The Astros have their eyes fixated firmly on finishing the season at the .500 mark, a goal that seemed impossible just two months ago when they were in danger of being the first team in club history to lose 100 games.
It would be great to finish at .500, of course, but even if they fall short, they can be proud of a 79 or 80 win season, too, because it will still symbolize how far they’ve come in a very short amount of time.
About halfway through this season, I remember feeling a little panicked — not because of where they were headed in 2010 (we all sensed this could be a somewhat lean year) — but because of what it meant for ’11. I recall talking with some Astros fans after an Astroline show during the offseason and telling them 2011 looks pretty good. I figured with the core of hitters in the middle of the order, coupled with some young pitching coming through the system, next year could be, at the very least, interesting.
Then came the struggles — by Lance Berkman, by Carlos Lee, and at times, by Hunter Pence — and I said, “Uh oh.” The blueprint for ’11, at the time, was predicated on these three being what they had always been. Problem was, Berkman and Lee were hitting some 50 points below their career averages and showed no signs of pulling out of it. The offensive talent coming through the system is not as strong as the pitching, and I feared the club could find itself in a helpless situation as it put together the team for 2011.
Times have changed dramatically. Chris Johnson has had a fantastic rookie season, answered every challenge as he was moved from seventh to sixth to fifth in the order, and appears to be primed for a full season next year as the starting third baseman. Lee has performed better at first base than I think anyone expected, and he seems to even hit better during games when he’s playing over there. Brett Wallace, while still working to put it all together, has shown great potential as a hitter and is also a lot more defensively savvy than had been indicated when he was traded here.
Michael Bourn has had his share of struggles offensively but has also had long stretches of extreme productivity, and he has to be considered one of the top center fielders in the league. Pence has been red-hot in the second half, and Jeff Keppinger is the perfect No. 2 hitter — rarely strikes out, makes contact and keeps things moving.
The overall lack of power still concerns me and I do worry about Lee’s ability to spread his production over a full season, considering how much he struggled for the better part of four months. A lot will have to go right next year, which is the case every year. But a strong pitching staff and a reshaped lineup tells me the Astros could be in for some interesting times next year.
What I really like about this team is not only the infusion of youth, but also that these guys are going through these early stages of their careers together. A lot of the players with the Astros now went through the Minor Leagues together and having each other to lean on now, at this level, is a very good thing.
I recall in 2004 writing a feature on the Astros playoff team and noting that around 70 percent of the Opening Day starting lineup had either been drafted and developed by the Astros (Ensberg, Biggio, Berkman, Oswalt, etc.) or had come from outside of the organization but had never played a Major League game for anyone but the Astros (Everett, Bagwell). Drafting and developing your own talent is the lifeline of every organization, but it also creates a closeness and camaraderie that makes a team a cohesive, unselfish group moving forward.
Heading to the offseason, there are a few things to keep in mind as we watch the front office put together next year’s team. The question I get more than any other is if the Astros are going to make any splashy trades for veteran players or sign any big free agents. Please keep in mind that trading for veteran talent requires giving up Minor League players, and the only players other teams are interested in are the absolute top prospects and no one else. That’s one of the biggest misconceptions — that the Astros could trade for a big impact player in exchange for a bunch of players not considered “prospects.” Please keep in mind it’s not about quantity when you make a trade, it’s about quality. And the Astros, for all of the work they’ve done in reshaping the farm system, are still in no position to get rid of top talent. When a team has a surplus of top prospects, they can use some of those players as trade chips. The Astros aren’t there yet, and when it comes to dangling the Jordan Lyles of the world this winter, it’s in the best interests of this club to just say no.
On the Minor League front, the Astros are hoping Oklahoma City picks them to be the parent club of their Triple-A team in 2011. Two teams that are in search of a new home are eyeing Oklahoma City — the Astros and the Blue Jays. A decision is expected in the not-so-distant future.
