Results tagged ‘ Brad Mills ’

Learning on the job requires hard work from players and patience from us.

The Astros took on a dramatic new look after they peppered the field with rookies following the trade deadline, and when they started winning a few games as the calendar flipped to August, the Astros — though not contenders — became interesting to watch again.

But young players require patience, and as you can see, waiting out the growing pains can be a frustrating and arduous process.

Rookies are fast, enthusiastic and full of energy. They also can, at times, look lost at the plate, confused on the basepaths and overmatched at their positions defensively. It’s tough to watch, sure. But it’s part of the process. One great game might be followed by two bad ones. The remainder of this season is about learning on the job, and some of the blunders and mental errors that so frustrate the average fan will serve as great teaching tools for manager Brad Mills and his coaching staff.

Mills was a little more agitated than normal after the Astros dropped the opener in Florida on Friday. The final score — 9-0 — suggests this game was a blowout, but for six innings, it wasn’t, and Mills saw many key plays that, had they been properly executed, could have resulted in a much different outcome.

Instead, all the Astros mounted was a pile of missed opportunities, and Mills spent a portion of the pregame period on Saturday talking with various players about how things could have been done differently.

For example: Jason Castro was on second with one out in the sixth inning, and it was J.A. Happ’s job to bunt him over. The only problem was Happ’s bunt rolled toward first base, and Castro was out on a 3-5 fielder’s choice. The bunt should have been toward third.

In the second inning, Brett Wallace’s task was to simply make contact, which would advance Chris Johnson, who had doubled with one out in the inning. Instead, Wallace struck out.

Mills doesn’t use these teaching opportunities to point fingers. This isn’t about calling someone out or needlessly embarrassing a player. But if there are missed chances — missing the cutoff man, throwing to the wrong base, etc. — that are preventing the Astros from getting over that proverbial hump, it’s Mills’ job to address it, talk about it, and plan for a different outcome next time.

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Here and there:

Brian Moehler, in his second attempt to return to the field after a lengthy groin injury, is scheduled to fly to Houston on Sunday and throw a bullpen session on Monday. If that goes well, he will begin a rehab assignment with Round Rock on Tuesday. He’ll have a 60-pitch limit in that start.He’ll then rejoin the Astros in Philadelphia on Thursday and throw another bullpen session in anticipation of a start for the Double-A Corpus Christi Hooks on Sunday in San Antonio.

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Congratulations to Mills and his wife, Ronda, who celebrated their 32nd wedding anniversary on Saturday. We were wondering how Mills, who went into coaching and managing almost as soon as his playing career ended and has been working in baseball for more than 30 years, could have possibly found time to get married in the middle of a season. Most baseball weddings occur in November.

Turns out, Mills got married before the baseball career started — he and Ronda wed right before his senior year of college at the University of Arizona.

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Life can be pretty routine for those running the home and visiting clubhouses at big league ballparks, but the Marlins’ visiting clubhouse staff has found a way to keep things interesting as teams roll in and out of Sun Life Stadium throughout the season.

Hanging on the wall near the entrance are five pictures of the visiting team — “action” shots they take the first day the team is in town, which are then hung up the next day.

I found some of the Astros’ shots mildly amusing, like this one of Wandy Rodriguez and Anderson Hernandez (I guess it was a good thing Wandy wasn’t pitching this game).

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If you’re familiar with Rex Jones, the mustachioed half of the intrepid Astros’ athletic training staff, then you’ll probably like this extreme close up:

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Postgame notes from the Astros’ 6-3 loss to the Marlins Saturday night;

Johnson is hitting .319 in August and .361 against right-handed pitching this month.

Rodriguez tied his season high with 10 strikeouts. It was his sixth career 10-plus strikeout game.

Astros starting pitchers have posted a 2.54 ERA over the last 12 games.

The loss was the Astros 11th in their last 12 games played at the Marlins’ ballpark. They haven’t won a series here since May 9-11 in 2005.   

