Results tagged ‘ Brad Mills ’

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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In-game tidbits: Cosart impresses, Schafer nears return, and a few pregame photos.

Asked for his impression of top pitching prospect Jarred Cosart on Sunday, manager Brad Mills used one word: “Electric.”

Sunday’s game, a split-squad affair with the Pirates in Kissimmee, presented Cosart with his first real opportunity to impress the Astros’ skipper. The 21-year-old righty was slated to throw the final four innings and he nearly made it: Over 3 1/3 innings, Cosart allowed seven hits, four runs, one walk and five strikeouts. He struck out the side in his first frame and consistently hit 96 mph with his fastball, reaching 98 a couple of times.

Mills didn’t want to take any chances after Cosart started to labor through his final inning and ended the right-hander’s day after his 64th pitch. Mills sensed Cosart was still pretty amped up to be making his first appearance in a Major League spring game and thought it best to not let things get out of hand and risk injury.

Cosart was one of the marquee names, along with first baseman Jonathan Singleton, in the Hunter Pence trade. He’s been ranked as the Astros’ No. 2 prospect by Baseball America. He’s likely ticketed for Double-A Corpus Christi to start the season.

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Jordan Schafer was originally planning to play in the Astros’ game on Monday in Viera, but he’s been bumped back a day. Schafer sprained his wrist about a week ago and is still slowly working his way back. Tentatively, he’ll play two or three innings when the Astros host the Tigers on Tuesday.

(UPDATE, 3:45 ET): Mills tells reporters Schafer will not play Tuesday. Also, Bud Norris will be given two extra days of rest to ensure his elbow is OK. Norris will now start Friday at home vs. the Braves).

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General manager Jeff Luhnow will appear on the final Astroline of the 2011-12 offseason, joining Milo Hamilton at the ESPN Club at the Disney Boardwalk on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET/7 CT.

The show can be heard on 740 am KTRH and Astros.com.

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One week from today, the Astros will be on their way to Corpus to play the Hooks in an exhibition game (April 2), and then will head to Houston to get ready for Opening Day (April 6).

In the meantime, there’s still business to finish up in Florida. Enjoy these images from batting practice in Viera Monday morning:

Jose Altuve

Chris Johnson, Scott Moore.

Hitting coach Mike Barnett, JD Martinez.

Radio announcer Dave Raymond interviews Houston Chronicle beat writer Zachary Levine for the pregame show on 790 KBME.

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TV/Radio bonanza: Brett, Dave, Brownie, J.D., Milo and a bunch of programming notes. The band’s back together.

Today, we start with the transcript from Tuesday’s chat session with our intrepid skipper, Brad Mills

Q: How will such new young talented players adjust together in such short time? in other words, how important is finding a good rhythm?

Brad Mills: Early on, we addressed the need for a cohesive bond and a lot of times with these young players, they do just that. This particular group has bought into that way of thinking and they’ve done a very good job of coming together so far. We think they definitely will continue.

Q: What was the determining factor in naming Myers the closer? Experience? Stats? Desire?

Mills: All of the above, really. We had to make sure that he was as excited about it as we were. When he said he was excited, that was probably the most determining factor. There’s been so many successful closers that have been starters in the past that have turned into really good closers. It helps that he has already been a closer and did well with it.

Q: How fired up is Bud Norris this year? What have been your thoughts on his pitching?

Mills: He’s throwing the ball really well. He has concentrated on a lot of his secondary pitches so far and is developing them quicker than maybe even expected.

Q: Will we see any major rotations or changes in the outfield or infield coming soon?

Mills: There’s going to be changes in the rotation, with Myers leaving and then needing a fifth starter. The infield, we’re going to have a few changes, but nothing drastic yet. The competition we’ve had this spring has really opened our eyes to a lot of good things that have happened to our organization over the past year.

Q: what did you see (on Tuesday) that you liked?

Mills: Livan (Hernandez) stood out. He threw the ball absolutely outstanding. I’m knocking on wood that our defense continues to be very solid. And anytime you hit a walkoff home run, like Brian Bixler did, that’s pretty significant.