The Astros were one of several teams who watched Barret Loux, Arizona’s former No. 1 draft pick, throw an extended bullpen session at Texas A&M recently. You can read the details in McTaggart’s notebook here.
We’re all geared up for our second Social Media event, which will take place Sunday in the Budweiser Patio. You can read the details and purchase tickets by clicking here, but I wanted to show some of the items we’re giving away during our Twitter trivia contest (in addition to the baseballs signed by Johnson, who will be out there from noon to 12:15 to hand them out).
Signed Biggio bronze bust (that’s him in the background, after I hit him up for the autograph)
Bourn signed bobblehead
Throwback cap, signed by Biggio and Jeff Bagwell.
Pence signed bobblehead
I get a lot of questions from fans about former players, about where they are now, and what they’re doing these days. For the most part, I have to Google their names, and if they’re not in baseball, I have no idea what they’re doing now. But no one elicits more “where are they now” inquiries than popular former second baseman Bill Doran. Turns out, Doran is working in the Reds’ organization as their Assistant Field Coordinator of Instruction and he’s with the Major League club during this trip to Houston.
Here’s a picture of him taken Friday during batting practice, talking with another popular former second baseman. (Sorry it’s a bit blurry. I need a new camera.)
And finally…from the photo vault:
I stumbled upon this funny picture, taken during one of our annual offseason caravan trips to Temple (I think this was 2008). Pence and Chris Sampson always knew how to ham it up for the camera.
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The Astros are holding an Astros Alumni Autograph Session on Sunday, Sept. 19. The session will begin at 12 p.m. and last until 2 p.m. They’ll be presented in groups of three, to sign for 20 minutes each.
The booth will be located in the Astros Authentics area (near Goya). This is free to the all fans that stop by. So far, the alumni players scheduled to attend include:
When you work inside the baseball industry long enough, you become somewhat desensitized to a lot of what goes on around you — things that at one time may have had more of an impact, but at some point, you just get used to. There are the exceptions, however. No matter how long I’m in this business, I never, ever get tired of watching a kid’s face light up when he or she meets a Major League player.
On Tuesday, Hunter Pence made the day of one pretty special kid — special enough that he beat out 1,600 kids to become the winner of the Astros and Whataburger “Take A Player to School” contest.
Parents, relatives and friends of area first through seventh graders were invited to write an essay why their friend/loved one was deserving to “take a player to school” once the 2010-11 academic year began. Jacob Barrios, a 13-year-old seventh grader at Landrum Middle School, was nominated by his grandmother, who noted Jacob’s perseverence during some pretty tough challenges in his life, including losing an infant brother last year and struggling with dyslexia and Irlen’s Syndrome.
Despite these challenges, Barrios has made A/B honor roll every grading period and was inducted into the Junior National Honor Society in the spring, at which time he received the Principal’s Award.
Barrios was rewarded in a big way on Tuesday. He first was personally escorted to school in a limousine by Astros mascot Junction Jack, and later, he met with Pence, with whom he and his buddies had lunch (provided by Whataburger).
After lunch and a few dozen autographs, Pence visited with Jacob’s Language Arts Class and checked out a bunch of Jacob’s artwork. All in all, it was a fantastic day that involved a ballplayer who extended a kind hand to a great kid who was more than deserving of a most distingished honor. The pictures tell the story. Enjoy. (And be sure to check out the video here.) And a hearty congrats to Jacob and his family, who were most gracious hosts on a great day.
The voting has begun to decide what flavor of Blue Bell we serve at the Social Media event in the Budweiser Patio on Sept. 19. Please look over the choices and tweet me your vote by the end of the day Thursday:
Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough – A rich, creamy ice cream with chunks of chocolate chip cookie dough and chips of dark chocolate.
The Great Divide – A great combination of their famous Homemade Vanilla ice cream and rich, creamy Dutch Chocolate ice cream in one unique carton.