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And finally, we end with some candid images taken during the few afternoon hours it didn’t rain:

Geoff Blum, pointing out that former pop princess Tiffany indeed performed “I Think We’re Alone Now” (which was playing when this picture was taken) at a mall in the 1980s.  

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Michael Bourn in the cage.

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Carlos Lee grooving to aforementioned Tiffany tune.

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Blum, Mills, Bagwell

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Coach Bagwell.

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Castro, Wallace warm up.

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A day in the life of a high draft pick. Just call him “Folty.”

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This is how Mike Foltynewicz ended his day at Minute Maid Park. But before he could get to this point, he had a flurry of activities waiting for him, including signing his name a few dozen times, thus officially signaling the beginning his Astros career.

Foltynewicz (pronounced Fol-ten-EH-vich), the Astros’ second pick in the first round and the 19th pick overall in this year’s Draft, will head to Greeneville on Saturday to join the club’s Rookie League team.

He spent Friday afternoon at Minute Maid Park with his parents, Gary and Cindy, plowing through several steps every high draft pick goes through once a contract is agreed upon.

The 18-year-old was poised and calm as he went from station to station and met a slew of people, from front office staffers to Astros players to pitching coach Brad Arnsberg to manager Brad Mills. As he toured the clubhouse, Foltynewicz looked impressed but not overwhelmed and appeared to be unfazed by his surroundings as he warmed up in the outfield with Arnsberg in anticipation of throwing his first professional bullpen session.

A pictorial look of Foltynewicz’s day at the yard:

First order of business, of course, was signing on the dotted line. Signing a professional baseball contract is sort of like closing on a house — dozens and dozens of papers to sign.  

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Scouting director/Asst GM Bobby Heck and Foltynewicz sort of look like they’re taking their SAT’s here.

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Before the official press conference, Mike posed for some pictures for his parents’ collection.

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Then it was off to the clubhouse for a tour. Heck showed Mike every part of the lockerroom except for the training room. “You don’t need to even think about going in there,” Heck said. (The training room, obviously, is mostly occupied by guys nursing aches and pains and injuries).

Here Foltynewicz is meeting Mills for the first time.

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Next up, press conference. The kid looked at ease as he answered questions from about a dozen members of the media. Heck is to the right.

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Pround parents Gary and Cindy watch from the front row.

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After the formal part of the presser, reporters like to get one-on-one interviews for a more personal touch.

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Now that the hard part was over, it was time to suit up and head to the field. Mike threw a short side session in the bullpen, where Arnsberg and Mills could get a close up look at him. Here he is stretching and conversing with Arnsberg.

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Last stop…the bullpen. Next stop: Greeneville.

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Yankee Stadium: As good as advertised.

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Television announcer Bill Brown summed it up nicely when I asked him what he thought of the new Yankee Stadium before Friday’s game:

“The concourses are wide, the field looks great, the access is wonderful. For $1.3 billion, it should be.”

And it is. The ballpark is gorgeous, worth every penny, whether you’re looking at it from a fan’s perspective or from a player’s perspective behind the scenes. Upon first glance, it reminds you a lot of the old Yankee Stadium, only (obviously) more modern. The white facades that were such a part of the old place have been resurrected in the new. And since it’s less than two years old, it’s still sparkling clean.

Enjoy the images, as well as the video we captured from the new ballpark

Blum, Keppinger, Pence

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The famous Lou Gehrig speech…this picture hangs near one of the main entrances at Yankee Stadium.

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The view from the visitors dugout.

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Jason Michaels, Jeff Keppinger.

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Carlos Lee.

 

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Roy Oswalt, pitching coach Brad Arnsberg. And Chris Sampson.

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An outside view of the entrance at Yankee Stadium.

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A shot of the press box. You’ll notice Astros writers Brian McTaggart and Bernardo Fallas.

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It’s slightly ironic that the Astros are making their first trip to the Yankees’ new stadium this weekend, considering their first and only trip to the old one was this same weekend seven years ago.

