September 2010

Astros lineup 9/29 at Cincinnati. First pitch 6:10 CT.

0929_lineup.jpg

 

Random observations from an eventful night in Cincinnati.

The clubhouse is always quiet in the immediate minutes following an Astros loss, regardless of what time of year it is or who they’re playing. The timeline is always the same — players talk in hushed tones for the first 10 minutes or so, then as time goes on, players relax, the conversations go back to normal, and by the time they leave the clubhouse, the atmosphere is pretty stable, albeit a little more subdued than when they win.

The visitors clubhouse was a little quieter than usual, however, after the Astros lost to the Reds Tuesday night. The Astros were officially eliminated from the playoff race quite a few days ago, so it’s not as if this loss ended their quest for a division title. But no matter how far out of the race you are, or how long you’ve been out of playoff contention, it’s never, ever fun to watch another team celebrate a division title by beating you.

I remember back in 1997, when the Astros beat the Cubs at home to win their first NL Central title. One of the Cubs broadcasters came up to me and offered his congratulations, but he had this sad, pained look on his face, and I thought, how strange. The Cubs were terrible that year, were never in the hunt, yet this loss seemed to really hurt him. I didn’t get it then. I get it now.

The Astros were in St. Louis when the Cardinals clinched in 2000, and again in 2002. They were also in Philadelphia last year when the Phillies won the NL East, and now, they watched the Reds celebrate their first division title in 15 years. And yea, each time, it does leave the defeated team with a pretty empty feeling.

That said, the Astros were gracious in defeat Tuesday night. They commended the Reds for what they did this season and vowed to try to be in such a position in 2011.

“Anytime you experience something like this,” manager Brad Mills said of watching another team clinch, “you become better off for it. You want to be on the other side of it. It’s good to learn how to go through it. I like where we came from, and where we’re going, without a doubt.”

Kudos to Tim Byrdak, who handled his role in the loss with a lot of grace, after giving up the game-winning home run to Jay Bruce. He walked to his locker, faced the media and stated the obvious: he made a bad pitch, right down the middle of the plate, and Bruce hit it a long way.

“You want to come in here and win all three games,” Byrdak said. “You want to be in a playoff race and you want to win. Yea, it did (stink) today.”

And Jason Castro, from a rookie’s perspective: “Every loss is a loss. It’s hard to see (the Reds celebrate) but they’ve played great baseball. We’ll grind it out these next five games. come out next year and hopefully aspire to do that.”

_____________

A lot of you tweeted me tonight asking if this was a bittersweet experience for me. As some of you know, I grew up in Dayton, Ohio, one hour north of Cincinnati, and was part of a family that lived, breathed and loved the Reds. I attended the University of Cincinnati for both undergrad and graduate school. But I am being completely honest when I say that I had no feelings of satisfaction watching the Reds win the division Tuesday night. I feel the same way anyone else from our division does — I’m glad to see a team in the NL Central other than the Cubs and Cardinals win it. I have no personal vendettas against those two teams, but it’s nice to see someone else win for a change.

I’d feel the same way about the Pirates and Brewers — if it can’t be the Astros, let it be them.

I don’t know exactly when it happened, but at some point, maybe two or three years into my Astros career, Houston truly became home to me. It was a city I knew nothing about (my mom had to look up Houston in the encyclopedia to find out where exactly in Texas it was: “It’s two-thirds of the way down on the right side”), and now, it’s a city I hope I never have to leave. I used to wonder how my life would have been different if, in 1993 after my journalism professor at UC had recommended me for an internship with the Reds, the ladies at the switchboard at old Riverfront Stadium would have actually put my call through to the PR director so I could ask about it. They didn’t. Seventeen years (and four division titles, two Wild Cards, one NLCS Game 7 and one pennant) later, I’d like to say to those ladies: thank you.

I’m happy for the Reds, and really, really  happy for the hard-working people in the media relations office who are, along with the Astros’ staff, the absolute best in the business. It’s nice to see good things happen to good people. So congratulations to the Reds, and to Dusty Baker, one of the all-time truly great people in our game.

_____________

We arrived to the hotel about an hour after the game, and the elevator banter was back in full-force. It’s sort of a time-honored tradition: everyone pushes the button to his or her floor, and when the elevator stops for the first time, everyone yells “take the stairs!” to whomever exits. It’s the same thing every time, and every time, it’s funny. It reminded me of an instance in the late 90s when Mike Hampton and I were the last ones left on the elevator. He was on the eighth floor, I was on the 15th. As he walked off the elevator, he pushed the buttons for floors nine, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14. Needless to say, it was a while before I got back to my room. Good times.

