innings when he allowed a solo home run to Jimmy Rollins in the ninth inning. Lopez’s streak was the longest active one in the Majors.

Carlos Lee has hit safely in 11 straight games at Citizens Bank Park and is hitting .404 over that span. He also has 23 RBIs in his last 24 games.

Tim Byrdak has pitched eight straight scoreless innings, spanning 10 games.

Astros lineup 8/24 at Phillies.

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Astros lineup 8/23 at Phillies. First pitch 6:05 p.m. CT.

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