Friday marked the seven-year anniversary of the six-pitcher no-hitter the Astros completed against the Yankees. The game that was historical on many levels and hysterical on still more, considering before it had even ended, speculation that George Steinbrenner was going to fire the hitting coach had already circulated around the press box and on the radio airwaves. Only in New York.

Three things stand out to me about that night more than any other:
1) Jeff Kent did not know it was a no-hitter until Billy Wagner told him once the last out was made. Kent, not exactly Mr. Congeniality to begin with, looked at Wags with an expression that was a combination of surprise, confusion and disapproval. Why in the world would Wagner pound his glove and then raise his fist in the air after closing out one of hundreds of games he’d appeared in by now? Kent: “What the heck are you doing?” Wags: “Dude. We just no-hit the Yankees.” Kent, breaking into huge grin: “Really?”

2) Octavio Dotel recorded four strikeouts during his inning of work, after one batter had reached on a wild pitch.

3) That night, Brad Lidge schooled some of his teammates on the historical meaning of what had just transpired. Lidge, a history buff, already knew plenty of obscure stats that put the no-hitter in perspective. The next day, he arrived with five or six more facts about the no-hitter that no one knew before. The guy was a walking encyclopedia. 

That brings us to the cool tidbit of the day, courtesy of media relations All-Star Sally Gunter: Two of the six Astros pitchers to contribute to the no-hitter seven seasons ago were in attendance at Friday’s game. Roy Oswalt was in the Astros dugout while former Astro Pete Munro (a native New Yorker) watched the game from the stands.

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Back to 2010…random tidbits from the pregame session with Brad Mills:

Carlos Lee will likely DH during Saturday’s game. A lot of you asked, rightfully, why Jason Michaels wasn’t playing left with Lee, with his shaky defense, isn’t DH-ing. Mills said Lee really wanted to play in left for at least the opener but would definitely DH for at least one game this series.

Matt Lindstrom had back spasms was unavailable to pitch during Thursday’s game in Denver. He felt better the next day in New York, but he was again deemed unable to pitch that night (which didn’t matter, since there was no save situation).

Consider Lindstrom day-to-day. Each day, Mills will check with him after he loosens up and throws during batting practice, and his availability will be decided before the game.

Radio announcer Milo Hamilton doesn’t travel with the team, but he makes exceptions when the Astros play in a  new ballpark that he’s never visited. Milo’s broadcast of the Astros-Yankees game on Friday marked the 58th different ballpark he’s called a game from.

Losses happen. Unacceptable losses? Different story.

When the Astros lost their first eight games to start the season, I heard from many of you who were wondering why Brad Mills wasn’t turning over postgame spreads and screaming at his players to be better.

I wholly disagreed with this, for one reason: the Astros were playing hard, they were playing good defense and they were focused. They just weren’t winning any games.

Mills isn’t the type to scream and throw things (thank goodness), but he knows the right time to admonish the team. And Saturday was a perfect example of when a collectively poor performance needs to be addressed.

The Astros, quite simply, played a bad baseball game on Saturday. It wasn’t just that they lost by nine runs. It’s how they did it. Bad defense. Bad baserunning. Seemingly, a team-wide lack of focus.

That’s when you talk to your club. What Mills said behind closed doors will remain there, but he worded it perfectly when relaying the session to the media.

“What I said in there needs to stay in here,” he said. “You go through times like this, games like this, where guys lose an understanding of how good they are and what they’re capable of. I wanted to reinforce that to them a little bit.”

This goes back to that one buzz word: focus. Its absence was obvious to everyone, whether you were in the dugout, the stands, the press box or watching and listening from home. Lack of focus translates into bad losses, and we all saw it Saturday. The outcome of Sunday’s game is anyone’s guess, but I’m betting the effort will be better.

On Puma, Kaz and Kepp.

The only hope the Astros had on Sunday regarding Lance Berkman was that their star first baseman make it through his final rehab game at Round Rock without his knee giving him problems, such as the swelling that has caused at least two setbacks in the past. Offensive results, while mildly significant, were nowhere near the most important element to this game.