Onward.

Astros are on Facebook

Follow Alyson Footer on Twitter

Check out Astros witticisms at PumaOneLiners 

Questions? Send to afooter@astros.com  

Astros lineup 9/28 at Cincinnati. First pitch 6:10 CT.

0929_lineup.jpg

Astros give contract extensions to five coaches and hope to make it six. Your move, Bags.

0311_mills_meach_ped.jpg

In the 13 years I’ve been around the Houston Astros, I cannot remember a coach ever getting a contract that extended beyond a one-year deal. I checked with a couple of people who have been here a lot longer than me — Bill Brown and Greg Lucas, to name two — and they, too, could not recall any instances from the past where a coach was granted a multi-year deal.

Even Ed Wade, who has hired plenty of managers and coaches over the years as the general manager for the Phillies and Astros, can’t remember an entire coaching staff being offered two-year contract extensions at one time. In other words, multi-year deals for coaches are saved for a very select group and don’t happen very often. That the Astros handed out five such extensions in one day speaks volumes about the job the staff has done this year and the continuity the club is creating as it attempts to separate itself from a playoff drought that is now going on five years.

Five extensions were awarded, but the Astros are hoping to add a sixth. The decision rests solely with Jeff Bagwell, who was offered the same two-year extension as his colleagues but is still undecided on whether he wants to continue as the hitting coach. He’s still torn between the job and his family, and while he has enjoyed his time in his current role, I’d still put his odds of returning next year at no greater than 50-50.

0925_bags.jpg

Wade is hoping Bagwell takes the extension but understands there’s a chance he won’t. When Bagwell took the job in July, he gave no false pretenses — this was absolutely an interim position, a trial period of sorts where Bagwell would find out if a) he was good at the job and b) wanted to make this a more permanent gig.

“You have to be all in,” Wade said. “This isn’t a job where you can dabble.”

And that’s the sticking point. Either Bagwell commits a minimum of 7 1/2 months (8 1/2 if the Astros make the playoffs) of his calendar year to the Astros, or he commits 12 months to his kids, ages nine and seven. He won’t let this linger through the winter, and I would expect a decision to come within a couple weeks of the season’s end.

___________

I was sincerely glad to hear that the rest of the coaches were given such generous extensions. For those of you who follow me on Twitter, you might recall me talking a few weeks ago about what an eye-opening experience it’s been to watch this group work this year. It’s not that the Astros haven’t had good coaches in the past — they have — and maybe it’s because I’m simply paying more attention to this group this year, but I can’t remember a staff that was quite this on the ball and dedicated, both with their time and their knowledge.

0925_pence_clark.jpg

After the coaching shakeup last winter, I said that the Astros took the field 162 times in 2009 and rarely were they the most prepared team on the field.

This season has been a complete 180. The Astros certainly didn’t win every game — heck, they didn’t even win most of their games. But as far as scouring scouting reports and spray charts, watching video and being completely prepared for any and all scenarios that might come down the pike during a game, these coaches were always two steps ahead. Good for them.

0925_meacham.jpg

___________

The extensions of the coaches naturally prompts the question, “What about Brad Mills?” Mills is signed through 2011 with an option for ’12, and I would look for the option to be picked up soon after the season ends. Wade said he’ll sit down with Mills and discuss the manager’s “situation,” but this is all a formality. There is no way Mills will have to start next season waiting for the option to be picked up, and it wouldn’t shock me if he was extended far beyond ’12 in the very near future. Said Wade: “As far as I’m concerned, I’ve hired my last manager.” (And no, that doesn’t mean Wade is going anywhere, save the snarky responses.)

____________

Keeping the coaching staff intact through ’12 at the very minimum is all part of the grand plan to create continuity, which contributes to an organizational flow that affects every level, from the big leagues to the lowest levels of the Minors. Mills’ first order of business as soon as the season ends is to go to Florida to watch the Astros prospects in Instructional League, in an effort to familiarize himself with the younger talent coming through the system.

It’s important for Mills to be able to manage the 25 players he has at any given time on the big league level, but it’s also extremely helpful to be familiar with the kids coming up through the system. Soon, he’ll have those players in Spring Training, including many who will be sent to Minor League camp but will eventually appear at the big league level. This all goes back to continuity — having one group of leaders, all on the same proverbial page, teaching one overall organizational philosophy.

