Results tagged ‘ Hunter Pence ’

Aluminum bats, Minor League MVPs, and…Bagwell takes BP?

It’s never fun to be one of the many teams NOT headed for the playoffs the final weekend of the regular season, but still, those final moments of a 162-game grind when you know the season is coming to an end can be highly entertaining. While it’s still business as usual in terms of preparing for the game, it is also not uncommon for oddities to pop up here and there in the hours leading up to gametime.

Take “early BP” for example. Normally, early BP involves some of the younger hitters who might not be getting enough at-bats or veteran players who are struggling. On Saturday, a few folks took early BP, including…hitting coach Jeff Bagwell and pitching coach Brad Arnsberg.

Arnsberg had been out early with his son, Kyle, a sophomore at the Arizona State University. Kyle was hitting with the college-issued aluminum bat, and pretty soon, so was Pops. Bagwell took a few swings, too (but I think he might have used a wooden bat).

That wasn’t the end of the aluminum bat cameo. It reappeared a few minutes later when the veteran hitters took BP, and while we all know why Major League players don’t use aluminum bats, Saturday’s session provided a nice reminder.

Hunter Pence hit the light fixture that extends a couple hundred feet above the facade in left center. Carlos Lee came thiiiiiiiiiis close to hitting Drayton McLane’s office window on the fifth floor of Union Station. A couple of balls left the ballpark completely.

It’s been a long year, and while everyone’s experiencing some level of fatigue, it was nice to see the players having a little fun as the season winds down.

We captured images of a lot of laughs, and who can’t use a few chuckles after 160 games (194, if you count Spring Training)?

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Geoff Blum.

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Jason Michaels was the first to hit with the aluminum bat.

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This is Michaels pointing to Union Station and making sure Carlos realized how close he was to actually hitting Drayton’s window. JMike swears he saw Drayton watching from his office.

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Pence takes some aluminum hacks…

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And tips his cap to…well, no one, since it was before gates open. But he was proud of hitting the light fixture.

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Humberto Quintero wasn’t part of the aluminum hitting group, but he’s always good for a pregame laugh or too anyway. 

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The pregame ceremony on Saturday was dedicated to the best and brightest of the Astros’ Minor League system: Pitcher of the Year Jordan Lyles, Player of the Year J.D. Martinez and Player Development Man of the Year, Gulf Coast League manager Omar Lopez. The three also enjoyed an up-close view of batting practice, although they looked slightly out of place being so well-dressed among a bunch of polyester-clad ballplayers. Enjoy the sights.

Lyles and Martinez are greeted at the cage by Bagwell and Co.  

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On Brett Wallace, Hunter Pence, and the racing presidents.

Random thoughts and observations as the schedule whittles down to single-digits:

Why is Brett Wallace sitting?

I’ve heard from quite a few of you who are concerned with Brett Wallace’s playing time — or, lack thereof — as Carlos Lee continues to get the lion’s share of starts at first base.

Manager Brad Mills is doing his best to put the young first baseman in situations where he can be successful, but he’s also cognizant of Wallace’s 42 strikeouts in 125 at-bats spanning over 46 games since he was called up by the Astros after the trade deadline.

There’s a delicate line between letting a kid play every day to get his feet wet, no matter what, and putting a struggling young hitter out there day after day and possibly, for lack of a better term, “burying” him. This is not a situation where Mills is benching Wallace, and Wallace hasn’t done anything to fall out of favor with his manager. As we discussed in the last blog, Lee is likely to receive some serious consideration to play first base in ’11, and therefore, he is a viable option there as this season winds down as well.

I would expect to see Wallace at first base for many of the remaining games when the Astros face a right-hander, and he’ll certainly be in the mix when Spring Training begins next February.

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Hunter Pence was back in the lineup Thursday after missing Wednesday’s game with discomfort in his right hip flexor. He showed up to the ballpark early and practiced everything he might have to do in a game — hit, run, steal bases, run down fly balls. Mills said Pence was “100 percent” ready to play and “he probably would have killed me if I didn’t put him in the lineup.”

Michael Bourn, out with an oblique strain, is not expected to bounce back so quickly. He has been sidelined for four days and there is no timetable yet for a return.