Puma ended up making everyone happy. The fans at Round Rock were treated to two doubles and a home run, and the Astros received the very good news that Puma moved around at full speed, performed at a peak level and experienced no new issues.

Assuming he’s still feeling the same in the next 36 hours, Berkman will be activated from the disabled list in time to play Tuesday when the Astros open a nine-game homestand. A corresponding roster move will likely be made sometime Tuesday morning or afternoon.

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Second base conundrum

When Brad Mills granted playing time to Jeff Keppinger during the first few games of the season, his intention was to simply give a few at-bats to a bench player, one who happens to hit left-handers very well (the Astros faced several lefties during their first two series).

But Keppinger’s bat caught fire, regardless of who he was facing, and that made it difficult — impossible, really — to take him out of the lineup. Given the Astros’ 0-8 start to the season, there was no way to justifiably sit the one hitter who didn’t go into a complete tailspin as soon as the exhibition season came to a close.

Twelve games into the season, Keppinger is giving Mills no reason to bench him. His early success is good for the team but bad for Kazuo Matsui, who appears to be in the process of losing his status as a starting second baseman.

(Several of you have asked if Matsui can be sent to the Minor Leagues when Puma comes off the DL. The answer is no — a player with more than five years in the big leagues cannot be sent down without the player consenting first. Players never would consent, so it’s a moot point.)

During his pregame session with the media, Mills declined to anoint either Matsui or Keppinger as he regular season baseman long-term — yet. He did, however, call Matsui into his office in St. Louis to talk to him about the situation, so I think, reading between lines, we can expect to see a lot more of Keppinger in the immediate future.

It’s the right thing to do for the sake of the team and when you’re 3-9, it would make no sense to play the lesser player just because he was signed as a starter and the other was, upon trading for him, viewed as a bench guy. Ed Wade gave Mills complete autonomy with decisions surrounding Matsui — meaning, Mills will do what’s best for the on-field health of the team without worrying about how much one player is being paid over the other.

Asked if Matsui was working into a utility role, Mills said this: “I don’t want to label it that way yet. We’re still just a dozen games into the season. Let’s wait and see how everything plays out. I’m congnizant to get (Matsui) out there and get him on a roll. It’s tough, but it’s tough to not get the other guy (Keppinger) out there.

“Coming out of Spring Training, I was trying to get Keppinger at-bats in first week of the season. He did so well, the other at-bats were kind of silent. As we kept him in there, he continued to play really well.”

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From the Astros’ clubhouse following their comeback win over the Cubs Sunday:

Mills:

“This is the way to go into the off day and be rewarded for it. It was a big win. It was nice that these guys can see they can win these.”

On Brian Moehler pitching an inning after a long layoff:

“It was good to get him an inning. It just shows you the pro that he is. He stays ready  every day and we were able to get him an inning and it ended up being a big inning for us.”

Jason Michaels, who led off the 10th with a double and scored the winning run:
“The Cubs, the Cardinals…these guys are ‘supposed to’ win the division. These games are always going to be good. You take two of three, enjoy it and go back to work Tuesday.”

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Pictures from the final day in Chicago:

Everyone, including Michael Bourn and Tim Byrdak, is loose during batting practice.

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Bud Norris, Brian Moehler.

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Lee, Pence, Bourn

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Myers and Pence have a quiet conversation in the dugout before BP.

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Scoreboard at Wrigley…the flags indicated the wind was blowing in. The final score did as well.

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Blum face-plants, Puma heals, Lloyd Dobler sings.

During batting practice Friday, I got to talking to Geoff Blum about what he was like as a kid, and it came as no surprise to me that even at an early age, he kept things loose and light-hearted while participating in organized sports. As a young baseball player, Blum usually found ways to keep it real, all the while cracking up his teammates, and, mostly likely, himself.

