Results tagged ‘ Wandy Rodriguez ’

You know what they say. Everything’s better in Texas.

The Astros rode the super-sized version of a commercial jet to Corpus Christi, and while they’ll take the same plane back to Houston following the game against the Double-A Hooks, there will be considerably fewer people on that leg of the flight.

The Astros broke camp late morning on Monday and left town with both teams that will play in the exhibition game at Whataburger Field that night: the Corpus club (whose roster will be officially set sometime in the next day or so), and the thirty-some players remaining in Astros big league camp.

After the game, the Hooks players will stay put and the Astros crew will head to Houston. The exhibition season will continue (and  thankfully end) at Minute Maid Park this week. They play a night game versus the White Sox Tuesday (7:05 CT), a day game Wednesday (1:05 CT) and will work out for a couple of hours on Thursday, an offday. Then it’s go time.

As we continue to count the days down until that first pitch is thrown on Friday, April 6 at 6:05 CT, here’s a visual perspective of the day so far, with more to come later:

Brett Myers, left, Chris Snyder, right

Opening Day starter Wandy Rodriguez lookin' sharp

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Ultimately, roster trimming is good for many players who are “sent out.”

The Astros’ Spring Training roster has been trimmed by 14 players in the last week, from 63 to 49. General manager Jeff Luhnow and manager Brad Mills still have some whittling down to do, considering that between now and Opening Day a little more than three weeks from now, 24 more players are going to have to be removed from Major League roster consideration.

It’s likely that the team will break the Florida version of Spring Training camp with around 30 players. They’ll travel to Corpus Christi for an exhibition game and will have two more to play at home — against the White Sox — before the slate is wiped clean and the real games begin April 6. They’ll need some extra bodies to get them through those final three exhibitions, which justifies bringing along some extra helping hands before finalizing the 25-man Opening Day roster.

We casually refer to roster trimming as “cuts,” but that’s probably not the most accurate term to use. Most of the players who have been sent to Minor League camp so far are considered to be a part of the Astros’ future. Realistically and somewhat ironically, it wouldn’t be fair to their development to keep them in big league camp.

Starting pitchers are pitching more innings by now, and there are only so many games and innings to be dispersed among a group of 63. The Minor League players also have a season to get ready for, and they can’t do that if they’re sitting on the bench, waiting for an inning here and an inning there. Especially the starting pitchers — they need to get stretched out as well.

So that’s why Paul Clemens — he of the 0.00 ERA over five innings in two spring games — was sent to Minor League camp this week, along with several others, like Jonathan Singleton, Delino DeShields, Jonathan Villar and George Springer. Many big pieces of the puzzle will now prepare for their seasons in Minor League camp, where playing time and innings are plentiful.

But don’t forget these guys. You’ll see them again.

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Even though the Major League clubhouse has cleared out a bit, innings are still an issue as the front office and coaching staff sort out who will comprise the starting rotation. There are still more than five viable candidates, which is why some have to pitch in Minor League games or simulated sessions in order to stay on schedule. Jordan Lyles, a fifth starter candidate, started the club’s Triple-A game against the Nationals’ Triple-A team at the same time the Astros were hosting the Blue Jays on Thursday.

Lyles’ line: five innings, two hits, no runs, one walk and seven strikeouts.

“I’m excited,” Lyles said. “It’s going to be fun from here on out.”

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Programming note: Due to scheduling conflicts, Friday’s game will be broadcast on KTRH on tape delay. It will air at 8 p.m. CT that night.
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By this time of the spring, I’ve watched morning workouts on the backfields of the Osceola County Stadium complex more than two dozen times, and quite frankly, the routine can become a tad mundane after a while.

Don’t get me wrong, no one day in baseball is like the next, but after 17 sessions of pitchers’ fielding practice and 48 rounds of batting practice, well, you’ll understand that from time to time, the eyelids get a little droopy.

But it’s nothing that a little flip-cam action can’t remedy. You never know what you’re going to capture if you just stand there and let the sights and sounds of Spring Training take over.

In today’s video corner, we joke around a little bit with Wandy Rodriguez and note some of Carlos Lee’s keen observations as he watches his teammates hit from behind the cage:

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Is Jeff Bagwell a Hall of Famer? Indeedy.

