May 2012

Inside the clubhouse: Astros players sport their pink bats and pink wristbands. Happy Mother’s Day!

Major League Baseball players will continue a time-honored tradition today by swinging pink bats and wearing pink wristbands, in honor of Mother’s Day and MLB’s annual Going to Bat Against Breast Cancer promotion.

The bats are a hot pink hue, a contrast from the soft pink color of the bats from years past. The point of the promotion is to create awareness and draw attention to the cause, and the in that respect, this color of pink comes through loud and clear, both in the ballparks and on high-def TV.

It’s always nice to see the players embrace this particular promotion as they prepare their pink bats for the game and suit up with their pink wristbands. They will also wear pink ribbons on their jerseys.

A few snapshots from the visitors clubhouse at PNC Park this morning:

Pink bats in Matt Downs’ locker

Even when players are relaxing on a rain-soaked morning, they’re never far away from their bats. Example A: Travis Buck.

Equipment/clubhouse manager Carl Schneider places pink ribbon stickers on the Astros’ jerseys.

News, notes, tidbits:
* Today’s starter, Wandy Rodriguez, has 76 career wins and is tied with Mike Hampton for second on the club’s all-time wins list among lefties. Wandy is also 2-0 with a 0.64 ERA in the two day starts he’s had this year. He’s allowed one run over 14 innings.

Since 2009, Wandy’s 3.27 ERA over 102 starts is the second-lowest among lefties over that time span.

Lowest ERA among lefties since ’09:
Clayton Kershaw: 2.63
Wandy Rodriguez: 3.27
Cole Hamels: 3.31

* Jose Altuve will sign autographs, free of charge, as the Astros Team Store at Minute Maid Park on Saturday, May 19 from 1 to 2 p.m. CT. An Astros player will sign autographs at no charge one Saturday per month at the Team Store throughout the season.

* Outfielder Domingo Santana, the player to be named in the Hunter Pence trade, hit a walk-off grand slam in the ninth inning last night, lifting Class A  Lancaster to an 8-4 win over Lake Elsinore. Santana, 19, cleared the batter’s eye in center field with that home run.

* Lancaster outfielder George Springer, who homered four times on Friday, has an eight-game hitting streak, during which he’s hitting .500 (14-for-28) with five homers and 10 RBIs.

* Triple-A Oklahoma City right-hander Paul Clemens threw seven shutout innings in a win over Tucson on Saturday. Clemens allowed three singles in that outing.

* The Astros bullpen — also known in these circles as “The Regulators” — has posted a combined 2.62 ERA this season. Brett Myers is 9-for-9 in save opportunities and has posted a 0.77 ERA in his 12 appearances. Opponents are hitting .146 off of him.

Wilton Lopez (3-0) is tied for second in the NL in relief wins. He also has a 1.83 ERA and has not walked a batter in his 18 appearances (19 2/3 IP).

Brandon Lyon has posted a 0.90 ERA with 12 strikeouts in his last 10 appearances, and Wesley Wright has held left-handed hitters to a .105 average (2-for-19) while stranding all eight runners he inherited.

LOWEST BULLPEN ERA – NL:
1. Cincinnati – 2.41
2. Houston – 2.62
2. Pittsburgh-2.62
4. San Diego – 2.73

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Astros lineup 5/13 at Pirates. Happy Mother’s Day! First pitch 12:35 p.m. CT

Astros lineup 5/12 at Pirates. First pitch: 6:05 p.m. CT.

Minor League notes: George Springer’s four-homer night, and a milestone win for Double-A manager Keith Bodie.

When the Astros selected George Springer as their first-round pick last year, the outfielder was lauded as the best athlete available in the Draft.

It takes time, however, to determine if that raw athleticism will translate into the ability to play baseball at a high level. If early returns on Springer’s start to the 2012 season are any indication, the Class A Lancaster outfielder could be on his way to big things in the future.

Springer’s four consecutive homers may not be quite up to par with Josh Hamilton’s recent Major League record-setting night, but Springer’s display was nonetheless impressive. He homered in his final at-bat in Game 1 of a doubleheader with Lake Elsinore Friday and went deep in his first three plate appearances in the second game.

It’s the first time a player in the Class A Advanced California League has gone yard in four consecutive at-bats since 1977.

For the year, Springer is hitting .310 over 35 games with six doubles, four triples, eight homers and 32 RBIs. He is also 8-for-8 in stolen base attempts.

Elsewhere in the Astros’ farm system, Double-A Corpus Christi manager Keith Bodie earned his 1,000th career managerial win after the Hooks topped Frisco, 4-2, Friday night.

A milestone win cannot be celebrated without being doused by a water cooler, as Bodie quickly found out.

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And two final notes from the big leagues: According to Elias, the Astros’ win over the Pirates on Friday was only the fifth 1-0 game since 1991 in which the only run scored on a GIDP. Amazingly, the Astros were the winning team in three of those five games. The Astros beat the Rangers on June 27, 2004 with the only run scoring on a Morgan Ensberg GIDP and they beat the Brewers on September 19, 2004 with the only run scoring on a Roger Clemens GIDP.

Also, four Astros pitchers combined on a four-hit shutout while striking out 11 batters and not issuing a walk. It was only the fifth game since 1900 in which a team used at least four pitchers in a game in which it allowed no runs on four or fewer hits with at least 11 strikeouts and no walks. All five of those games have occurred since 1998.

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Astros notes: early BP, Martinez, The Regulators and free Altuve autographs (coming soon).

Taking early batting practice is pretty standard when a team is on the road, but normally, only a handful of players are present for the drill. Early BP, during which a team reserves the field prior to the home team taking it over for their daily practice, is normally designed for bench players looking to get some extra swings in, or regular players trying to work through some soreness or a slump, or young players looking for some extra time in the cage.