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Even with the offday on Monday, the five-man starting rotation will stay on schedule. Mills noted that all of his starters want to continue to pitch and get as many starts as possible before the season ends. Even though the Astros are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, none of the Astros players appear to be in shutdown mode. “They want to keep pitching,” Mills said. “That’s a nice thing to see.”

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The season is almost over, and the Astros have an action-packed weekend series planned against the Cubs that includes quite a few ticket specials.

Here’s a quick rundown:

$5 fan appreciation special (On sale until Oct 3)

As part of Fan Appreciation weekend at Minute Maid Park, you can buy $5 Outfield and View Deck I or II tickets to any remaining game. Available through this link only.

Waive the fees offer

As a thank you for your support during the 2010 season, and for helping the Astros reach 30,000,000 total fans in the history of Minute Maid Park, the Astros will pay your ticket fees to any of the last three games of the year.

Purchase any full-price, individual ticket through this link by Sept. 26 and the Astros will pay the fees.  Click here for details.

Other events on the docket:

Oct 1: Player of the Decade Ceremony

All year, fans voted on line for the player of each decade from the 1960s to the 2000s.  Jimmy Wynn won for the 60s, Jose Cruz for the 70s, Nolan Ryan for the 80s, Jeff Bagwell for the 90s and Craig Biggio the 2000s.  All of them, with the exception of Ryan, will be present for a special pregame ceremony on Friday.

Sat, Oct. 2: Minor League MVP night

The Astros will honor the MVPs from all of their Minor League affiliates before the game on Saturday. Click here.

Sun, Oct. 3: Fan appreciation

As a thank you to the fans for their continued support, prizes will be given away every half inning to fans in attendance at Sunday’s game. For a full rundown of prizes, click here.

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We’re mostly about news, views and all things Astros on this blog, but there’s nothing that says we can’t have a little fun, too. And as much as the games on the field are the focal point of every ballpark experience, there are plenty of addition attractions in and around the venue that are worth noting. 

Big, billowy, inanimate objects racing around the warning track between innings has become something of a new-age phenomenon in the past several years. We have the old staples, such as the sausage race in Milwaukee (always a hoot) and the pierogi race in Pittsburgh (not as famous, but delightful in its own special way). But I have to say that hands down, the best races run are those in Arizona and Washington.

In Arizona, four gigantic foamy larger-than-life versions of Diamondbacks legends — Luis Gonzalez, Randy Johnson, Mark Grace and Matt Williams — race around the track, looking eerily like their real-life model (but with slighter smoother skin).

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(Above: Johnson, Williams)

But I’m giving the slight edge to the presidents in Washington, because well, there’s just nothing funnier than watching Teddy Roosevelt smoke Abe Lincoln (by cheating and leaving the starting line early), while George Washington and Thomas Jefferson lag 20 paces behind with their oversized gray ponytails flopping in the breeze.

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(Roosevelt)

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(Jefferson)

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(Washington)

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(Lincoln)

The racing presidents page on the Nationals’ web site gives pretty detailed information on each president. For example, Lincoln is noted for his major achievements, including the Emancipation Proclamation, the Thirteenth Amendment and the Gettysburg Address. But we also learn that his favorite sport is wrestling. Who knew?

So which is better…the Legends, or the Presidents? On one hand, the Legends represent players we’ve seen on television and in some cases, in person, in our lifetimes. Definite plus. On the other hand, the Presidents are identified on the backs of their shirts by name — first name. Ted, George, Abe and Tom. That’s got to count for something.

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And finally, some images from batting practice Thursday:

Jason Bourgeois, Jeff Bagwell

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Michael Bourn, Bourgeois

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Jason Castro

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Carlos Lee

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Hunter Pence

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Photos from Social Media day, and some musings on Brett Myers.

I’m glad we were able to host one final Social Media event before the end of the season, and it happened to fall on what was hands-down the most activity-filled day at Minute Maid Park this year. Between Dog Day, Faith and Family Day, the MercyMe concert and Social Media Day, the Astros were fortunate to actually be able to squeeze in a ballgame.

Or, as Tweeter @MyVidaLocal adequately put it, “I’m thinking if you’re a dog-loving Christian rock fan on Twitter, Sunday’s game is a must-go.”

It wasn’t a must-win, but the Astros took care of business anyway, beating the Reds 4-3 to take the series from the division leaders. All in all, it was a great game, one that more than 70 Tweeters/Facebookers watched from the Budweiser Patio as part of our second (and final) Social Media event of the 2010 season.