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Anyone who on a daily basis watched Jeff Bagwell play during his 15-year career has no doubt that he is worthy of a spot in the Hall of Fame.

And I truly believe he’ll get there — eventually. But on the first ballot? Probably not.

Before you fire off angry emails filled with statistical data to back up the argument that he is a first-ballot candidate, let me say that I totally, completely, 100 percent agree with you. He is one of the best first basemen ever to play the game, and he played for a long time, and his numbers are tremendous. That, by definition, merits Hall of Fame election. And if he’s a Hall of Famer, then logically, he would be elected this year by the more than 500 members of the Baseball Writers Association of America who recently received their ballots. But that isn’t how it works.

Most players, save for the ultra elite, have to wait more than one try to be inducted. And I doubt Bags will be the exception to the rule.

It’s too bad, really, because this notion that you’re a Hall of Famer but have to wait a while to be recognized as such is just silliness. Is there a separate category — “Hall of Famer, at some point, when we decide it’s time”? To me, it’s black and white. You are either a Hall of Famer, or you’re not.

And in Bagwell’s case, he most certainly is. I’m going to list some of the stat-based criteria that support this argument. But then, we’ll look at this from the perspective of what Bagwell did other than hit a lot of home runs and pile on the RBIs. More on that later.

First, the bare facts:

*His .948 career OPS ranks 22nd in Major League history and 10th among right-handed hitters. Four of the nine right-handed hitters ranked ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame, while four others are not yet eligible for induction.

*His .408 career on-base percentage ranks 15th all-time among right-handed hitters and ninth all-time among first basemen (third among right-handed first basemen).

*He is the only first baseman in history and one of 12 players all-time to reach 400 home runs and 200 stolen bases.

*He is one of five players in history to collect 30 home runs, 100 RBI and 100 runs scored in six consecutive seasons (1996-2001). Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth and Albert Pujols are the others.

*He is the only player in history to record 30 home runs, 100 RBI, 100 runs scored and 100 walks in six consecutive seasons (1996-2001).

Clearly, not only was he the best first baseman of his era, he was one of the best, ever, in history.

But Bagwell wasn’t just a force at the plate. I doubt you could find a smarter all-around ballplayer, one who played his position and ran the bases flawlessly, one who had instincts so keen that it seemed as if he knew what was going to happen 10 seconds before it did. He perfected the 3-6-3 double play, knew exactly when and how quickly to run up on bunters (who would subsequently be nailed at second base after a flawless throw from Bagwell) and rarely received a throw in the dirt from a fellow infielder that he couldn’t pick.

I asked him once why he wasn’t given more credit for his defense. His reasoning: “I’m not left-handed.” So is that to mean that just because left-handed first basemen have an easier time fielding their position, that automatically makes them better? Of course not.

He downplayed his baserunning by stating simply, “I’m not that fast.” He had much better speed than he gave himself credit for, and with over 200 stolen bases, he was clearly doing something right. That’s where the instincts came into play. His timing was flawless. He could read a pitcher better than anyone. Heck, he stole home three times in his career, which is three more times than most players have on their resume. Quite simply, Bagwell was nearly perfect as a ballplayer.

You know a player was good when you can distinctly remember the rare time that he wasn’t. I recall one game in St. Louis in 2004 when, with one out, Bagwell took off from first base on a fly ball. He was halfway to third when the ball was caught by the center fielder and thrown to first for the easy double-up. After the game, I said to him, “I’m so flabbergasted I don’t even know how to phrase the question.” Bags: “I’ll make it easy for you. Obviously, I’m a complete moron.”

I can’t count the number of times I’d watch Bagwell play and think to myself “this is the best baseball player I’ve ever seen.” Over 14 seasons, there were three players who repeatedly floored me with their abilities: Roy Oswalt when he pitched, Adam Everett when he played shortstop, and Bagwell, when he did anything.