Caramel Kettle Crunch – A tasty combination of creamy vanilla ice cream with crunchy caramel-coated popcorn and a smooth caramel sauce.
If you haven’t signed up for Social Media Day, you can do so by clicking here. Tickets cost $35 and include a tour, a t-shirt, ticket in the Budweiser Patio, an appearance by Chris Johnson, trivia contests (prizes will be signed baseballs and signed bobbleheads) and lunch (trio of sliders and Blue Bell).
Since so many of our Social Media participants are also college students, this seems like a good time to float out a friendly reminder that this Friday, Sept. 17, is College Night at Minute Maid Park.
Tickets start at just $7, and the event includes:
* Pregame mix and mingle in FiveSeven Loft featuring $3.75 drink specials
* The first 200 college students to arrive at FiveSeven Loft will receive a College Night T-Shirt
* Post-game concert in the FiveSeven Grille with Robert Ellis and the Boys presented by 29-95.com.
To order tickets, please click here.
Congratulations to the Short Season A Tri-City ValleyCats, who won the New York Penn League championship by sweeping the best of three series over Brooklyn.
And a huge thanks to Astros Player Development Coordinator Allen Rowin, who sent these up-to-the-minute celebration shots immediately after the last out was made…
A great post-celebration shot of manager Jim Pankovits.
For more coverage, check out Tri-City ValleyCats Assistant General Manager Vic Christopher’s account of the clincher:
We had so much fun at our first Social Media event a couple of weeks ago that we decided to schedule one more before the season is over. The next one will take place on Sunday, Sept. 19 and for the same all-inclusive price of $35, you’ll receive:
* A ticket for the game in the Budweiser Patio;
* A Social Media Day t-shirt (which will include a different design from the first event);
* Lunch, dessert and an optional hot dog building competition (see full explanation below);
* An appearance by Chris Johnson, who will hand out autographed baseballs to the winners of our Twitter trivia contest;
* A chance to win signed bobbleheads (also through Twitter trivia contest)
* An early-bird tour of Minute Maid Park.
A few notes:
* There are 108 tickets available for the event (there are 108 seats in the Patio behind Tal’s Hill, where the event will take place).
* The trivia contest will be held via Twitter, so bring your computer/iPhone/BlackBerry. The ballpark has free Wi-Fi, so connectivity should not be problem.
* Johnson will be there to hand out signed baseballs during the trivia contest and after he leaves, we’ll continue the session with signed bobbleheads as prizes.
* Kids are welcome to the event.
Here’s the food rundown:
Lunch: Slider Trio
1. C-N-W – “Chicken-N-Waffle” Slider – Buttermilk Battered Fried Chicken, Savory Waffles and Special Sauce.
2. Dry Rub Pork BBQ Slider with Blue Cheese Cole Slaw – Marinated Dry Rub Pork, Tangy BBQ Sauce and Blue Cheese Cole Slaw served on Brioche Roll.
3. Classic Ballpark Slider – All Beef Slider with Caramelized Onion Jam.
(Note: You will be able to adjust order before they serve the lunch.)
Dessert will again be Blue Bell Ice Cream, but with a twist: You get to vote on which flavor we’ll serve. Voting, conducted solely on Twitter, starts Tuesday. The choices:
1. Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough – A rich, creamy ice cream with chunks of chocolate chip cookie dough and chips of dark chocolate.
2. The Great Divide – A great combination of our famous Homemade Vanilla ice cream and rich, creamy Dutch Chocolate ice cream in one unique carton.
3. Caramel Kettle Crunch – A tasty combination of creamy vanilla ice cream with crunchy caramel-coated popcorn and a smooth caramel sauce.
During the event, social media fans can compete as to make the best EXTREME hot dog combination. The winner, judged by our own Executive Chef Jason Kohler, will be considered as an entry for our 2011 Season Extreme Hot Dog Carts located in the ballpark.
We will have 33 toppings for you to make your own combination from, and we invite you to bring your own secret ingredients for this unique competition.