Q: Are coaches decisions or a managers decision based on stats solely? Do you ever use your gut?

Mills: I always use my gut, but ignoring stats is ignorant. You have to use everything.

Q: What is the daily routine of a ball player at Spring Training?

Mills: The days are long once we start playing games. Players are usually at the ballpark by 7 in the morning. They have a routine of hitters hitting in the cage, they have their time slots between 7 and 9. Others have early work on the field starting at 8:30. The coaches meeting is at 8 and then we go through a full workout up until lunch. We take lunch and then play a game. That is a full day.

Q: What is the team spirit like after a 6-4 start (after Tuesday’s win)?

Mills: It’s very good right now after the last two wins. Last night’s win and today were both outstanding games, very close games that we won at the end. Anytime we have those types of games it brings a little team bonding. The one thing about this group is they’ve handled themselves extremely well all spring. The effort in doing the things we can control has been very good. That’s been one of the things we’ve emphasized the most.

Q: Are you finding younger picthers recover quicker or about the same?

Mills: Mostly, the same. The one thing veteran pitchers know is how to go about their workload so they are able to recover in a timely manner.

Q: What will these players need to accomplish to make it to the playoffs?

Mills: We have to continue to improve. They’ve shown good progression so far in a short time and we’ll have to continue to do that. There’s a lot of talent here and given those capabilities, that is our objective.

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TV/Radio notes:

* Popular television broadcasters Bill Brown and Jim Deshaies, who not long ago were enshrined into the fictitious MLB bobblehead Hall of Fame, are en route to Florida and will be with the Astros for a full week. They will be in town, of course, to broadcast the Astros’ game on FS Houston on March 20, but they are also going to be given a little time on the radio as well. From what I understand, J.D. will join Dave Raymond in the booth on Saturday when the team plays the Yankees in Tampa, and Brownie will pair with Brett Dolan on Friday for the Astros’ visit to Orlando to play the Braves.

(FYI, bobblehead HOF worthiness is based solely on how much the bobblehead actually resembles the actual person. On a sliding scale, with a score of one being the lowest (a la Jeff Bagwell, class of 2003) and 10 being the highest (Richard Hidalgo, ’01), the Brownie and J.D. bobble given out last June has to be a solid 9.5.)

Anyhoo, it’ll be great to have the old gang together again, especially considering my Astros OneLiners twitter account has been a little barren, to say the least, without J.D.’s, well, J.D.-isms.

* I’m also hearing Craig Biggio is on his way to Kissimmee on Thursday for his annual Spring Training visit. Word is he will be in town through Sunday.

* Former broadcaster/pitcher/manager and current all-around great guy Larry Dierker flew to Florida with owner Jim Crane and a few friends and Astros executives on Tuesday and joined the contingent in Jupiter. It’s hard to believe it’s been more than 10 years since the last time Dierker was a regular part of Spring Training, as the Astros’ manager. While I’m sure there’s plenty about being on the field that Dierker misses, Spring Training isn’t high on that list.

As a manager, the early mornings, the long bus trips and the seemingly never-ending slate of Spring Training games wore on him. He quite liked this time of the year when he was an active player, however. As a starting pitcher, he only had to participate in Grapefruit League games every four or five days, and when he was in the game long enough to be considered a veteran, he really had it easy, because he pretty much dictated which road trips he would be on.

“I’d tell the pitching coach where I wanted to go, and I really only had to take one long trip all spring,” Dierker laughed.

Dierker chats with Brett Dolan, as Dolan tries to shield himself from the relentless sun during BP in Jupiter on Wednesday.

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Other notables:

*To add catching depth to the system, the Astros signed Landon Powell, who not long ago was released by the Oakland A’s. Powell signed a Minor League deal and will be in big league camp. While it’s unlikely he’d make the team — a healthy Jason Castro and solid backup Chris Snyder appear to be the favorites to break camp with the club — Powell gives the team a possible plan B. Humberto Quintero is still in the mix as well, obviously, but his back issues leave some uncertainty there. Powell simply gives the Astros more options should they need to dip into the system for catching help.

