March 2012

The Astros dugout on Saturday: lots of people, very little elbow room.

Jed Lowrie and Jose Altuve have a chuckle before the Grapefruit League opener on Saturday.

The first week of Spring Training games are probably most challenging for two groups: the official scorer (a job that belongs to a member of the media relations staff during exhibition season) and the announcers, who have to keep up with the dozen or so lineup substitutions and a half-dozen more pitching changes while figuring out who everyone is AND knowing where they’re hitting in the lineup.

That’s pretty universal for every Major League team, but it can be especially challenging for people covering or talking about teams that have more than 60 players in camp. Other than the pitchers who are not scheduled to throw during the game and therefore are on their own morning program and then free to go home, the dugout is packed with just about every other player at Spring Training. That’s why the Astros’ dugout looked like this before their Grapefruit League opener on Saturday against the Nationals:


It’s way, way, WAY too early to make lasting judgments about anything that comes out of a spring game, but with that said, a couple of things did stand out to me as positives on Saturday:

Jason Castro threw out a runner, pretty handily, in the first inning. Castro, whom the Astros are counting on to be the front-line catcher they tabbed him to be a while ago, played three innings and looked comfortable behind the plate. His throw to eliminate former Astro Jason Michaels from the basepaths was quick and accurate. All good.

Mills: “He’s healed and everything’s fine and you have to be happy with that. I don’t care if it is the first day of spring. He missed all of last year. This was good to see.”

Livan Hernandez looked good on a windy day, allowing three hits and striking out two over two innings of work. Kyle Weiland, the pitcher the Astros received in the Mark Melancon trade with the Red Sox, gave up a double and then retired the next six batters he faced. Six of seven pitchers did not allow a run, and there were no walks issued.

Again, let’s not place too much importance on, or be too dismissive about, what happens in the first game. What we should be  looking for good individual performances by key elements of this team. Castro throwing a runner out, Livan holding his own on the mound, Weiland blowing through two innings and Chris Johnson launching a two-run home run is a good start.

Meanwhile, back to the cramped dugout. By popular demand (no, not really), here is an array of photos from the scene in the dugout pregame, in addition to up-close, behind-the-scenes video of Astros players sandwiched in on the home side like several cans of sardines:

Video:

Photo Gallery:

Jose Altuve and, of course, Brad Mills, were among the first arrivals to the dugout before the game.

Altuve tried on Jonathan Villar's sunglasses for size. No word if an exchange was made.

Jason Castro suits up and gets ready for the game.

Livan Hernandez warms up in the bullpen.

J.D. Martinez joins the team in the dugout before the anthem.

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Baserunning 101: practicing the walkoff homer.

Third base coach Dave Clark is as nice and pleasant of a fellow that you’ll meet, which makes it even more entertaining to watch him when he’s in full-blown coaching mode during Spring Training.

Clark, who in his former life was first a Golden Gloves boxer and then a big league outfielder, has a little drill sergeant in him as he oversees certain areas of morning workouts. Whether it’s pitchers practicing sliding or position players running the bases, there’s never any confusion when “Clarkie” relays what he wants to see during this or that particular exercise.

Baserunning drills might not seem terribly exciting this time of year, but they are when you considering the different scenarios they practice: base hits that are bobbled by the opposing outfielders, doubles to the gaps, triples, scoring on a sacrifice fly and on.

Clark barks out the scenario, and the players fall in line on the basepaths, adhering to the orders. At the end of one particular session that I watched (and recorded), Clark had some fun at the end, telling the players to practice the “walkoff homer” trot:

Notes from camp:
Just as soon as Brad Mills announced who will start Saturday’s Grapefruit League opener on Saturday, he announced a scratch. Carlos Lee will not play, due to a mild right hamstring strain that he’s been fighting for a few days. Instead, Brett Wallace will start at first base.

Lee went through quite a few sprinting drills with head athletic trainer Nate Lucero toward the end of Friday’s workout, so I would venture to guess the hammy strain indeed is not terribly serious. Teams will err on the side of caution this time of year.

The other starters for Saturday’s game are as follows (order to be announced later): Livan Hernandez P; Jason Castro C; Jose Altuve 2b; Chris Johnson, 3b;  Jed Lowrie SS; J.B. Shuck LF; Jason Bourgeois CF; Travis Buck RF; Jack Cust, DH.

(Most National League teams will utilize the DH until the middle of the month. Pitchers usually don’t start hitting in games until the final 10 days to two weeks of exhibition games.)

Photo gallery:

Chris Johnson, Brian Bogusevic

First base prospect Jonathan Singleton (acquired in Pence trade with Phillies).

Jed Lowrie, Matt Downs

Jose Altuve

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Some 4,500 autographs in three days and other Astros activites (including Bud Norris’ birthday).

In addition to the scoreboard staffers gathering all of their material for the season during an abbreviated Spring Training jaunt, other members of the front office are also here to gather loot of a different kind.

Astros Vice President of Foundation Development Marian Harper and Director of Community Affairs Shawn Bertani are in town this week to oversee the massive autograph signing session that is currently taking place in the meeting room on the second floor of the Spring Training facility.