Judging from the positive response we’ve received, we’ll be hosting many more of these in ’11. In the meantime, thanks to everyone who attended and made it such a good time. And special thanks to Chris Johnson, who was gracious enough to stop by the Patio and hand out prizes during our Twitter trivia contest.

Come to think of it, Johnson went 2-for-3 with a double, a home run and two runs scored during Sunday’s game. After Hunter Pence made his Social Media appearance on Aug. 31, he was 2-for-4 with a triple and two RBIs later that night. And the Astros won both games (Just saying.)

Enjoy the pictures, congratulations to the winners, and hopefully we’ll see you out at these events next year.

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We also had a hot dog building station, and we picked out two photos from that activity. First up, our youngest participant:

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And the most creative decoration…I’ve never seen “Astros” spelled out in onions, so I’m compelled to post:

 

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During our Twitter question and answer session during our Social Media event, @mcrows asked who I thought the Astros’ team MVP is. I’m not sure there is a clear-cut favorite, but honestly, if I had to pick one today, I’d go the unconventional route and select a pitcher: Brett Myers.

When Ed Wade signed Myers last winter, we sensed he could be pretty good, considering he had previously pitched well for a good team (Philadelphia), in a good division (the NL East) and had thrived in some pretty high pressure situations (two World Series).

But no one could have predicted he’d be this good. Not only is he one of just six pitchers since 1920 to pitch at least six innings in their first 31 appearances of the season, but he’s also going to finish the season undefeated at his home ballpark.

Myers is currently 8-0 at with a 2.01 ERA over 14 starts at Minute Maid Park, which is pretty much in line with his career numbers in Houston: 8-1 with a 2.31 ERA over 19 games, including 17 starts. He is scheduled to start Friday in Pittsburgh and once in Cincinnati, which will mean he won’t pitch during the final three-game set against the Cubs Oct. 1-3.

I realize starting pitchers work only once every five days and position players are out there every single game (more or less), and with that in mind, Pence certainly merits consideration as the team MVP. But no one has been more consistent than Myers, and he’s spread it over a full six months. For that, I give him the edge.

What say you?

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Random thoughts on the Astros as we near the finish line.

The Astros have their eyes fixated firmly on finishing the season at the .500 mark, a goal that seemed impossible just two months ago when they were in danger of being the first team in club history to lose 100 games.

It would be great to finish at .500, of course, but even if they fall short, they can be proud of a 79 or 80 win season, too, because it will still symbolize how far they’ve come in a very short amount of time.

About halfway through this season, I remember feeling a little panicked — not because of where they were headed in 2010 (we all sensed this could be a somewhat lean year) — but because of what it meant for ’11. I recall talking with some Astros fans after an Astroline show during the offseason and telling them 2011 looks pretty good. I figured with the core of hitters in the middle of the order, coupled with some young pitching coming through the system, next year could be, at the very least, interesting.

Then came the struggles — by Lance Berkman, by Carlos Lee, and at times, by Hunter Pence — and I said, “Uh oh.” The blueprint for ’11, at the time, was predicated on these three being what they had always been. Problem was, Berkman and Lee were hitting some 50 points below their career averages and showed no signs of pulling out of it. The offensive talent coming through the system is not as strong as the pitching, and I feared the club could find itself in a helpless situation as it put together the team for 2011.

Times have changed dramatically. Chris Johnson has had a fantastic rookie season, answered every challenge as he was moved from seventh to sixth to fifth in the order, and appears to be primed for a full season next year as the starting third baseman. Lee has performed better at first base than I think anyone expected, and he seems to even hit better during games when he’s playing over there. Brett Wallace, while still working to put it all together, has shown great potential as a hitter and is also a lot more defensively savvy than had been indicated when he was traded here.

Michael Bourn has had his share of struggles offensively but has also had long stretches of extreme productivity, and he has to be considered one of the top center fielders in the league. Pence has been red-hot in the second half, and Jeff Keppinger is the perfect No. 2 hitter — rarely strikes out, makes contact and keeps things moving.

The overall lack of power still concerns me and I do worry about Lee’s ability to spread his production over a full season, considering how much he struggled for the better part of four months. A lot will have to go right next year, which is the case every year. But a strong pitching staff and a reshaped lineup tells me the Astros could be in for some interesting times next year.