* The Astros will host the Blue Jays on Thursday at Osceola County Stadium at 1:05 p.m. ET, noon CT. Left-hander Zach Duke will start for the Astros, who will face Toronto righty Dustin McGowan. The game will be broadcast on KBME 790 am.

* David Carpenter will be Milo Hamilton’s guest on Astroline tonight (Wednesday) at 8 p.m. ET, 7 CT. The show will air live from the ESPN Club at the Disney Boardwalk and will air on 740 KTRH and Astros.com.

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Keep an eye on Kyle Weiland.

Brett Myers’ move to the bullpen opened up a lot of innings, some 200 or more, that need to be accounted for by someone else this season. Livan Hernandez will take care some of that, of course, but opportunity is wide open for another pitcher — presumably, one of the Astros up-and-comers — to grab one of the spots in a rotation that has at least one opening.

Assuming Bud Norris, Wandy Rodriguez, Hernandez and J.A. Happ take up the first four spots, one job remains. Jordan Lyles, who made 15 starts for the Astros in 2011, would have to be considered a front-runner to win the job. But keep an eye on a few others, including Kyle Weiland, who is quietly putting together an impressive Spring Training.

Weiland, who was traded to the Astros from the Red Sox during the offseason, threw four no-hit innings against the Yankees Monday night in Tampa. Add that to the four scoreless innings he combined for in his first two spring appearances, and that equals a nearly perfect spring so far: eight innings, three hits, no runs, two walks, four strikeouts.

Spring Training games should, and will, be viewed with the understanding that while it’s largely the only way by which we can judge players at this point, it’s not the sole indicator of how that might translate to the regular season. That said, Spring Training is also designed to give players a chance to force their way onto a team. Weiland, who is going to continue to be groomed as a starting pitcher as he develops through the Astros’ system, wasn’t labeled as a sure-fire contender to win a big league job when camp began. But he wasn’t definitively ticketed for Triple-A, either.

Rather, Weiland was considered one of those “interesting” types to keep an eye on. If three weeks ago I had to bet large amounts of my salary on where Weiland would end up after Spring Training, I would have said Oklahoma City. Now, I’m not so sure.

If the Astros are looking for someone to pull away from the pack, they may have to look no further than the pitcher who handled the Yankees with a tidy 49 pitches Monday night in Tampa.

Weiland, on his outing:

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Other notes:

* To make up for Sunday’s rainout, Wandy threw four simulated innings in the batting cage as soon as the game was called. The next morning, Norris and Aneury Rodriguez also threw four-inning simulated games. Norris was pitching on his normal four days of rest. The simulated games are in an effort to give “starts” to all potential starting pitchers this spring, and obviously, they have more than five who need innings.

* Brad Mills said he is trying to schedule a “B” game to make up for the innings lost by the rainout Sunday. While Spring Training games look casual and not terribly intense, there is a lot of work being done behind the scenes during the exhibition season. The schedules are mapped out by the coaching staff days in advance, and everyone — especially pitchers — have a regimen they need to stick to. Rainouts are a bummer for the fans, but they create even more headaches for a manager and staff trying to make sure 60-some players are all getting their work in. It looks easy from the outside. It’s not.

* Owner Jim Crane flew to Tampa with several board members to watch the Astros play the Yankees. It was Crane’s first Spring Training game, but presumably, it won’t be his last. He looked like he was thoroughly enjoying himself:

Other pregame sights from George M. Steinbrenner Field:

Brian Bogusevic

GM Jeff Luhnow and Brad Mills

Hall of Famer Goose Gossage is with the Yankees during Spring Training as a "guest instructor." He signs a lot of autographs in this role.

J.B. Shuck takes a round of BP...

...and chats with radio announcer Dave Raymond.

Hitting coach Mike Barnett and Jimmy Paredes discuss hitting, while Brett Wallace takes a few swings.

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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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Snapshots from Spring Training, Day Three.