According to manager Brad Mills, attendance was a lot higher for early BP on Friday in Pittsburgh, enough for three hitting groups. That can partly be attributed to the weather — it was one of those picture-perfect sunny days, around 70 degrees with no humidity. Pittsburgh isn’t exactly a destination spot for ballplayers (although I’ve always said it’s a very underrated city, and great for baseball), so most were probably ready to head to the ballpark early, anyway. Players also like to get some extra swings in after an offday, which could also explain the crowd this time.

One of the participants was J.D. Martinez, who you’ve probably noticed was dropped in the order a few days ago and then omitted from the lineup more recently. Martinez carried an 0-for-21 streak to Pittsburgh and wasn’t in the starting lineup for Friday’s opener.

Mills said reinserting Martinez into the lineup is “coming up pretty quick,” after he gives the outfielder a chance to clear his head.

“I think he’s getting to where he needs to be,” Mills said.

Meanwhile, Mills tried something new with the lineup, sliding Jose Altuve into the three-hole for the first time and moving Jed Lowrie back up to two.

Until Friday, there were four players who had batted third this season: Martinez (23 games), Lowrie (five games), Travis Buck (two games) and Brian Bogusevic (one game).

“There are a lot of things I like about it,” Mills said of the Lowrie-Altuve tandem. “I talked to Jed and Altuve about it and they were all in.”

Mills also hinted he may keep them there for the remainder of this series.

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Brett Myers refers to the bullpen corps as “The Regulators” and often heaps praise on his ‘pen mates after the Astros nail down close wins. How do I know this? Why, I follow Myers on Twitter, of course.

Myers, who goes by the Twitter handle @TheOutlaw39, is one of several players who signed up at some point this season. Another newcomer is reliever Wilton Lopez, who can be found in Twitterland at @lopezwilton59.

The full updated list of players and staff members on Twitter can be found here.

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Altuve will sign autographs (free of charge) at the Team Store at Minute Maid Park on Saturday, May 19 from 1 to 2 p.m. CT. Autographs are not guaranteed, so the Astros encourage you get there early. We will send out several reminders leading up to the event.

An Astros player will sign autographs at no charge on Saturday per month at the Team Store throughout the season.

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Finally, we went with a smile-and-be-happy theme to today’s photo album. Batting practice, at beautiful PNC Park:

Travis Buck, Chris Johnson

Jason Castro

Brian Bogusevic, Carlos Lee

Jose Altuve

Bogusevic

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Astros lineup 5/11 at Pirates. First pitch 6:05 p.m. CT.

Astros lineup 5/9 vs. Marlins. First pitch 7:05 p.m. CT. Roof open.

Astros lineup 5/8 vs. Marlins. Roof closed. First pitch 7:05 p.m. CT

Astros All-Star chatter has to begin with Jose Altuve.

I fully admit it. Exactly one year ago, I had no idea who Jose Altuve was.

Other than a couple of mentions by friends who follow the Minor League system pretty closely — “Seriously, there’s this little guy, an infielder, who’s playing Single-A and hitting like .400,” they’d tell me — Altuve’s meteoric ascent through the Astros’ Minor League system in 2011 barely grabbed my attention. There was all of that excitement on the Major League level to worry about, after all.

But the more I heard about Altuve, the more I learned about him, and the more I started paying attention. It became pretty obvious, fairly quickly, this was a kid not to be ignored. Altuve was intriguing not only because he seemed to reach base every at-bat, but because of how tall he was — or, more accurately, wasn’t. Altuve was listed at 5-foot-7. He’s really 5-foot-5.

Understandably, really short guys hitting for a really high average creates quite a spectacle.

Altuve was promoted to Corpus in the middle of the season, and I took a drive down to meet him and some other top prospects. One of the first things I said to Altuve was, “Let’s get this out of the way. I know everyone wants to talk to you about your height. Humor me for a few minutes and then we’ll move on to your hitting.”

The thing that struck me about Altuve, even more than his intelligence and firm grasp of the English language, was his poise, and how unfazed he was by his physical stature. He’s been reminded hundreds of times that he’s short. His answer is something like this, “Look, I know I’m short. I’ve known myself my whole life. I know what I look like. You’re not telling me anything new.”

This picture was taken in Corpus in early July last year. Within six weeks, J.D. Martinez and Jose Altuve were both called up by the Astros.

He first tried out for the Astros as a 16-year-old in Venezuela, and the Astros sent him home, telling him — yep, you guessed it — that he was too small to have a legitimate shot at playing in the big leagues. But Altuve persisted, and eventually, it was enough for the Astros to take a serious look at him. That was six years ago.

Altuve played in the Futures Game during All-Star Week last July. If the first month of the season is any indication, it’s very possible he could represent the Astros in Kansas City at the All-Star Game this year. Only seven players have appeared in the Futures Game one year and the All-Star Game the following season: Adam Dunn, Neftali Feliz, Jason Heyward, Francisco Liriano, Evan Longoria, Ben Sheets and Geovany Soto. Could Altuve be No. 8?

Entering Monday’s game, he was leading all Major League second basemen with a .352 batting average. His 15 multi-hit games were tops in the National League, and he was tied for third in with 38 hits.

Altuve will probably continue to have his detractors who will look at the stat sheet, size him up and say, “He can’t keep this up.” No big deal. He’s heard that before.

He just thinks back to the conversation he had with the Astros scout who decided to take a chance on him at that tryout six years ago. “Just do what you know how to do,” Altuve was told.

“This,” Altuve answered, gesturing to the field, “is what I know how to do.”

And now he’s found a home in Houston.

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Astros lineup 5/7 vs. Miami. Roof closed. First pitch 7:05 p.m. CT

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