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What I really like about this team is not only the infusion of youth, but also that these guys are going through these early stages of their careers together. A lot of the players with the Astros now went through the Minor Leagues together and having each other to lean on now, at this level, is a very good thing.

I recall in 2004 writing a feature on the Astros playoff team and noting that around 70 percent of the Opening Day starting lineup had either been drafted and developed by the Astros (Ensberg, Biggio, Berkman, Oswalt, etc.) or had come from outside of the organization but had never played a Major League game for anyone but the Astros (Everett, Bagwell). Drafting and developing your own talent is the lifeline of every organization, but it also creates a closeness and camaraderie that makes a team a cohesive, unselfish group moving forward.

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Heading to the offseason, there are a few things to keep in mind as we watch the front office put together next year’s team. The question I get more than any other is if the Astros are going to make any splashy trades for veteran players or sign any big free agents. Please keep in mind that trading for veteran talent requires giving up Minor League players, and the only players other teams are interested in are the absolute top prospects and no one else. That’s one of the biggest misconceptions — that the Astros could trade for a big impact player in exchange for a bunch of players not considered “prospects.” Please keep in mind it’s not about quantity when you make a trade, it’s about quality. And the Astros, for all of the work they’ve done in reshaping the farm system, are still in no position to get rid of top talent. When a team has a surplus of top prospects, they can use some of those players as trade chips. The Astros aren’t there yet, and when it comes to dangling the Jordan Lyles of the world this winter, it’s in the best interests of this club to just say no.

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On the Minor League front, the Astros are hoping Oklahoma City picks them to be the parent club of their Triple-A team in 2011. Two teams that are in search of a new home are eyeing Oklahoma City — the Astros and the Blue Jays. A decision is expected in the not-so-distant future.

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The Astros were one of several teams who watched Barret Loux, Arizona’s former No. 1 draft pick, throw an extended bullpen session at Texas A&M recently. You can read the details in McTaggart’s notebook here.

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We’re all geared up for our second Social Media event, which will take place Sunday in the Budweiser Patio. You can read the details and purchase tickets by clicking here, but I wanted to show some of the items we’re giving away during our Twitter trivia contest (in addition to the baseballs signed by Johnson, who will be out there from noon to 12:15 to hand them out).

Signed Biggio bronze bust (that’s him in the background, after I hit him up for the autograph)

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Bourn signed bobblehead

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Throwback cap, signed by Biggio and Jeff Bagwell.

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Pence signed bobblehead

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I get a lot of questions from fans about former players, about where they are now, and what they’re doing these days. For the most part, I have to Google their names, and if they’re not in baseball, I have no idea what they’re doing now. But no one elicits more “where are they now” inquiries than popular former second baseman Bill Doran. Turns out, Doran is working in the Reds’ organization as their Assistant Field Coordinator of Instruction and he’s with the Major League club during this trip to Houston.

Here’s a picture of him taken Friday during batting practice, talking with another popular former second baseman. (Sorry it’s a bit blurry. I need a new camera.)

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And finally…from the photo vault:

I stumbled upon this funny picture, taken during one of our annual offseason caravan trips to Temple (I think this was 2008). Pence and Chris Sampson always knew how to ham it up for the camera.

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Hunter Pence is tweeting, just in time for a long homestand.

 

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A couple of months ago, Chris Sampson (@csampson43) jumped into the Twitter craze, and on Thursday, the Astros added one more tweeter to the list — outfielder and fan fave Hunter Pence.

You can follow Pence at @HunterPence9, and he also invites you to check out his Facebook fan page at http://www.facebook.com/hunterpence9.

Astros players pretty much fall three categories: 1) Those who don’t really understand social media and aren’t interested; 2) Those who do understand social media but still aren’t interested; and 3) Those who understand social media, like it, and want to participate. Pence definitely falls into the third category and I’m glad he’s on board. Not only is he one of the Astros’ most popular players, he’s also a fun guy and loves engaging the fans. So really, in that respect, Twitter and Facebook are tailor-made for people just like him.

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Turn Back the Clock

The Astros have completed a 3-3 road trip and will open an extended homestand on Friday, beginning with a three-game set with the Reds. Saturday’s game will be another Throwback day, this one harkening back to the 1980’s. The Astros will wear the shoulder rainbow jerseys during the game, and the fans will receive a Throwback Jersey t-shirt, courtesy of ABC Pest Pool & Lawn.