So yes, if you watched Bagwell play every day, you grew to appreciate just how superior of a ballplayer he was. A Hall of Famer in every way imaginable. But a few elements will work against him this year: His 449 homers falls short of the 500 that usually guarantees first-ballot election; his shoulder injury ended his career prematurely and prevented him from going over the top in some of the offensive categories; and most of the voters did not watch him play on a regular basis and therefore will judge him only on the offensive numbers. He was so much more than a hitter, but, in some cases, that is not a point of interest when it comes to election time.

And, simply, some voters just like to make players wait. First-ballot Hall of Fame election is reserved for those players whose numbers are so gaudy, so off the charts, that you don’t even need to have watched them play a single game to know there were few — if any — who were better.

Bags was great. Really great. Hall-of-Fame great. But in terms of waiting for that call to Cooperstown, we might have to wait a while longer. And I really, really hope I’m wrong on this one.

(I also think there are enough writers out there who would be tickled pink to have Bagwell and Craig Biggio go in together. Biggio will be eligible in two years, which will be Bagwell’s third time on the ballot.)

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Odds and ends as we shift our focus from eating too much pumpkin mousse cheesecake during Thanksgiving to eating too much at the office Christmas party…

Hunter Pence All-Star Camp 2010

Your favorite right fielder is hosting a baseball camp for kids ages 6-18 that will offer one day of training with Pence and other professional ballplayers. Campers can participate on either Dec. 18 or 19 and the cost is $200.

For that cost, you will receive:

HP Play Dri Reebok Camp Tee
HP Reebok Drawstring bag
HP 2010 Camp Bracelet
Instructors and Sponsorship Program
Personalized autograph and picture
Autographs from all instructors

To sign up, visit hunterpencebaseball.com or call 713-254-7520.

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Speaking of Pence, he and several other Astros were in the weight room bright and early Tuesday morning, as they are every Monday through Thursday throughout most of the offseason.

Under the supervision of strength and conditioning coach Gene Coleman, the crew — Pence, Humberto Quintero, Wandy Rodriguez, Brian Bogusevic and Ross Seaton – spent most of the morning hitting the weights, the exercise bikes, and several other pieces of workout equipment that I don’t know the names of. In other words, it might be the offseason, but the players are still working. (And more will join the morning routine in the near future, including Bud Norris, Chris Johnson, Jason Bourgeois and Brett Wallace.)

Here’s proof:

Bogusevic, Coleman, Wandy

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Pence, Seaton

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Wandy, Coleman, Pence

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Quintero, Wandy

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Wandy

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And finally, here’s an updated photo of the big empty hole formerly known as the Astros dearly departed (and outdated) scoreboard. The new version will be delivered later in December and will be installed, hopefully, in January. Stay tuned…

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Note to self: More pictures of Pence in plaid pastels.

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Plenty of reactions poured in after we posted this picture on Twitter of Hunter Pence and his stylish sport coat he wore to the Pink in the Park Brunch and Bazaar on Thursday:

Many of you liked it, many did not. But I was struck by the number of comments that arrived in the form of “So-and-so called. He wants his blazer back.”

The complete listing of so-and-so’s:

Milo.
Craig Sager.
Tim Meadows (so he has something to wear in The Ladies Man 2).
Walt Frazier.
Buddy Holly.
The 1970s
Jim Deshaies (who has a similar eyesore called the “Guaranteed Win Jacket”).
Deion Sanders.

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Braves closer Billy Wagner has been gone from the Astros for seven years, but he still has close ties to several in the organization. As he made his rounds through Astros territory during batting practice Friday, he said to former teammate and current hitting coach Sean Berry, “I announced my retirement today. I’m done.”

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I thought he was kidding, and I’m pretty sure Sean did too, initially. Apparently, Billy’s serious. He told Bobby Cox he’s done after this year, regardless of whether he reaches his goal of 400 saves (he’s currently sitting on 387).

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While I’ve been all over the country throughout my years working for or covering the Astros, I haven’t done a whole lot of international travel. In fact, most of my times crossing any  borders have been work-related, and very sporadic — a few roadies to Montreal in the late 1990s and Spring Training exhibition trips to Venezuela (2001) and Mexico City (2004).

I’m about to add the Dominican Republic to the list and even though it’ll be a really quick trip, I’m looking forward to finally seeing it for myself.