A month ago, it looked as if catcher Jason Castro, who had two injury setbacks over the course of one calendar year, might not be ready to start the season when Opening Day rolls around on April 6.

Today, the level of optimism is much higher. It’s more likely than not that Castro, who had season-ending knee surgery last Spring Training and foot surgery this past December, is on track to start the season on time.

This isn’t to say that he’s maintaining the same workout pace as the other catches in camp. He’s not. He’s participating in drills and catching bullpens, but on a slightly lesser scale than the rest. The goal is for him to build stamina without overextending himself, even if it means not being quite ready to play when the Grapefruit season gets underway in another 10 days.

Regardless of when Castro appears in his first spring game, the catching situation this year, so far, is light years ahead of where the team was a year ago. There is no stat line that can truly describe how valuable a catcher is to a team. He’s top lieutenant on the field and can provide a huge sense of security to pitchers. On the flip side, if a catcher is inadequate in his ability to call games and block pitches in the dirt, it can wreak havoc on a pitcher’s psyche.

Castro’s return will be a big lift for the team, and the addition of Chris Snyder, a veteran catcher, should not be overlooked. The Astros now have three catchers in a pool that also includes veteran Humberto Quintero, giving them experience, depth and a plan B. They pretty much had none of those things  a year ago.

A couple of housekeeping notes:

* The final Houston-based Astroline will air on Thursday at Buffalo Wild Wings in Midtown. Former outfielder Kevin Bass will join Milo Hamilton for the hour-long show, which can be heard on 740 KTRH and Astros.com.

Astroline will resume the following week on Feb. 29 at the Disney Boardwalk in Orlando. Keeping with tradition, the first Florida-based show will feature manager Brad Mills.

* The first full-squad workout will be held Feb. 26, and as always, workouts are free and open to the public. Gates open around 9:30 a.m. The first Grapefruit League game will take place at Osceola County Stadium on March 3 vs. the Nationals. Workouts on home game days are closed.

* Two spring games will be televised this year: March 20 vs. the Cardinals and April 3 vs. the White Sox (at Minute Maid Park).

And we conclude with images from Day 3 on a cloudy but rain-free morning at the spring complex:

Brian Bogusevic, Jed Lowrie

Practicing fielding comebackers: Brad Mills and Kyle Weiland.

Having some between-drills laughs: Jose Altuve, roving minor league baserunning coordinator Milt Thompson, Jimmy Paredes, Jose Cruz.

PFP: Bud Norris.

Two former first-rounders: Delino DeShields (2010) and George Springer (2011).

Batting practice: J.D. Martinez, Jose Altuve.

Jimmy Paredes waves to a fan.

Brandon Lyon and Jason Castro discuss Lyon's bullpen session when it ended.

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Astros CAREavan wrapup, in pictures.

The Houston Astros 2012 CAREavan wrapped up another successful winter road trip with stops last Friday in Katy, Texas. The Astros CAREavan completed its annual tour making 47 stops in 13 cities over eight days, traveling more than 3,500 miles. More than 35 Astros players, alumni, coaches and front office staff participated in CAREavan.

The Houston Astros 2012 CAREavan hit the road on February 1, with three full days of visits throughout central and south Texas.  The team made two-day trips to Austin (Feb. 1-2), Brownsville, Harlingen and McAllen (Feb. 1-2) and San Antonio (Feb. 2-3), and spent a day in Corpus Christi and Victoria (Feb. 3). Highlights included conducting several youth baseball clinics, visiting with military and pediatric patients at hospitals and serving fans lunch at Chick-fil-A.

During the CAREavan’s second week, the Astros traveled to Oklahoma City (Feb. 6) and visited with military personnel at Tinker Air Force Base, patients at Mercy Hospital and Oklahoma City RedHawks season ticket holders and sponsors.  The week also included five, single-day trips in Houston, Sugar Land, Spring, Cypress and Katy.  The local tours visited numerous schools for reading activities and Fielder’s Choice assemblies, conducted youth baseball clinics and made daily stops at Academy Sports + Outdoors stores for free autograph sessions.