Additionally, tickets will be cheap, cheap, cheap. View Deck II and Outfield Deck seats will be only $5.

I indicated in a past blog that there would be an autograph session with members of the ’89 team, but that was cancelled because of a low number of players who were available that day.

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LIVESTRONG

The Astros have teamed up with LIVESTRONG and the Methodist Cancer Center to host Cancer Survivors Day During the 1:05 p.m. game vs. the Reds on Sunday  (July 25). Cancer Survivor Day, the first Astros game of its kind, will celebrate the lives of those affected by cancer while generating needed funds for cancer research.

A portion of the ticket sales purchased through the link www.astros.com/survivor will benefit LIVESTRONG and the Methodist Cancer Center. Groups of 20 or more that would like to attend the game and support the cause should contact Joe Schiavi at 713-259-8314 or jschiavi@astros.com.

In addition, the first 10,000 fans at the game will receive a free LIVESTRONG bracelet courtesy of LIVESTRONG. All fans are encouraged to show their support by wearing yellow.

In America alone, there are over 11 million people living with a history of cancer. Individuals that have survived a cancer diagnosis are invited to share their victory story and by doing so have the chance to be selected to be part of this special day. Fans may e-mail their stories or those of their loved ones to Nicky Patriarca, one of the Astros Cancer Survivors Day coordinators, at npatriarca@astros.com.

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Whataburger signing

Second baseman Jeff Keppinger will meet fans and sign autographs at the Whataburger restaurant located at 23540 Westheimer Parkway, Katy, TX 77494 from 11:00 a.m. to noon on July 27.

The appearance, part of the Whataburger Ultimate “Whatafan” promotion, gives fans the chance to register to win the title of Ultimate “Whatafan.” The Ultimate “Whatafan” will win suite tickets, autographed jerseys and caps from the Astros, Round Rock Express and Corpus Christi Hooks, an on-field batting practice visit, the chance to participate in a pre-game ceremony and an opportunity to throw out a ceremonial first pitch.

Bagwell’s been on the job one day, and already Berkman has a new batting stance.

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I kid, I kid.

But this image of Lance Berkman imitating Jeff Bagwell while taking batting practice on Thursday did make me laugh, for two reasons: 1) it was pretty much a spot-on imitation; and 2) It was good comic relief for me after sifting through a few dozen messages from fans who were concerned that Bagwell couldn’t possibly be a good hitting coach because all he was going to do is make everyone adopt that bizarre, unconventional squatty stance that worked for him many moons ago.

The Bagwell squat isn’t making a resurgence, thankfully, but it’s good to see the old first baseman back in uniform. Bagwell stood behind the cage on Thursday and watched batting practice, chatted with the players and pulled a few to the side for one-on-one talks. In other words, it was a pretty typical day in the life of a hitting coach, but one that drew a bit more attention considering where Bags fits into the history of this franchise.

Watch video of the Astros’ workout and Bagwell’s first day on the job here.

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A quick note on retired numbers: A former player whose number is retired but who comes back to the organization as uniformed personnel is permitted to wear his number. Jose Cruz wore No. 25 when he returned to coach, and Bagwell will wear his No. 5.

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It was a pretty lively, loose group that worked out at PNC Park on Thursday. About half the players met the team in Pittsburgh from wherever they spent their All-Star break, and everyone made it on time — except for Carlos Lee. Citing flight problems out of Panama, Lee missed the workout. Michael Bourn was also not in attendance, but that was arranged by the club. Bourn spent three days at the All-Star Game and was given Thursday off to rest.

Lee’s absence is considered “unexcused,” although the workout was not mandatory. As Chronicle beat writer Bernardo Fallas tweeted Thursday night, “GM Ed Wade said he was disappointed…Needless to say, the absence, which we’ll deem unexcused, threatens Carlos Lee’s role as starter for Fri.’s series opener vs. Bucs.”

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From the workout:

Bagwell, Pence 

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Jason Castro.

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Chris Johnson.

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Geoff Blum, Tommy Manzella.

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Hunter Pence.

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Warm-ups can often look like dancing when captured with a still camera.

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Walk up music: bubblegum pop, with a huge helping of cheese.

Sun-kissed skin so hot it would melt a popsicle.

Milkshakes that bring all the boys to the yard.