No one has been better for this Astros team during these trying times than Blum (although Cory Sullivan is definitely a close second). Realizing the worst thing a team can do right now is take itself too seriously — which usually results in over-thinking yourself right out of contention — Blum seems to always know the right time to try something goofy and stupid (in a good way) to keep things loose.

Blum’s most recent crowd-pleasing caper was probably something you have to see in person to really appreciate it, but here goes:

Pretending he wanted to lend a helping hand to the batting practice pitcher, Blum jogged up to the mound with a bag of BP balls, tripped himself (on purpose), face planted on the ground and sent a dozen baseballs flying in every direction.

He’s done this twice, the last occurring Friday morning during BP at Wrigley Field. Thinking Blum actually did trip over his own feet, the Bleacher Bums in left field let out a big roar, as did a group of six-year-old Cubs fans who were on the field to get autographs. Good stuff.
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Puma update

Lance Berkman will begin a Minor League rehab assignment on Saturday in Round Rock, the first of two expected appearances by the Big Puma this weekend. If all goes well in the first game, he’ll play again on Sunday.

Monday is a scheduled off day for the Astros, and although no one is saying it out loud, the hope is that Puma will be ready for activation from the DL when the team opens an extended homestand on Tuesday.

Puma’s injury took longer to heal than expected due to a series of setbacks, so it’s understandable why the team wants to play it conservatively. “Let’s take it a day at a time,” Mills said. “Please.”

MLB.com talked exclusively with Berkman, which you can read about here.

Also on the rehab front, Sammy Gervacio will begin a rehab assignment in Round Rock on Monday. He’s slated to pitch Monday and Wednesday.
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PumaOneLiners

Hopefully by now you’re following our Twitter account solely dedicated to one-liners from Astros players, coaches and broadcasters (the latest J.D.-ism: “The Astros were like Larry King: 0-for-8.”)

I’m always on the lookout for witticisms from people in and around the game, and thanks to Facebook, I found another one. You might remember Norm Miller, who played for the Astros from 1965-73 as part of a 10-year big league career. These days, he’s an author, having just released a book titled “To all my fans…Norm Who?”, and he’s also jumped on the Facebook bandwagon. As a result, I’ve heard from him quite a bit during the Astros dismal start to the season.

“I played on a team that lost 8 in a row so we flooded the field and couldn’t play for two days,” he posted. “Came back and lost number 9. Then we ran black cats out on the field, lost 10 in a row. Then we drank more beer and won. Go figure.”

Instant PumaOneLiner.

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Staying with the social networking theme, Chris Sampson has started Tweeting. His first tweet arrived after the Astros finally ended their winning streak:

“Just walked in to Mills’ office to take the gorilla off his back after congratulating him on his first win as Astros manager.”

Follow Sampson here
 
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Postgame comments from Mills after the 7-2 loss to the Cubs:

On leaving Felipe Paulino in during the seventh inning:
“He had (thrown) 86 pitches to start the inning, and he had given up four hits. He was still throwing the ball well, he just lost a little command.”

Mills saw some progress from the hitters:
“There were a lot of balls hit on the button today. Good at-bats by Carlos (Lee). He hit the ball hard. Keppinger continues to swing the bat well. Good at-bats from CJ (Chris Johnson), too.”

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Lloyd, Lloyd all null and void

Since Harry Caray passed away more than a decade ago, the Cubs have continued their long-standing tradition of hosting a celebrity conductor to lead the crowd in “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch. Over the years, a few big names have been scheduled during the Astros’ series (Jeff Gordon comes to mind), but for the most part, to be frank, the guests have been kind of, well, lame, from an out-of-towner’s perspective.

We enjoyed a dramatic reversal of fortune on Friday, however, when actor John Cusack made an appearance in the broadcast booth to conduct the sing-a-long. I enjoyed exchanging some of the more well-remembered lines from the classic ’80s flick “Say Anything” with a lot of you on Twitter during the game that day (“I gave her my heart. She gave me a pen”) and I admit I got a little camera happy when Cusack, a.k.a as the forlorn but lovable Lloyd Dobler, showed up in the booth.