The Astros are officially opening their brand new Dominican Academy in Boca Chica on May 10, and I’ll be tagging along with the front office contingent for the ribbon-cutting ceremony and celebration. The Academy has been up and running for a while, with approximately 35 players currently preparing for their season, which is scheduled to begin at the end of May.

At the opener, the Astros will play the Phillies’ Dominican Summer League club in a five-inning exhibition game following the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Not sure how much live Tweeting I’ll be able to do down there from my cell phone, but we’ll post plenty of pictures and videos in the blog soon after our return later that evening.

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Injury update:

Chris Johnson (strained rib cage) has been hitting off a tee and hopes to start hitting in the cage in the near future. He still feels the pull in his midsection but says he’s making decent progress. Johnson is eligible to come off the DL on May 4.

Lance Berkman was held out of Friday’s game after tweaking his groin during his last at-bat on Thursday. Manager Brad Mills is hopeful Puma will be able to play Saturday. With two day games scheduled for this road trip, Mills opted to give Berkman the night game off with hopes he can finish out the series in Atlanta.

Wandy Rodriguez tested out his sore back with a short throwing session with pitching coach Brad Arnsberg before batting practice and appears to be on track to start Saturday. Wandy was scratched from the opener in Atlanta when he came down with back spasms before the final game of the homestand.

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Sights from a beautiful spring evening at Turner Field:

Michael Bourn, Hunter Pence

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Pedro Feliz, Tommy Manzella

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The gigantic JumboTron in the outfield

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Lee leans.

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Pitchers stretch.

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Humberto Quintero.  

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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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Best seats in the house.

Spring Training is a great time to hang out at the ballpark and catch some rays, but the best part has to be the vantage point the fans have to the players.

Spring ballparks are tiny, seating somewhere in the neighborhood of 6,000 to 10,000 fans. During the regular season, thousands are relegated to the upper decks — nosebleeds, if you will — but during Spring Training, there is not a single bad seat in the house.

My favorite area is located right behind the bullpen. Not only do fans have the opportunity to engage in conversation with the relievers, but they can watch the starting pitcher warm up less from than 10 feet away.

As I watched Wandy Rodriguez warm up today, I was struck by how close he was to the fans seated just behind the ‘pen. That’s a perspective you can’t get at any other time other than Spring Training, and for the fans, that’s a real treat.

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The ESPN Club on Disney’s Boardwalk was hopping Wednesday, and for good reason. Lance Berkman draws a crowd no matter where he goes, and that was definitely the case this time as the fans enjoyed an hour of Puma perspective. We even picked up some fabulous Puma One Liners…even when Lance isn’t trying to be funny, he just is.

He answered a full slate of questions, some of which I’ll post now (in case you missed it):

On his conversations with opponents while manning first base:

Albert Pujols and I talk a little bit over there. Mainly, he’s like, ‘What’s wrong with you? Why aren’t you hitting?’ Albert’s a great guy, that’s how he is.”

On if he’d ever adopt the Hunter Pence high-sock look:

“I’ve done that before, to just mix it up a little bit. Especially if you don’t hit the ball well with the low pants, you go with the high pants. But it takes a lot of effort to wear high pants. You have to have an extra pair of socks. It’s a high maintenance look and I’m pretty low maintenance.”

On Brad Mills:
“Brad’s done a great job, especially for a guy who’s a first year manager. He’s really been impressive. I think all the guys like him and respect him. He brings a winning pedigree to the clubhouse. You can’t find anyone who says anything bad about him. It’s a great hire for the organization. Even if we run into a little adversity this year, I don’t think he’s going to be any different. I have a lot of respect for him and have enjoyed being around him in this camp.”

On young players to look out for:
“You kind of know the guys we have who are knocking on the door. Bud Norris, he’s got to continue in his development as a Major League starter for us to be successful this year. Our two young catchers (Jason Castro, J.R. Towles), I’m impressed with both of them. Chris Johnson, the young third baseman — he’s been put on back burner because we signed Pedro Feliz, but he’s got a lot of ability. He’s a great defender and has been swinging the bat well.”

On Feliz:
“He’s a great guy in the clubhouse, a great defender. He plays third base about as well as anyone in the game. It frees up (Geoff) Blum to move around and play where he needs to play and come off the bench.”