Walk-up music so off-the-charts cheesy that if you’re not a 14 year old high school girl, you might wonder what’s gotten into the Astros hitters.

Being cool is so 2009. The name of the game these days is bubblegum pop music, and the hokier, the better. And if the song is just cheesy enough, an Astros hitter might just pick it as his walk up music when it’s his turn to bat.

At least that’s what Hunter Pence is hoping. He recently changed his walk-up music to “California Gurls” by Katy Perry. Now, being a child of the 80s who dropped out of the pop music scene sometime around 1994, I had never heard the song, and the only reason I know who Katy Perry is is because she’s engaged to that funny guy from Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

So I checked out “California Gurls” on iTunes and now I understand — after hearing that whole “melt a popsicle” chorus — what Pence was talking about when he described his recent taste in music as, “As cheese as we can get. And it doesn’t get any cheesier than that.”

(Watch Pence and friends break it down in this home video)

Teeny-bopper pop music is making a comeback, at least in certain annals of Major League Baseball. Pence suspects the trend began when Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki chose Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A” as his walkup music not long ago. At first, it prompted some raised eyebrows and a little confusion around the league. After the initial reaction, however, it just made people laugh. And it presumably kept things loose among the Rockies’ players, which is what Pence is going for.

Pence isn’t the only one who’s jumped on the bandwagon. He dared Geoff Blum to follow suit, and Blum, not one to shy away from a challenge, readily accepted.

That’s why you’re most likely to hear La Roux’s “Bulletproof” when he bats.

“It’s got a pretty cheesy beat to it, and some goofy lyrics,” Blum said. “It seems to be kind of catchy, and we won some games with it and that kind of helps.”

Chris Johnson jumped into the fray as well, but for him, mixing in a steady diet of cheesy music didn’t require much of an adjustment. He likes that kind of stuff anyway. So when he hears Kellis’s “Milkshake” (‘My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard. And their like it’s better than yours,’) as he strides the plate, you can bet he’s focused.

“It’s got a good rhythm and it gets me ready to hit,” he said.

So the cheesier, the better?

“I guess,” he said. “Those are just the songs I like. I have all three of those songs on my iPod. Miley Cyrus is on my iPod. I guess if that makes me a cheese ball…that’s me.”

While plenty of Astros still prefer to hear the standard far of masculine metal-head head-****** tunes, plenty more aren’t afraid to laugh at themselves a little while trying to win a few ballgames.

“The bigger goof you can be, the cooler you are?” Blum asked. “If that’s the case, then we’re going to pretty rad.”

Here’s the somewhat complete list of the walkup music choices of your Astros:

Pitcher Intros:
Matt Lindstrom: “Dangerous Waters” by Non-Point
Brett Myers: “Miracle” by Non-Point
Roy Oswalt: “I Stand Alone” by Godsmack
Brian Moehler: “Big Gun” by AC DC
Bud Norris: “Hero” by N.A.S.
Felipe Paulino: “Rusty Cage” by Soundgarten
Wandy Rodriguez: “TNT” by AC DC
Chris Sampson: “Dukes of Hazzard” by Waylon Jennings

Batter Intros:
Hunter Pence: “California Gurls” by Katy Perry
Chris Johnson: “Milkshake” by Kellis
Geoff Blum: “Bulletproof” by La Roux
Lance Berkman: “Seventeen” by Tim McGraw
Michael Bourn: “Showtime” by Young Jeezy
Carlos Lee: “Noche De Entierro” by Daddy Yankee
Tommy Manzella: “Stranglehold” by Ted Nugent
Jason Michaels: “The Big Show” by WWF: The Music
Roy Oswalt: “Whistling Dixie” by Randy Houser

Have you hugged your recycle bin today?

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Earth Day has been around for 40 years, but being truly environmentally observant is a relatively new phenomenon for most of us. “Going Green,” of course, is a hip, somewhat new trend, one that the Astros embraced a few years ago and continue to observe today.

The Astros wore green caps during their game with the Marlins, but the true Earth Day celebration began several hours earlier when Geoff Blum, popular television announcers Jim Deshaies and Bill Brown and crews from both the Astros and FS Houston teamed with second graders from Foerster Elementary School to plant seeds in a nearby garden.