Players are asked to sign a host of items — balls, bats, jerseys, etc. — that will be given away over the course of the season, mostly at auctions, sponsor events and charity functions. In total, approximately 4,500 items will be signed over the course of three days:

Video:

Photo gallery:

Jason Castro signs several dozen items and will probably be hit up for a few more during the season.

The pile waiting for Carlos Lee...he got everything signed early Friday morning.

Other notables before you head out for the weekend…

* Happy birthday to Bud Norris, who turns 27 today.

* The folks at FanGraphs ranked our charming television broadcasting team of Bill Brown and Jim Deshaies as the fourth-best in all the land.

I know I’m a bit biased, but I’d rank them higher than that. I willingly, however, leave the No. 1 spot for Vin Scully, universally known as a treasure, and unmatched by any other.

FanGraphs cites the comments for Brownie and J.D. almost always “uniformly gushing,” and I can attest to that, as one of the more vocal gushers.

* The Astros begin their Grapefruit League schedule tomorrow with a 1:05 p.m. CT game against the neighboring Washington Nationals. Tickets for all 15 Astros spring home games are currently available, but the Astros-Yankees game scheduled for March 31 is now at standing room only.

* Livan Hernandez will start Saturday, with J.A. Happ getting the start on Sunday at Washington. Jordan Lyles will start on Monday vs. Atlanta at home.

* The Houston College Classic will get underway at Minute Maid Park today. All nine games will be televised nationally by the Longhorn Network and ESPN3. The Longhorn Network will air each of the University of Texas’ games, while ESPN3 will pick up the remaining six games.

The six-team tournament enters its 12th year at Minute Maid Park and will feature hometown schools Rice University and the University of Houston, who will be making their annual entry into the tournament. This year’s field also includes Texas, Texas Tech, Arkansas and Tennessee. Three of the teams in the tournament are ranked nationally among the top 25 in Baseball America’s poll, including No. 4 Arkansas, No. 5 Rice and No. 21 Texas.

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On Myers closing, and putting cookies on the top of your head. (The topics are unrelated.)

The main topic of conversation this week undoubtedly has centered around the small bombshell Brad Mills dropped a few days ago, when he informed us that Brett Myers has been anointed the Astros’ closer for 2012.

This sparked a variety of responses from the fans. Some of you think this was a good decision. Some of you think it’s an incredibly dumb decision. Others (but not many) are willing to weigh the arguments from all sides before forming an opinion.

I’m on the fence on this, leaning on the side of liking it. I’d describe myself as neutrally interested. I’m intrigued by what this can do for a team that blew 25 saves last year — most of which occurred in the first half of the season — and then in the offseason traded Mark Melancon, who had quite a bit of success in the closer’s role after taking it over midway through.

Myers has closed before, so he has experience there — a pro. A con? Much of the damage teams did against him last year occurred in the first inning. So, it’s risky to put him in a role where he now will work in only one-inning increments.

Still, Myers has a ferocious approach when he’s on the mound and he’s not scared to challenge hitters. He also has a nice track record overall in the big leagues. He may thrive in this role.

Even if he does, the Astros still have to figure out where they’re going to get the 200 innings that need to now be absorbed by another starting pitcher. Do the Astros have enough depth to overcome that? Perhaps. Or, perhaps not. That’s why for now I’m neutrally interested by Myers moving to the ‘pen and intrigued to see where this goes.

I do know a couple of things for sure. One, I am all for this team thinking outside of the box and trying something different. A few years ago, when the Astros had the oldest team in baseball, one of the highest payrolls and one of the worst records, an outfielder from another team — one of those somewhat troubled, needing-a-change-of-scenery types who still appeared to have something left in the tank — was designated for assignment.

I said to a member of the Astros’ support staff, “I’d take a chance on him.” This person looked at me like I was nuts and said, “Where are you going to put him in our outfield?”

Pondering the Astros’ place in the standings — 20-some games out of first place and having not come near .500 since they were 0-1 after playing on Opening Day — I asked, “What is it about the configuration of this team are you so attached to?”

Maybe, just maybe, it was time to try something else.

Another argument: The Astros lost 28 games last year by one run and 22 games by two runs and blew half of their save opportunities. Having so many things go wrong so late in the game inevitably deflates a team, and that takes a toll while attempting to stay mentally strong over the course of a six-month season.

In that respect, putting a veteran who has experience closing in that role might be beneficial.

The Astros are coming off a 106-loss season. They acquired a bunch of talented players in the last two years in blockbuster trades that sent a handful of stars elsewhere. They’re willing to see what some of them can do on the big league level. Time will tell if moving Myers out of the rotation was a good idea, but really, why not give it a try?

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The ballpark entertainment staff is introducing a new feature this year, called “Stros versus Joes.” Players are currently being filmed doing a number of wacky exercises, and eventually, thanks to the magic of video, these taped vignettes will turn into games with fans, where they will compete against each other in between innings at Astros game this season.

Among the “Stros versus Joes” activities: miniature golf, word association, and my personal favorite, the old “Put a Cookie on the Top of Your Head and Shake It Until It Lands in Your Mouth” trick.

Yes, really. Watch and prepare to be amazed (featured players, in order: J.B. Shuck, Jordan Schafer, J.D. Martinez):

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