When Fred Nelson, the new farm director, and Dick Scott, the club’s Minor League Field Coordinator, search for the club’s next Triple-A and Double-A managers, they will stress the importance (especially at the Triple-A level) of creating the same atmosphere in the Minors so that the transition to the big leagues will be as seamless as possible.

Winning teams are built from the ground up, and the Astros certainly appear to be preparing for long-term health, from top to bottom. In April and May, the Astros appeared to be years away from being legitimate contenders. Their second-half turnaround suggests that a winning season could happen sooner than we thought. Creating stability at the very top, in the leadership positions, is a good place to set the foundation.

____________

Enough preaching. Picture time:

This clipboard that hangs on the cage during batting practice and spells out who’s hitting in what group and who is the designated BP pitcher.    

0925_clipboard.jpg

When you see players gathered in the dugout before BP talking amongst themselves, there’s a pretty good chance they’re talking about fantasy football. The more animated players are usually the ones faring the best in the standings.

0925_manz_wall.jpg

Catching up with Brian Esposito, Jason Castro.

0925_espo_castro.jpg

Humberto Quintero, Michael Bourn.

0925_quin_bourn.jpg

____________

From the photo vault

We take you back to 2001, when the Astros clinched the NL Central division on the final day of the season in St. Louis.

First up: Octavio Dotel and Jose Cruz, with Moises Alou peeking over in the background.

0917_dotel_cruz_alou.jpg 

Also, that same night…third baseman Chris Truby and shortstop Adam Everett, both in the very, very, very early stages of their careers.

0917_truby_everett.jpg

Astros are on Facebook

Follow Alyson Footer on Twitter

Check out Astros witticisms at PumaOneLiners 

Questions? Send to afooter@astros.com 

Astros lineup 9/25 at Pittsburgh. First pitch 6:05 CT.

0925_lineup.jpg

Astros lineup 9/24 at Pittsburgh. First pitch 6:05 CT.

0924_lineup.jpg

On Brett Wallace, Hunter Pence, and the racing presidents.

Random thoughts and observations as the schedule whittles down to single-digits:

Why is Brett Wallace sitting?

I’ve heard from quite a few of you who are concerned with Brett Wallace’s playing time — or, lack thereof — as Carlos Lee continues to get the lion’s share of starts at first base.

Manager Brad Mills is doing his best to put the young first baseman in situations where he can be successful, but he’s also cognizant of Wallace’s 42 strikeouts in 125 at-bats spanning over 46 games since he was called up by the Astros after the trade deadline.

There’s a delicate line between letting a kid play every day to get his feet wet, no matter what, and putting a struggling young hitter out there day after day and possibly, for lack of a better term, “burying” him. This is not a situation where Mills is benching Wallace, and Wallace hasn’t done anything to fall out of favor with his manager. As we discussed in the last blog, Lee is likely to receive some serious consideration to play first base in ’11, and therefore, he is a viable option there as this season winds down as well.

I would expect to see Wallace at first base for many of the remaining games when the Astros face a right-hander, and he’ll certainly be in the mix when Spring Training begins next February.

_____________

Hunter Pence was back in the lineup Thursday after missing Wednesday’s game with discomfort in his right hip flexor. He showed up to the ballpark early and practiced everything he might have to do in a game — hit, run, steal bases, run down fly balls. Mills said Pence was “100 percent” ready to play and “he probably would have killed me if I didn’t put him in the lineup.”

Michael Bourn, out with an oblique strain, is not expected to bounce back so quickly. He has been sidelined for four days and there is no timetable yet for a return.

_____________

Even with the offday on Monday, the five-man starting rotation will stay on schedule. Mills noted that all of his starters want to continue to pitch and get as many starts as possible before the season ends. Even though the Astros are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, none of the Astros players appear to be in shutdown mode. “They want to keep pitching,” Mills said. “That’s a nice thing to see.”

____________

The season is almost over, and the Astros have an action-packed weekend series planned against the Cubs that includes quite a few ticket specials.

Here’s a quick rundown:

$5 fan appreciation special (On sale until Oct 3)

As part of Fan Appreciation weekend at Minute Maid Park, you can buy $5 Outfield and View Deck I or II tickets to any remaining game. Available through this link only.