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Not a great outcome score-wise on Wednesday, but it was a bright, sunny, warm day, which makes for great photo opps. Enjoy the sights…

Wandy has one final conversation with pitching coach Brad Arnsberg before taking the mound.

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Mills chats with a couple of players while walking off the field after the game.

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Quintero, Paulino and Norris have a laugh before morning stretching.

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Pence takes some hacks in the cage.

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Pence and Puma.

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March 3 notes: Bagwell in camp, intrasquad game, Puma update.

The clubhouse was a little livelier than usual Wednesday morning, probably because it was the last day of workouts before the Grapefruit League games begin. It’s not that players get overly excited about Spring Training games — in fact, after about 15 of those they’ll be itching to get finished with the schedule and start playing some “meaningful” baseball. But after nearly two weeks of throwing side sessions, taking batting practice, practicing pickoffs, rundowns, pop flies, plays at the plate and hitting the cutoff man, it’s probably not a stretch to assume the players are ready to mix things up a bit.

Manager Brad Mills posted his lineup for the Astros-Nationals game on Thursday:

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I’ve already had some questions about the decision to catch J.R. Towles and use Jason Castro as the DH, but I wouldn’t read too much into it. Mills said that most of the DH playing time will go to the catchers, which will allow for Humberto Quintero, Towles and Castro to continue to receive at-bats even when they’re not behind the plate. Considering the starting catcher position is wide open this spring, that’s a sound move.

Lance Berkman’s bruised left knee is feeling better, but the first baseman won’t play in Thursday’s game and his status for Friday is still TBD. Mills said he’s waiting to see if Berkman can DH for that game in Lakeland, or if he can play his position. Mills has Towles on the radar to DH, while Quintero will DH during the “B” game in Lakeland. Felipe Paulino, a sixth candidate for a starting position, is slated to start that game.

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The clubhouse wasn’t the only lively place Wednesday morning. The coaches’ locker room was jumping as well, mainly because of the addition of Jeff Bagwell (along with some interesting story-telling by Enos Cabell, parts of which regrettably filtered into the hallway where I was eaves-dropping).

Bagwell will be with the Astros for three days and will return again at the end of March for about a week. He’s still recovering from shoulder surgery and other than going completely out of his mind not being able to work out, he seems to be doing well. He spent most of the morning shaking hands with people with his left hand, to avoid any unnecessary tugging of his right arm which could irritate the shoulder.

To avoid any mishaps, he held a coffee cup in his right hand for most of the morning. Here he is having a coffee toast with Hunter Pence around 9 a.m.:

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The Astros played an intrasquad game Wednesday as a final tuneup before Thursday’s Grapefruit opener. This was mainly for the pitchers, which is why most of the regular position players didn’t play. Instead, several Minor League players and non-starters comprised the rosters for “Meacham’s Mashers” and “Clark’s Crushers,” named after the two coaches who managed this game — first base coach Bobby Meacham and third base coach Dave Clark.

The wind was blowing out at about a 20 mph clip, which might explain why the final score was 16-13 (in favor of Meacham’s Mashers.)

For a behind-the-scenes peek at the Intrasquad “draft,” click here. You’ll find footage of a lot of banter between coaches as Meacham and Clark picked their teams.

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Thanks to the more than 500 of you who have hopped onto our Astros Witticism Twitter account, aptly named PumaOneLiners. As the season goes on, we hope to use that as a landing spot to showcase the more humorous side of baseball players, even though we also plan to use it as a way to communicate postgame quotes once the regular season begins.

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Images from spring training workouts on a cold, windy Wednesday morning:

 Puma, Blum, Sean Berry.

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Pedro Feliz

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Wandy Rodriguez, Roy Oswalt

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Bagwell

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Bagwell with minor league field coordinator Dick Scott.

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Ballplayers acting out (literally).

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Funny skits and “getting to know you” bits that are played on the scoreboards in between innings have become such a part of today’s Major League Baseball experience that it’s easy to take them for granted.

The process to put it all together, however, is no easy task. It takes incredible organization on the part of the ballpark entertainment crew, considering it has dozens of players and staff to involve in the process and has to get a season’s-worth of content filmed over a span of less than two weeks.