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Blum, Brownie

The morning was spent working several garden beds at the Westbury Community Garden, adding soil and fertilizer and planting seeds that will become fruits and vegetables. Those items will eventually be distributed to Westbury residents and surrounding communities.

After raking several pounds of soil with Brownie and ribbing J.D. for wearing the wrong kind of shoes, Blum got down and dirty, planting seeds alongside the kids while simultaneously posing for photos and signing autographs.

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Deshaies

“It’s a lot of fun to be a part of it,” Blum said. “You go to some of these communities and you think it’s pretty much hopeless, and then all of a sudden, there’s this gorgeous oasis of fruits and vegetables and things and the kids are out here having a blast.
 
“They’re realizing the importance of what growing food is. The fact that these kids get to plant the seeds, watch them grow and then harvest everything that they’ve grown, and get to enjoy it, eat it, give it back to a food bank and things like that, that’s pretty impressive.”

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Patti Smith interviews the kids

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An hour south of Westbury, another significant celebration took place when the Astros In Action Foundation and Minute Maid dedicated the newly-refurbished Columbo Field and Buccaneer Field in Galveston.

Drayton McLane, Ed Wade, Grand Slam for Youth Baseball Ambassadors Michael Bourn, and Hunter Pence and former player Jimmy Wynn took part in the ceremony, while broadcaster Milo Hamilton served as emcee.

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Hurricane Ike significantly damaged these two fields and Grand Slam for Youth Baseball, a partnership between the Astros and Minute Maid, restored them to full operation.

Island Little League’s Columbo Field received field turf reconditioning and repairs, infield reconditioning, a dugout-to-dugout warning track, re-worked batting cages and a new electronic scoreboard. 

Galveston West-Isle Little League’s Buccaneer Field received the same repairs plus the replacement of the original on-field concrete walkway with warning track material.

These fields were the eighth and ninth to be refurbished by the Astros and Minute Maid through Grand Slam for Youth Baseball – a community outreach effort that seeks to foster self-confidence, involvement, teamwork and fun among area children.

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More Astros potpourri: why an offday in the middle of a series?

The Astros have a weird schedule this week — only one night game in six days, and an off day right in the middle of the St. Louis series. I’ve received a lot of questions about that, and the explanation is simple: when teams in cold weather cities with open-roofed stadiums have their Opening Day, the next day is usually an offday just in case their Opener gets rained out. Obviously, most Opening Days sell out, so rather than deprive the fans of the game and the club of the gate, everything just shifts to the next day.

It’s 80 degrees and perfectly sunny in St. Louis today (and all week), so tomorrow will be a full day off (yay!). That said, I’m hearing that Brad Mills has reserved the field at Busch Stadium for about an hour for a voluntary workout, and I’m guessing he’ll get a decent showing. The hotel is located near the ballpark, there’s nothing else to do in downtown St. Louis and the way things are going, I would imagine quite a few hitters would like to get in a handful of swings while still enjoying a mental day off.
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Every day when we talk to Mills, we ask for a Puma update with hopes that a return to the field is imminent. So far, no luck. Lance Berkman spent part of his morning rehabbing in Houston, and he’ll continue to do so while the Astros are out of town.

As far as when he’ll be activated from the disabled list, your guess is as good as mine.

“There’s no timetable set forth at all,” Mills said. “When he does finally come back we need him 100 percent to where he’s ready to play every day instead of maybe play for a week and he’s so sore that he has to sit out four or five days or DL him another 15. We don’t want that to happen.”

Making progress without setbacks has been the main issue.

“Some days he comes in and feels real good and they’ll try to increase the activity and all of a sudden, it’s not there,” Mills said. “We’re looking for a little stability in the process, in the program, where he feels good.”

During Monday’s game, we received word Puma did some light running, received treatment and also did some quadriceps strengthening exercises.

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While I’m sure a million different thoughts and emotions are swimming inside of Mills right now, the most important thing he can do for his team is maintain a steady demeanor throughout all of this losing. He and his coaching staff must be a stabilizing force at all times, but especially now, when it’s easy for players to start thinking too much, overanalyzing and psyching themselves out as they try to do their jobs.

“We keep working with them and talking to them and making sure their minds are in the right spot,” Mills said. “And that their minds aren’t getting too heavy or bogged down with what they’re going through, to allow them to free them up to be able to function properly.”