Waive the fees offer

As a thank you for your support during the 2010 season, and for helping the Astros reach 30,000,000 total fans in the history of Minute Maid Park, the Astros will pay your ticket fees to any of the last three games of the year.

Purchase any full-price, individual ticket through this link by Sept. 26 and the Astros will pay the fees.  Click here for details.

Other events on the docket:

Oct 1: Player of the Decade Ceremony

All year, fans voted on line for the player of each decade from the 1960s to the 2000s.  Jimmy Wynn won for the 60s, Jose Cruz for the 70s, Nolan Ryan for the 80s, Jeff Bagwell for the 90s and Craig Biggio the 2000s.  All of them, with the exception of Ryan, will be present for a special pregame ceremony on Friday.

Sat, Oct. 2: Minor League MVP night

The Astros will honor the MVPs from all of their Minor League affiliates before the game on Saturday. Click here.

Sun, Oct. 3: Fan appreciation

As a thank you to the fans for their continued support, prizes will be given away every half inning to fans in attendance at Sunday’s game. For a full rundown of prizes, click here.

____________

0923_prez+grou.jpg

We’re mostly about news, views and all things Astros on this blog, but there’s nothing that says we can’t have a little fun, too. And as much as the games on the field are the focal point of every ballpark experience, there are plenty of addition attractions in and around the venue that are worth noting. 

Big, billowy, inanimate objects racing around the warning track between innings has become something of a new-age phenomenon in the past several years. We have the old staples, such as the sausage race in Milwaukee (always a hoot) and the pierogi race in Pittsburgh (not as famous, but delightful in its own special way). But I have to say that hands down, the best races run are those in Arizona and Washington.

In Arizona, four gigantic foamy larger-than-life versions of Diamondbacks legends — Luis Gonzalez, Randy Johnson, Mark Grace and Matt Williams — race around the track, looking eerily like their real-life model (but with slighter smoother skin).

0904_top_pic.jpg

(Above: Johnson, Williams)

But I’m giving the slight edge to the presidents in Washington, because well, there’s just nothing funnier than watching Teddy Roosevelt smoke Abe Lincoln (by cheating and leaving the starting line early), while George Washington and Thomas Jefferson lag 20 paces behind with their oversized gray ponytails flopping in the breeze.

0923_teddy_running.jpg

0923_race_back.jpg

0923_teddy.jpg

(Roosevelt)

0923_jefferson.jpg

(Jefferson)

0923_george.jpg

(Washington)

0923_abe.jpg

(Lincoln)

The racing presidents page on the Nationals’ web site gives pretty detailed information on each president. For example, Lincoln is noted for his major achievements, including the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment and the Gettysburg Address. But we also learn that his favorite sport is wrestling. Who knew?

So which is better…the Legends, or the Presidents? On one hand, the Legends represent players we’ve seen on television and in some cases, in person, in our lifetimes. Definite plus. On the other hand, the Presidents are identified on the backs of their shirts by name — first name. Ted, George, Abe and Tom. That’s got to count for something.

0923_abe_back.jpg

_____________

And finally, some images from batting practice Thursday:

Jason Bourgeois, Jeff Bagwell

0923_bag_bourg.jpg

Michael Bourn, Bourgeois

0923_bourn_bourg.jpg

Jason Castro

0923_castro_cage.jpg

Carlos Lee

0923_lee.jpg

Hunter Pence

0923_pence.jpg

Astros are on Facebook

Follow Alyson Footer on Twitter

Check out Astros witticisms at PumaOneLiners 

Questions? Send to afooter@astros.com  

Astros lineup 9/23 at Washington. First pitch: 3:35 CT.

0923_lineup.jpg

Are the Astros a better team when Carlos Lee plays first base?

During Brad Mills’ daily session with the media on Tuesday, the skipper revealed that he and Ed Wade had talked extensively last winter about moving Carlos Lee to first base and Lance Berkman to left field.

Berkman had volunteered to do so if management felt that would give them the best chance to win, and although they ultimately decided against pulling the switch-a-roo, it does raise an interesting question about what the Astros might have in mind for 2011.

Lee has played a lot at first base lately, more than Brett Wallace, and you have to assume that Lee, at this point, has the edge on Wallace as to who might be playing over there come Opening Day next year.

This isn’t so much about Wallace’s performance so far as it’s about the team putting Lee at a position that best helps the ballclub. And I think it’s pretty obvious that Lee is much better at first base than we thought he’d be, and he’s also a much better first baseman than he is a left fielder.