The Astros’ Ballpark Entertainment department is currently in the process of filming several features for the 2010 season: “Fact or Fiction,” “A Closer Look,” “Think Tank,” “Little League Memories” and “Guess the Flick.” Between now and the first couple of days of March, the staff will have recorded spots with every player who is either guaranteed a spot on the 25-man roster or has a chance to make the club this year.

“Fact or Fiction” involves the player making a statement, and then the crowd has to decide if it’s true or not.

“A Closer Look” focuses on things we might not already know about the player — what was his first job? What sport was he good at growing up besides baseball? What movie star do people think he looks like? The final product will include funny motion graphics to illustrate the answers.

“Think Tank” pairs up teammates, who engage in a Q&A word association.

“Guess the Flick” involves playing a scene from a well-known movie, and inserting the player into the scene.

Brian Moehler, Bud Norris and Jeff Fulchino filmed their segments on Monday, and we snuck into the room to get some raw video footage of our own, to share with you. Moehler was hilarious — he acted out a scene from “Dumb and Dumber” and even though I’ve known him for quite a few years, this is the first time I’ve ever heard him get loud. Check out the video to see for yourself.

Moehler also reveals which celebrity people think he looks like, who his most annoying teammate is (I don’t want to name names, but it rhymes with Plum) and that he went to high school with Molly Ringwald (or did he? That’s for you to decide when you play “Fact or Fiction.”)

The Astros ballpark crew — Kirby Kander, Senior Director of Creative Services, Brock Jessel, Director of Ballpark Entertainment, and Joey Graham, Production Coordinator, recently received two Golden Matrix Awards for the 2009 season, including the Best Overall Video Display Award (Best Show in Baseball). This is the fifth consecutive season they’ve won the award, something no other professional sports team has done. Kander, Jessel and Graham also won the Best Interactive In-game Feature for their Guess the Flick segments.

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Here are some images from Monday’s shoot, plus a few from the second full day of pitchers and catchers workouts at Osceola County Stadium:

Moehler, talking about Brett Favre and Molly Ringwald.

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Norris and Fulchino, being prepped on their video segment.

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Fulchino, Mills, Oswalt, Lindstrom.

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Byrdak, Wandy throw side sessions.

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Catchers lined up, catching the side sessions.

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Oswalt throws side session, with pitching coach Brad Arnsberg watching closely.

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Lots of position players showed up to work out, even though they don’t have to official report until Wednesday. Here we have Michael Bourn…

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Hunter Pence…

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Tommy Manzella.

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Catching up after a busy week, while getting ready for another one.

Some observations after Week One of caravan season…

1. I think you’re going to really like Brad Mills. He smart, passionate about baseball and while he’s technically a “rookie” manager, he has plenty of leadership experience, having managed 11 years in the Minor Leagues and coached 11 years in the big leagues. He spent the last six years as Terry Francona’s bench coach and earned two World Series rings in the process. I believe that counts for something — a lot, actually.

Mills feels very strongly that there is a correct way to conduct yourself when you are a Major League ballplayer. He believes in the importance of the veteran players passing along that knowledge to the young players, and he also believes in every player taking the field with absolutely no confusion about what is expected. 

I swore I wasn’t going to make any sweeping proclamations about someone taking over a high position with the organization, based on some of my past observations over the last eight-plus years that I now have deemed cringe-worthy (“So-and-so’s GREAT! Capable! Approachable!” Only to find out that well, no, that wasn’t the case. At all.) But I spent a full week around Mills, first in Temple and then in Houston, where we had plenty of time to chat during the long drives to and from about a dozen caravan stops. And I have to say, with no hesitation, Mills clearly gets it.

I walked away from the caravan week with a strong feeling that the clubhouse culture is going to change dramatically soon after Spring Training begins. Toward the end of 2009, there was a feeling of defeat that I have never, ever seen from a Houston club, even in the down years. I don’t know Mills that well yet, but I just cannot envision him putting up with any sort of defeatist attitude from the players.