Here’s the link again to buy tickets...the tour will start at 10:30 a.m. and participants are asked to meet in Union Station lobby by 10:15. (If you’re a little late, no problem.)
Thanks, and hope to see you there!
Major Leaguers, Little Leaguers convene
On Sunday, the Astros honored the Pearland Little Leaguers for their fourth-place finish in this year’s Little League World Series. Before the pregame ceremony, the team was escorted into the home clubhouse for a meet-and-greet with Astros players, past and present.
Chris Leger, the one Pearland player who named a current Astro as his favorite player during the World Series, garnered the majority of the attention, especially from the player whom he said is his favorite — Michael Bourn.
Bourn gave the kid a big hug and whisked him off to his locker, where he gave Leger a signed bat and signed a slew of other items, including Leger’s cell phone.
Other images from the meet and greet, and you’ll want to check out this behind the scenes video:
Team shot, in front of the giant mural of Minute Maid Park near the entrance of the clubhouse.
Greg Lucas, Tim Byrdak and the Little Leaguers
The kids checking out the collection of year-by-year team photos that hangs on the wall just outside of the locker room.
The kids with Hunter Pence.
For the second year in a row, the Astros invited all active members of the local police, fire, EMS and military down to the field to participate in the Sept. 11 pregame ceremony, and for the second year in a row, our local heroes came out in droves.
Led by Chief George McAteer from the Houston Fire Department’s pipes and drums, scores of local heroes marched onto the field, in full uniform, as the crowd — an early-arriving one on this day — stood and applauded throughout the event.
Eight local heroes were selected to represent their organizations — people who have gone above and beyond the call of duty and continue to protect and serve our nation and communities.
The eight heroes selected were: Emergency Medical Technician Aubrey Wayne Bashara; Firefighter Joe Reyes; Houston Police Officer Frank Pierce; First Sergeant Christopher Perez, U.S. Army; Ensign Andrew Johnson, U.S. Navy; Tech Sergeant Gregory De La Rosa, U.S. Air Force; Staff Sergeant Oscar Olivares, U.S. Marines; and Command Master Chief Craig Potts, U.S. Coast Guard.
The group threw out ceremonial first pitches and took the field as “honorary Astros” for Saturday’s game.
Other notes from the Astros’ observance of the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001:
The Astros in Action Foundation hosted a Mystery Autographed Baseball Grab Bag fundraiser, where for $25 fans could purchase a bag that contained one autographed baseball from the Astros current roster. Additionally, former Astros players and fan favorites Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman, Craig Biggio, Jose Cruz, Larry Dierker, Roy Oswalt and Jimmy Wynn autographed baseballs were included.
Home Sweet Home
The Astros Home Sweet Home program welcomed a small group of active, recently returned military personnel and their guests to a special Astros experience that included an on-field batting practice visit. They watched the game from a suite and were introduced on the field to the crowd prior to the seventh inning singing of “God Bless America.” On Saturday, the Astros partnered with the USO for the Home Sweet Home program.
Bagwell purchased 250 tickets in the All-You-Can-Eat section for Saturday’s game and with the help of Budweiser, the tickets were donated to active military in Houston, San Antonio and Temple.
Enjoy the images from the pregame ceremonies, with a special tip of the cap to all of our local heroes on this day of remembrance:
The Astros began the ceremony by recognizing the “invisible heroes” who work tirelessly for the safety of all — the 9-1-1 call takers. Nearly 1,000 9-1-1 call takers and their families representing public safety agencies in Fort Bend and Harris Counties were in attendance at Saturday’s game. Here is Cell Phone Sally and two Texas Telecommunicator of the Year honorees: Mary Edge of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and Aliana Hernandez of the Houston Emergency Center.
Chief McAteer from the HFD’s pipes and drums.
Heroes file onto the field
The eight local heroes selected to represent their department…
…throw out ceremonial first pitches.
Moment of silence for the victims of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
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