The best part of this picture is JD peering in the background…
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Other shots from an unseasonably warm and beautiful April afternoon at Wrigley:

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That’s actor/musician Jared Leto. Kind of hard to miss him in a crowd.

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Dealing with a losing streak, then celebrating a win.

It started with Geoff Blum sprinkling little white pills in the bat bags of his teammates.

“Advil,” he said.

That’s what happens when your team adds another loss to the win column, making it eight straight. You go into the clubhouse, remove your uniform, retreat into the training room and grab a Jumbo-sized bottle of ibuprofen.

A few pills here, another couple there. Sure, it sounds ridiculous, but so was this season-opening team-wide tumble. What cures a headache could very well do the same for a collective .223 batting average, no?

The clubhouse scene the next morning was pretty standard — players milling around, players hitting in the cages, players eating breakfast.

Players grooving out to the musical stylings of boy bands NSYNC and Backstreet Boys.

For the first minute or so, there was a station-to-station denial that anyone dared to like the music or know the lyrics — “Who the heck has Justin Timberlake on their iPod?” Jason Michaels: “Me, dude. Greatest hits. If you’re going to do it, go all out.” But before long, heads were bobbing, toes were tapping and Blum was doing that “running man” dance move that was so popular in the early early ’90s.

“How can you not feel it?” he asked, all the while keeping rhythm during “I Want it That Way.”

Minutes later, Cory Sullivan laid his bat on a towel in the middle of the clubhouse, covered it with another towel and said, “The bats need to rest. They’ll be ready by gametime.” Soon, Sullivan’s bats had company — Blum’s bat, Michaels’ bat, Chris Johnson’s, and on and on. I heard later that Humberto Quintero brought all five of his over to join the slumber party.

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No one will ever know if wacky clubhouse hijinks played a role in their reversal of fortune, but the Astros won handily that afternoon, beating the Cardinals 5-1. This win was important, obviously, seeing it was the team’s first win of 2010 and Brad Mills’ first win as a big league manager.

Chris Sampson, who contribute two scoreless innings, walked into Mills’ office, offered congratulations and gestured dramatically as he simulated knocking that proverbial gorilla off Mills’ back.

Yesterday, I blogged that the demeanor in the clubhouse is pretty much the same, win or lose, night after night. This is true, but there are exceptions. Thursday was an exception. Mills was hugely relieved, as were the players. The 1983 record is safe, and the burden of a winless season has been lifted.

The music in the clubhouse postgame? “Bye bye bye.”

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The press box at Busch Stadium is way, way up there. It’s ideal if you’re not trying to cover a game or take pictures. But I did want to capture some images of the big win, even if they’re grainy. Enjoy.

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Astros baseball 101: Cramming for a new season.

After Brad Mills was hired to be the Astros’ new manager last October, he had just a few months to acquaint himself with a brand new organization, one he had barely crossed paths with during the previous six years that he spent with the Red Sox. Other than one series in Houston a couple of years ago, the Astros were a team pretty foreign to the Red Sox. The two teams hadn’t as much as faced each other in a Spring Training game.

Mills’ first order of business was to get to know his new club top to bottom, inside and out. To do so, he watched somewhere in the neighborhood of 120 to 130 Astros games from the 2009 season, all from his home computer.

Accessing his MLB.tv account, Mills woke up early every morning, as he always does, and got to work. He has a big screen TV hooked up to his computer, and he watched around three games a day, each taking around an hour and a half (since he was watching sans commercials).

The objective?

“To see exactly what was happening,” Mills said. “If I didn’t want to watch a particular player, I would look at streaks they had. Maybe they lost five or six in a row, or won five or six. Why did they win or lose five or six in a row? What exactly was happening? When they won, was the pitching all that much better for those streaks, or did they have some guys coming through swinging the bats more? Did they run a little more?”