The CAREavan experience, in pictures:

Austin: Dave Raymond, Jordan Lyles, J.B. Shuck, Kyle Weiland, Doug Brocail at Cedar Park Middle School.

Austin: Ronald McDonald House.

Brownsville: Fernando Rodriguez, Jose Altuve, Jimmy Paredes at Lucio Middle School.

Brownsville: Chick-fil-A

San Antonio: Brett Dolan, J.A. Happ, Angel Sanchez, Jarred Cosart, Humberto Quintero, Larry Dierker at RBI San Antonio.

San Antonio Military Medical Center

Corpus Christi: Jim Crane signs an autograph for a young fan at the Hooks' luncheon.

Victoria: Shane Reynolds givis pitching tips at a Baseball and Softball clinic.

Oklahoma City: David Carpenter and Milo Hamilton.

Meeting with the Oklahoma City RedHawks fan base.

Houston: Bud Norris serves drive-thru customers at Chick-Fil-A.

Houston: Astros front office members and players participated in a "Careers in Baseball" seminar at Carver High School.

Sugar Land: Bud Norris, David Carpenter, Chris Johnson, Brett Wallace visit babies and new parents at Methodist Sugar Land Hospital.

Sugar Land: Chris Johnson and Brett Wallace sign autographs at Academy Sports + Outdoors.

Spring: Brad Mills, Jason Bourgeois, J.D. Martinez, Brian Bogusevic, Jose Cruz at AVANCE-Southwest School.

Hanging with the kids at AVANCE.

Cypress: Jed Lowrie at a CAREavan Baseball and Softball Clinic.

Cypress: bilingual storytime with bilingual GM Jeff Luhnow.

Katy: Bill Brown, Jose Cruz and current Astros players participate in an assembly at Brookwood Community.

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All-Star week notes: Operation Veteran Appreciation, Social Media Night and the first half of 2011, in pictures.

Beginning with the upcoming homestand and continuing throughout the rest of the season, the Astros have added another program that honors our military veterans: Operation Veteran Appreciation.

For every home game, one veteran is selected to receive two free Astros tickets pre-loaded with $15 that can be spent at the ballpark. These field level tickets are for distinctively designed patriotic seats that let all fans know those sitting in them have served their country:

The Astros are currently accepting nominations for Operation Veteran Appreciation. If you know a military veteran in our community who’d like to be a part of the program, the Astros and Gallery Furniture want to hear about it. Thank a veteran by nominating him or her at Astros.com/operationvet.

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Our fourth Social Media Night will take place on Saturday, July 16 in the Budweiser Patio, and now, we’re ready to vote on what we serve for dinner.

Here at the choices:

A. Texas Cobb Salad – Crisp Greens, Grilled Chicken, Diced Tomato, Diced Avocado, Diced Hot House Cucumbers, Blue Cheese Crumbles, Fried Tortilla Strips and Buttermilk Ranch Dressing – served with FiveSeven Cheese Bread

B. Ballpark Beef Nachos – Fresh Fried Tortilla Chips with Tender Sofrito Style Braised Beef, Queso Blanco, Jalapenos, Pico De Gallo, Guacamole and Sour Cream

C. Trio of Sliders – Ballpark Beef with Caramelized Onion & Cheddar, Bar-B-Que Pulled Pork with Dill Pickle Chips and Grilled Chicken Breast with Roma Tomato and Herbed Cheese Spread.

You can place your vote in the poll below, and we’ll tally up the numbers through this blog and on Twitter and announce the winner soon. Even if you are not attending Social Media Night, feel free to vote — ideally, of course, you’ll vote AND attend the event.

What is Social Media Night? It’s a fun night in the Budweiser Patio that includes a player appearance at the opportunity to win autographed prizes. Our guest on Saturday will be infielder Matt Downs.

For the price of $45 per ticket, you’ll receive a ballpark tour, batting practice viewing, a ticket to the game, t-shirt, dinner, dessert and an opportunity to win prizes through our Twitter Trivia contests. Downs will hand out prizes to the Twitter Trivia winners. Prizes will include autographed baseballs and a couple of signed bobbleheads.