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Meanwhile, my favorite segment of the Astros game notes is back: birthday listings. Not only does the incomparable PR staff inform us when a player or coach has a birthday, but we’re also provided with what other famous people share that birthday.

On Tuesday, Hunter Pence turns 27, and we now know that he shares his birthday with R&B singer Al Green, actor Rick Schroder and the third U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson.

Actually, in the game notes, next to Schroder’s name is the title “‘Lonesome Dove’ actor.” Come on. That’s like identifying Rob Lowe with his role in “The West Wing.” Rick Schroder will forever be Ricky Schroder of Silver Spoons, even if he’s spent the last 25 years trying to make people forget that part of his career.

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During Jeff Bagwell’s recent pow wow with the media, he was asked what he thought of Bud Norris’ future as a starting pitcher. I thought I’d pass those thoughts along to you:

“Bud has great stuff,” Bagwell said. “He’s got a personality that maybe his teammates don’t like (laughs), but I love. Bud is off the wall, and he’s not arrogant, but he believes in his ability. And he has tons of ability. He has a chance to be in our organization and pitch and be upward of one-two in our rotation for years to come.

“I’m excited about Bud. I truly love him. I think he’s going to do great, I really do. I remember back in 2001, we had Roy (Oswalt), Wade (Miller), Carlos Hernandez and (Tim) Redding. I remember sitting there talking to Bidge and saying, ‘We have a chance to be good for a while.’ These are the young kids that have to come up. In today’s game, it’s very hard to go out and pay for pitching, because pitching costs so much money. If we develop our own guys, we’ll have time to keep them in our own nest.”

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From the manager’s session after the Astros’ loss in St. Louis Monday:

Mills, asked if it’s too early to get frustrated with the lack of offense:

“You an definitely be frustrated after one game when you struggle to score. Now that it’s adding up, I think it’s OK to be frustrated a little bit.”

On pulling Wandy in the fifth inning, after 65 pitches:

“He’s fine. At that point, being down like we were, we had to go with matchups.”

(Side note: Wandy said he felt a little shoulder soreness during this game but does not feel it will affect him moving forward.)

Cruuuuuuuuz checks out his bobblehead.

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Teams have been giving bobbleheads away for the better part of a decade, and while they’re fantastic keepsakes, not all players bear a clear-cut striking resemblance to their bobble likeness. That’s not a knock on the designers. I can’t imagine anything more difficult than trying to match a face with a plastic figurine, especially when the player doesn’t have any unusual or distinctive features, like a goatee (Bagwell), piercing blue eyes (Biggio) or a surfboard (Ausmus).

That said, I was duly impressed with the Jose Cruz bobblehead sample that arrived in Kissimmee a few days ago. It’s one of many items the Astros will be featuring this year as they celebrate their 45th anniversary, and Cheo’s likeness harkens back to the glory days of the mid-1980s when rainbow jerseys weren’t yet retro — they were just simply cool.

The Astros have hosted several throwback days over the years, and the rainbow jerseys have made a handful of random cameo appearances. Every time the team wore them, I could help but notice how silly they looked on everyone — except Cruz. He stood at first base wearing the yellow, orange and red, and it just looked right.

I ran that thought by Cheo: “Everyone else looks dorky, except for you,” I suggested. “I look good in anything,” he answered. (Cheo has a hilarious sense of humor. His initial reaction when he saw his bobblehead? “It looks like chocolate.”)

The Cruz bobblehead will be given out on April 24, the first of four nostalgic figurines saluting 45 years of Astros history. The others include Jimmy Wynn on June 5, Nolan Ryan (June 19) and Mike Scott (July 10).

We staged a photo shoot with Cruz, Lance Berkman and Hunter Pence in order to provide an up-close view of some of the items that will be on display this year. We also shot some video that includes reactions from all three. Trust me, Cruz’s segment alone is worth the click.

Here’s Puma wearing the 45th anniversary cap that will given away on April 9:

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And Pence models the 1965 jersey that will be handed out on April 10. The Astros will also wear that jersey during the game as part of a special “Turn Back the Clock” night. The visiting Phillies will also wear their uniforms from 1965.

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Other anniversary-themed giveaways include schedule magnets (Opening Day), fleece blanket (April 23) and replicas of both the blue and orange caps the Astros wore from 1965-93 (July 9 and July 28).

A complete list of Astros promotional games can be found here. See you at the park!

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