And when the Astros lost a bunch, Mills also wanted to know why. Errors? Or something else?

Pitching coach Brad Arnsberg had a similar task when he was hired away from the Blue Jays soon after Mills was named manager. Arnsberg didn’t watch every game, but the team sent him a hard drive containing every appearance by Astros pitchers last year so that he could familiarize himself with their deliveries before Spring Training started.

“You’re trying to learn 27 new names and learn them as quickly as I can,” Arnsberg said. “I read all their bios and I knew about their pasts, but it was mostly about watching deliveries. I jotted down some notes and maybe things that if there were problems, I could try to help them right out of the chute rather than having to wait two or three weeks into Spring Training before I could approach them. I was just trying to get ahead of the game.”

Spring Training is almost over, and while none of us have any idea how the season will play out, there is one thing I am certain of: this team will be ready to play every single time it steps onto the field. You might think I’m just stating the obvious — after all, aren’t teams always ready to play? The answer is, simply, no.

Last year, I wrote that the Astros played 162 games in 2009 and rarely were they the most prepared of the two teams to take the field. From the stands, baseball can look like a pretty simple game. But there is a ton of preparation required, and it starts with the manager and his coaching staff.

Focus was stressed more this spring than any other I can remember. Mental and physical mistakes on the basepaths were addressed. Same goes for fielding deficiencies. And the players were reminded, constantly, that there is work to be done and that’s where the focus needs to be.

During one of Mills’ recent preworkout chats with the team, he said he understood camp was coming to a close and that players have families to tend to, living arrangements to be made and other elements that can, understandably, be distracting this time of year. But he commended them on maintaining their focus, working hard all spring and asked that they continue to do so.

And the players appear to be responding, favorably.

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On Blum, Puma and Opening Day.

Geoff Blum’s most valuable contribution to the Astros is his ability to play anywhere in the infield, and that skill will definitely be tested from now until Opening Day, and possibly beyond.

Blum was earmarked to start at first base in case Lance Berkman’s knee wasn’t quite ready for game action when the season opens on April 5, but he also will see some playing time at shortstop this spring while Tommy Manzella is sidelined with a quad strain. Blum’s versatility is no doubt an asset, but unfortunately, he can only play one position at a time. I figured he was probably best suited for first base, but after he made a couple of impressive plays at short against the Cardinals on Monday, I’m starting to rethink it.

Blum has played in 190 games in his career at short, so it’s not as if he doesn’t have experience in that area. Although the bulk of that playing time came earlier in his career, the 36-year-old seems unfazed at the idea of moving around the infield to fill in where needed, if needed, the first week of the season.

Blum is also fantastically self-depricating and always finds a unique way to sum up his day — and sometimes, his career — with a few PumaOneLiners.

Of his performance at short on Monday: “I’d like to say it’s like riding a bike, but I’m way too old to be riding bikes.”

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Speaking of the Puma, manager Brad Mills talked to Berkman around lunchtime on Monday and was pleased to hear that the first baseman’s knee is feeling “a lot better.” I saw Berkman briefly in the morning and he appeared to be walking better, so that’s encouraging. However, the news that he recently he had more fluid drained from his knee is not so encouraging, and while I’m fairly confident that he’ll play the majority of games this season, I have serious doubts that he’ll be ready Opening Day.

No one wants to see Puma start the year on the disabled list, but if he did, he’d only be required to miss four games. Teams can start the DL clock on March 26, and because the Major League Baseball season technically starts Sunday, April 4 and the Astros have an offday after their first three games, Berkman will have served the entire 15-day stint by April 9, which would make him eligible to play in the second game of the Phillies series on April 10.

With that in mind, taking things a little slower with Puma doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

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The Astros are celebrating their 45th anniversary this year, and as was the case in 1965 when they opened the Astrodome, NASA will play a big role in officially opening the new season.