(If you are a returning patron and wish to skip the tour, I will be on hand to escort you directly to batting practice. The view party takes place behind the home dugout on the first base side.)

Seating for Social Media Night is limited — just 108 seats available. You can reserve your tickets by clicking here. Hope to see you there!

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At 30-62, it goes without saying there weren’t a ton of “highlights” to look back on as the Astros start the proverbial second half of the season. But even in the most disappointing seasons, there are always a few good and/or poignant times to look back on. I sifted through the photos we took in the first half and set aside about a dozen of my favorites, starting with a whole lot of hugging on Opening Day in Philly:

Wandy, Bill Hall

Wandy, Nelson Figueroa (there was definitely a Wandy/man love theme going on Opening Day)

Brothers from different mothers: Matt Downs, Clint Barmes

The Astros clubhouse, on Jackie Robinson Day

I love this picture: a fan favorite from yesteryear, Kevin Bass, and a fan favorite from today, Michael Bourn, gathering for a reception on Jackie Robinson Day

Speaking of yesteryear, we caught up with former catcher Brad Ausmus after he threw a round of BP to Padres hitters in San Diego. Brad was about to leave on a cross-country trip with his family (and Trevor Hoffman's family) to Cape Cod. In an RV. Ah, retirement.

Brrr...Bourn prepares for Opening Day in Philly. It was 80 degrees and sunny with about 20 percent humidity in Houston that day. Just saying.

The beauty part of getting our players on Twitter is now they can take their own pictures and post them, and I can steal them. Which is exactly what I did after Chris Johnson took this Opening Day photo.

When we finally did return from the road to host our 2011 home opener, it was nice to see these two people smiling: Former Prez George Bush, and Astronaut Mark Kelly, husband of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

The Astros were down by about seven runs when this photo was taken. You have to love Mark Melancon for always keeping the faith.

Melancon's first trip to visit the Navy Seals left quite an impression.

If you watch our television broadcasts even semi-regularly, you've probably heard Jim Deshaies talk about a "3-Rod Night." So it should come as no surprise that J.D. staged this photo of the three Rods -- Wandy, Fernando, Aneury.

Fun on the Today Show set: Melancon, J.R. Towles, Brad Mills, Al Roker, Jenna Bush Hager, Junction Jack, Clutch...a Who's Who of "Lend a Hand Today."

A sweet photo from our visit to Texas Children's...

...and we end with one for the ages: elementary school kids absolutely riveted by an Astros school assembly. (Can't reveal who the emcee was at this particular time be he bore a striking resemblance to radio announcer Dave Raymond.)

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Jimmy Wynn Training Center opens at Urban Youth Academy

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By Rachel Frey

The Jimmy Wynn Training Center at the Houston Astros MLB Urban Youth Academy was dedicated today, June 24, in a ceremony that honored the former Astro’s career and community service. Representatives from the Houston Astros, Minute Maid, Grand Slam for Youth Baseball (GSFYB), Major League Baseball, and other civic and community leaders attended the dedication. GSFYB ambassadors Michael Bourn, Hunter Pence, and Brad Mills were also present.

The center is this summer’s field refurbishment project for GSFYB, which is a partnership between the Astros and Minute Maid. The center has 3,412 square feet of multi-use space covered in artificial turf, two cable-suspended batting cages, umpire/staff locker rooms with a shower, and two Yoshida pitching machines, which were donated by Mr. Tadashi Yoshida and shipped in from Chiba, Japan. Major League Baseball also assisted with the completion of this project.

Milo Hamilton was one of the first people to speak, and instructed attendees to, “honor [Jimmy] the way he should be honored. You’re honoring one of the greatest citizens and baseball players.”

Jimmy has been the ambassador for GSFYB over the past six years, and according to Fred Arnold from GSFYB, he cried when they told him the center was to be named after him.

