Where are they now? Updates on Lane, Kent, Ausmus.
A couple of weeks before Constellation Field in Sugar Land burst onto the scene as the venue for the most recent Roger Clemens unretirement, I took a drive down there with a buddy to watch a different Astros alum pitch.
Jason Lane, who caught the final out that clinched the National League pennant in St. Louis in 2005 and played six seasons — as an outfielder — for the Astros from 2002-07, has resurfaced in pro ball as left-handed pitcher for the Independent League Skeeters. With a month left in their season, Lane has emerged as the club’s most productive starter, so much that he was named the Atlantic League’s pitcher of the month in July.
Lane’s decision to try his hand at pitching was purely coincidental. He was playing for the Blue Jays’ Triple-A club in Las Vegas last year and was asked to pitch an inning in a blowout game against the Diamondbacks’ Triple-A team from Reno.
Kevin Towers, the D-backs general manager, was in the stands that night. Towers watched Lane throw one scoreless inning and instructed his scouts to “get the gun on that lefty.” Later, the GM tracked down Lane near the underground batting cages.
“I didn’t know that was you out there,” Towers said. (The two had met briefly in 2007, when Towers, then the Padres’ GM, traded for Lane with about a week left in the season.)
Towers invited Lane to big league Spring Training this year, as a pitcher. Lane was assigned to the D-backs Triple-A team but was released after a couple of months.
Enter Gary Gaetti, the hitting coach for the Astros from 2004-06 and now the Skeeters’ manager. He and Lane had spoken briefly during the offseason and when Gaetti found out Lane was available, he reached out and asked Lane if he wanted to join the team as a starting pitcher.
Lane has made 13 appearances for the Skeeters, 12 as a starter, and has compiled a 3.03 ERA. He’s walked 13 and struck out 58 over 77 1/3 innings.
He’s never pitched in the big leagues, but he came close, once. Had the 18-inning affair between the Astros and Braves in the Game 4 of the Division Series in 2005 stretched to 19, Lane, who pitched in college, was up next.
He would have come in relief of Clemens, who pitched the 16th, 17th and 18th innings.
“(Pitching coach Jim) Hickey told me, ‘Roger’s going to go as long as he can,’ and that I was next in line,” Lane said. “He told me to start playing catch with the ballboy. I was just trying to process what might come.”
That moment never did come, thanks to a game-winning solo homer by Chris Burke.
Still, Lane is hoping that close call doesn’t represent his last opportunity to pitch in the big leagues.
“I remember my first inning in big league camp — the first warmup pitch was the hardest,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘just get it to the catcher.’ Now, I feel more relaxed on the mound than at the plate.”
Lane resurrecting his career as a pitcher isn’t the strangest story involving an Astros alum this year. Even Clemens’ fourth unretirement at age 50 (which many believe is a precursor to him pitching for the Astros this season) doesn’t take top billing in the category of, “You’re kidding, right?”
No, friends, that honor goes to former second baseman Jeff Kent. If you’re like 98 percent of society that thought Kent was probably the least likely retired ballplayer who would agree to appear on reality TV, you were wrong, wrong, wrong.
The full lineup has yet to be revealed, but we do know of one other participant other than Kent who has committed: actress Lisa Welchel. My money’s on Kent having no idea who she is. It’s probably also safe to assume he’s not familiar with Tootie’s rollerskates or Mrs. Garrett’s high, shrill voice, and has spent no time wondering how a group of seemingly intelligent teenagers spent like eight years in high school.
Welchel played snooty beauty Blair Warner on the hit ’80s TV show “The Facts of Life.” Back then, she (or, at least the character she played) spent a lot of time admiring herself in the mirror and sparring with Jo Polniaczek, the rebellious teen with a sharp tongue and a big heart. Now in her late 40s, Welchel — wife, mother, motivational speaker — appears to be ready to roll up her sleeves and eat bugs next to a five-time Major League All-Star.
Check your local listings.
Speaking of Astros alums…lest we not forget one Brad Ausmus, who was in town recently to throw out the ceremonial first pitch on Flashback Friday.
Ausmus created a bit of a stir when the TV cameras panned on him in the GM booth exchanging pleasantries with Jeff Luhnow. With Brad Mills seemingly on his last legs as the Astros’ manager, it was only natural that Ausmus’ cameo appearance lit up the message boards and blogs.
In truth, the booth meeting wasn’t an interview, and as far as we know, the club hasn’t contacted Ausmus about the open managerial position. For now, the only managing gig Ausmus has on his plate is for the Israeli team that he hopes will qualify for the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
“I have been asked that many times,” he said. “I’m not looking at this as a stepping stone. This is just something that realistically allowed me to still spend time at home and not have to travel a lot. The tournament itself is probably a week and a half long, including the workout days. The time commitment is relatively minimal compared a Major League Baseball season. It still keeps me involved in baseball and allows me to try something different.”
The qualifying round will take place in Jupiter, Fla. in September. Retired Major Leaguers Shawn Green and Gabe Kapler will serve as player-coaches, but Ausmus has no plans to join them on the field.
“I don’t need people to see me hit again,” he said.