You also have to wonder if playing first base has helped Lee at the plate. Is playing a position where he is involved in nearly every play, which in turn requires non-stop concentration, helping him focus better at the plate? There seems to be long stretches of nothingness while standing in the outfield, and I can see where it would be easy to become distracted or let your mind wander. Maybe the concentration that’s there when Carlos plays first base lingers when he is hitting. It could be the best explanation as to why his bat has come to life after hitting around .240 for the better part of four months.

So if Carlos plays first base next year, where does that leave Wallace? More than likely, it would leave him in Oklahoma City, which on Wednesday will be formally introduced as the Astros’ new Triple-A affiliate.

Wallace is a young player with options on his contract, which means the Astros can send him to the Minor Leagues without penalty. And when you’re a young player, sometimes the numbers game — not statistical numbers, but rather, the numbers that total what a team is paying a veteran player — trumps productivity, or potential for productivity, on the field.

Wallace playing first base at Triple-A gives the Astros depth at the first base position — a plus for the club. It’s probably not what Wallace wants to hear, and we’re getting way, way ahead of ourselves by even trying to look seven months down the road. But it’s an interesting discussion nonetheless.

The other question is, if Carlos plays first, who plays left field? I went back and forth on this topic with a lot of you over Twitter, and many of you suggested Brian Bogusevic. My response? I am all for taking a look at him out there, but I have not seen him play enough to make a concrete judgment on how he’ll perform if he plays, say, 150 games out there. That would be one of the many questions the front office and field staff would have to answer between now and Opening Day next year.

Some suggested Jason Michaels be given a chance to start, but I do not believe that is the answer. It’s easy to look at the nice year Michaels is having and assume he should be an every day player. But I believe Michaels is perfectly suited for what he’s doing right now — starting once or twice a week to stay fresh, and coming off the bench as a late-game pinch-hitter in RBI situations. That’s what he’s here for, and it’s what he does well.

The Astros will have some money to spend — how much is to be determined — and could pursue a free agent outfielder. Or they could take a look at Jason Bourgeois or other outfielders currently in the system. First and foremost, they must decide where they want Lee to play. I still think Wallace is the long-term solution at first base, but there’s nothing that says that long term has to begin in 2011.

If you were a decision-maker, what would you do?

________________

The Astros made their annual trip to Walter Reed Army Medical Center Tuesday morning, and by my count, they batted 1.000 in attendance. The entire team (which, you’ve probably noticed, is pretty expansive this time of year), the coaching staff and the athletic training staff were accounted for, as were Wade, Dave Gottfried and the Grand Poobah himself, owner Drayton McLane.

That there were not as many wounded soldiers to meet this time was a blessing, of course. Those who were there rehabbing were gracious with their time when the Astros approached, and as usual, in terms of lifting spirits, the players left feeling they got more out of the visit than the soldiers.

“They tell you they wish they could go back (to the Middle East),” Mills said. “Because they’re soldiers, and that’s what they do. There’s a sense of gratitude for that.”

We were asked not to take pictures or film video inside the medical center, but I did manage to capture a few images with my iphone before we went in…

Bagwell, McLane (I was fighing the sun on this one)
0921_bags_drayton.jpg

 

0921_outside_walter_reed.jpg

0921_outside_2.jpg

______________

And finally, here are some images from batting practice at the Nationals’ (really impressive, fan-friendly) ballpark:

Press box view:  

0921_ballpark.jpg

Michael Bourn, who will be out at least a couple more days with a strained oblique, hangs out at the cage with hitting coach Jeff Bagwell and tries not to lose his mind with boredom. Not playing appears to be not sitting well with the speedy center fielder.

0921_bourn_bags.jpg

Jason Castro

 

0921_castro.jpg

Hunter Pence

0921_pence.jpg

Brett Wallace

0921_wallace.jpg

Lots of Astros fans in the stands for the first two games. Here’s a shot of one particularly interesting fan we met Tuesday.

0921_zz.jpg

Jim Deshaies found him interesting, too. I think JD made a ZZ Top reference during the exchange.

0921_jd.jpg

Astros are on Facebook

Follow Alyson Footer on Twitter

Check out Astros witticisms at PumaOneLiners 

Questions? Send to afooter@astros.com 

Astros lineup 9/21 at Nationals. First pitch 6:05 p.m. CT

0921_lineup.jpg

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 248 other followers