“Come out and learn the game of baseball, learn the facts of life– you have no excuse now,” Jimmy said. “If you need me I’ll be available. I might be slow, but I’m available.”

Jimmy Lee Solomon, who is from the Houston area and is an Executive Vice President of Baseball Development of Major League Baseball, was also present to celebrate the opening.

“This is more than a building– it’s more than the bricks and steel,” Solomon said. “It is a catalyst for change in the community. Kids in areas like this have no chance at the American Dream. We must provide hope to them [through opportunities like the center]. The worst poverty we can leave children in is the poverty of hope.”

Schmoozing with Al Roker: Astros “Lend a Hand Today.”

Baseball players are, in general, more accustomed to late nights than early mornings. After all, their work day doesn’t start until mid-afternoon and normally lasts deep into the evening, with bed time often arriving hours after most of the “normal” section of society shuts it down for the day.

But a handful of Astros were up at the crack of dawn — like, Spring Training early — Wednesday morning, and were happy to do so. They were invited to appear on the TODAY Show with Al Roker as part of his “Lend a Hand Today” tour, a cross-country trek that started in Alaska on Monday, stopped in Las Vegas Tuesday and arrived in Houston Wednesday.

It took no coaxing on the Astros part to convince Mark Melancon and J.R. Towles and manager Brad Mills to participate in this event (even if it meant meeting at the ballpark parking garage at 6:30 a.m.). Roker, one of the most famous and well-liked personalities in morning television, has been traveling the country for 10 years, “Lending a Hand” and shining light on five exceptional charities each year and surprising them with truckloads of donations.

The TODAY Show’s visit to the Bayou City was the most lucrative in “Lend a Hand” history, bringing in $2.7 million for Casa de Esperanza, a safe place for children in crisis due to abuse, neglect or the effects of HIV.

The chosen charity is top secret until Roker does a live, on-air reveal. He’s flanked by hundreds of cheering volunteers and representatives of the various businesses and organizations that donate money, supplies, food, clothing, linens, toiletries, games and toys. Toys R Us was there. Babies R Us, too, as was Jordache Jeans and dozens of others — including the Astros, who presented Roker with a check for $5,000 on behalf of the Astros in Action Foundation, and 1,000 tickets to future Astros games for the kids.

Texas native Jenna Bush Hager, a TODAY Show correspondent, was instrumental in the effort to have the “Lend a Hand” series visit Houston and, not surprisingly, she was a very popular presence among the onlookers at the big reveal. The scene was loud and frenzied and wonderful. And as an added bonus, Roker’s a really nice guy — as friendly and congenial and he comes off on TV. Bush Hager is warm and approachable and I lost count of how many kids from Casa de Esperanza ran up to her. She embraced every one of them.

There are two videos from the appearance — the clip from the TODAY Show website, and our exclusive, behind-the-scenes perspective. It’s kind of fun to watch footage from the same event, from two different angles.

And as always, we took lots and lots of photos…

Among the items we carried in to the event were baseballs to be autographed for future charity events, an oversized symbolic check for $5,000 and boxes of caps to hand out. Towles and Melancon found this to be the easiest way to transport the caps.

The group, after the check presentation.

We gave the players a pretty heady task: get Roker to wear the Astros cap during the broadcast. Roker enthusiastically put the cap on and said, "I'm an honorary Astro." Mission accomplished.

Among the adoring onlookers were Britanny Towles and Mary Catherine Melancon, who collected some autographed Roker/Bush Hager loot for the upcoming Wives Gala.

Jenna Bush Hager poses with the Astros, a fitting photo considering how many games her grandparents attend every year.

Roker snapped about as many pictures as we did. It was fun to see him taking in the scene and enjoying the experience, while tending to his duties as the main "Lend a Hand Today" correspondent.

Towles and Melancon pose with country music singer Clay Walker...

...and then they all exchange phone numbers. Man love at its finest!

The Astros contingent -- including Junction Jack -- unloads the truck full of items donated to Casa de Esperanza.

During commercial breaks, the players asked Roker to sign a few baseballs, which the affable weather man did willingly.

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