Plus, he’s a warm-weather kind of guy. He called Francona, who lives year-round in Boston, yesterday to let him know “It’s 75 degrees here and there is not a cloud in the sky.” Just wait until he manages 81 home games without a single rain delay. he’ll feel like he hit the lotto.

2. Of all of the recipients of the Darryl Kile Award over the years, Brian Moehler just might fit the description better than anyone. The award goes to someone who, among other things, is a great teammate who puts the team before any personal agenda.

On our way to a caravan stop on Wednesday, Moehler brought up what a fantastic signing Brett Myers is and how much it improved the Astros chances to be competitive in 2010.

Now, Myers just might have knocked Moehler out of the starting rotation mix and bump him to the ‘pen. That is of little concern to Moehler. The only thing that matters to him is winning, and Myers increases the Astros’ chances to do just that. If it means taking a lesser role on the team, then, in Moehler’s view, so be it.

3. Pitchers and catchers work out in less than a month. The first full-squad workout will take place a few days after that. Here’s what intrigues me the most:

* Jason Castro’s chances to make the team as the front-line catcher right out of the chute. I’m sensing that the club would like for it to happen, but is hesitant to put that much pressure on the kid. Someone brought up a good point — Castro needs to concentrate on his work behind the plate, handling a pitching staff, learning opposing hitters, etc…yet, his odds to make the club will largely depend on how well he hits in March. Is that fair?

* Roy Oswalt’s back: He’s changed up his conditioning routine, cutting back on running and concentrating more on core-strengthening. He said he’ll be ready when the bell rings, but keep in mind that for a player, that bell rings on Opening Day, not the Grapefruit League opener. So don’t expect miracles on March 4.

* Who gets the Opening Day start. If Opening Day honors go to the starting pitcher who had the best year in the previous season, then Wandy Rodriguez getting the ball is a no-brainer. But I’ve come across a couple of people who think there’s an argument to be made for Oswalt, the team’s unmatched ace almost a full decade. If you were Mills, who would you appoint?

In the meantime, here are some shots from the locally-based caravan stops from the last couple of days, plus the baseball dinner…enjoy.

Craig Biggio mingles with residents of the Brookwood Community.

Bill Brown, Mills, Biggio and Moehler (hidden behind Brownie) begin the presentation at Brookwood.

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Junction Jack, Moehler and Biggio play an abbreviated game of baseball at Brookwood. I think Moehler struck out Biggio here.

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Then it was off to Katy Jr. High…

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Later that night, at the baseball banquet…

MVP Michael Bourn, conducting his 1,000th interview of the week (or at least it seemed that way).

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Bourn signed a few autographs for some young admirers.

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 Rookie of the Year Jeff Fulchino and his wife, Carrie.

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Darryl Kile Award recipient Moehler, and his wife, Dee.

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Bourn, Wandy, Moehler, listening intently to seating instructions before heading to the main banquet room.

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The next day, the caravan resumed with a trip to Methodist Hospital…

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…Pearland High School..

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…and a Grand Slam for Youth Baseball Little League sign-up rally.

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News and notes from Saturday at Busch Stadium:

Wandy Rodriguez left his start after four innings with a strained right hamstring, but after the game he said he did not think he would have to miss his next start. “It doesn’t hurt that much,” he said. “I don’t think I’m going to miss a start. By how I’m feeling today, I don’t think I’ll miss a start, but we’ll see how I feel tomorrow.”

The last time through the rotation, the Astros have had only one starter go more than five innings — that would be Brian Moehler, who threw 6 2/3 in the opener at Busch Stadium on Friday. Kudos to Jeff Fulchino, who took the loss Saturday but undeservedly so — he soaked up three innings following Rodriguez’s departure and allowed one unearned run that scored due in part to an Humberto Quintero passed ball.

Roy Oswalt will throw Monday and will then determine whether he’s healthy enough to start Tuesday. My guess is no. That will necessitate the services of Felipe Paulino, who would likely be called up to make the spot start that day. The unfortunate part is that Oswalt would probably be ready by the weekend, but if the Astros disable him, he won’t be eligible to come off until the middle of the following week.

A good point was raised in the press box Saturday: over the course of a week, the Cardinals gained Holliday and the Astros lost Berkman. Slice it any way you want — this lineup just is not the same without Puma.

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