On Opening Day, approximately 40 NASA employees will carry an oversized American flag onto the field, representing all of their colleagues at the Johnson Space Center in Clear Lake. The game’s ceremonial first pitches will be thrown out by members of an upcoming NASA space shuttle mission, recreating the inaugural ceremonial first pitch at the Astrodome in April 1965 thrown by 22 Mercury astronauts.

A group of retired U.S. Navy Seals will parachute into Minute Maid Park and deliver the first pitch baseballs.

The national anthem will be sung by Texas Country Music artist Jack Ingram. A Houston-area native, Ingram has won multiple awards including the 2008 Academy of Country Music Top New Male Vocalist Award.

The first 40,000 fans will receive a 2010 schedule magnet, courtesy of Continental Airlines. Opening Day is not yet sold out.

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Images from a windy Monday afternoon at Osceola County Stadium:

Pregame chuckles: Jeff Keppinger, Chris Johnson, Bobby Meacham

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 Hunter Pence, Blum

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Pence

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Tommy Manzella, Dave Clark

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Sean Berry and Jamie Quirk catch up with St. Louis hitting coach Mark McGwire.

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J.R. Towles.

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Oswalt and Opening Day go together like peanut butter and chocolate.

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Judging from my conversations with people who closely follow the Astros, I clearly was one of the few who thought Wandy Rodriguez might be awarded the Opening Day start this year.

I was basing this solely on conclusions I drew from past years. When I got here in 1997, Shane Reynolds was in the midst of what would be a five-year stretch of consecutive Opening Day starts. He made his first in 1996 and his last in 2000, after which he was unseated by a young Scott Elarton.

The decision to start Elarton in ’01 was based solely on his performance in 2000. He won 17 games in a terrible season for the team, while Reynolds pitched only about a half-season until back problems shut him down.

That call by Larry Dierker made perfect sense, assuming he was awarding the Opening Day start to the pitcher who most deserved it, based on the prior season.

In ’02, Wade Miller got the Opening Day nod. Again, Miller’s ’01 season was better than any of his rotation mates by a large margin. He was 16-8 with a 3.40 ERA and proved himself a workhorse, piling up 212 innings.

That was the last time someone not named Roy Oswalt started on Opening Day for the Astros. Oswalt will pitch his club-record eighth opener on April 5, and I admit, there’s something that just feels right about that.

But a couple of months ago when we were still deep in the offseason, I just assumed Rodriguez would be in line to start the opener. Every Opening Day starter over the 13 years I’ve been around this team got that start based on his performance the prior year, so why not this time?  Wandy led the team with 14 wins and had an ERA of 3.02 and was named the club’s Pitcher of the Year. Roy was sidelined for a spell with back problems and compiled just eight wins (a number that could partially be explained by the record-setting 16 no-decisions he received.)

I figured the only thing that might prevent Wandy from receiving the Opening Day start was the fact that he’s left-handed, and managers generally like to put their lefties in between right-handers instead of have them at the top of the rotation.

Turns out, Wandy will fall in line after Oswalt, but not necessarily because of the lefty-righty theory. Simply put, Oswalt has been the ace of this staff for nearly a decade and that means a lot to the organization. It specifically carries a lot of weight with manager Brad Mills, and as long as Oswalt showed he was healthy this spring and stayed on schedule without any setbacks, Mills had no doubt about who would start Opening Day.

(Watch Mills and Oswalt discuss Opening Day here.) 

When Mills reset the rotation after the off day earlier this week, he flip-flopped Roy and Wandy so that Roy would be on schedule to start April 5.

I like the decision. It’ll be Oswalt vs. Tim Lincecum on Opening Day, and anything else just wouldn’t have felt right. I just wonder why it took me longer than everyone else to realize it.

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Images from a busy day in Kissimmee on Saturday (it’s always slightly chaotic when the Yankees come to town):

Coach Biggio hits fungos during morning drills:

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Carlos Lee,Pedro Feliz during batting practice.

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Felipe Paulino and pitching coach Brad Arnsberg.

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Oswalt and Berkman during the anthem.

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View from above…record crowd for Astros vs. Yankees.

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