June 2009

Astros have .500 blues

Entering Tuesday’s game, the Astros are 0-5 this season when they are two games under .500. Of course, they come into Tuesday’s game against San Diego at 36-38, looking to get within one game of .500 for the first time since they were 1-2 way back in the first week of season. Had the Astros not blown Sunday’s game against Detroit, they would be at .500

Former manager Phil Garner used to preach all the time his goal was to reach .500 before he would enable himself to look ahead. It seemed to work for him, too, because the Astros made a few second-half mad dashes under Scrap Iron.

Current manager Cecil Cooper admitted Tuesday getting to .500 would be a boost.

“I think it would be huge for us,” he said. “I know last year – I can’t talk about ’07 or whatever – it was the goal to get there, and we finally got there. Before the break we were scuffling to get there. After the break that was our mission.”

The Astros were 44-51 at the All-Star break last year and went 15-8 out of the break to reach .500 (59-59) on Aug. 11.

Since May 31 this year, the Astros are 17-10 entering Tuesday.

“I think we’ve played probably some of the best baseball here the last month or so,” Cooper said. “We just can’t seem to make that final step and get over the hump and hopefully this is the time to do it. We’ve always hit a bump and stepped up, but we need to keep pushing.

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Kaz Matsui was given the day off Tuesday, and Cooper assured me he’s not hurt. Matt Kata got the second at second. Also, Miguel Tejada was hitting second again Tuesday for the second consecutive game after Jeff Keppinger had hit second in the previous 11 games.

Tejada was hitting .420 (58-for-138) in the No. 2 hole prior to Tuesday.

“I know he’s been awfully good in that spot, and that’s kind of where he jumpstarted early in the year hitting there,” Cooper said. “He doesn’t strike out and puts the ball in play for the most part. It’s helped Michael [Bourn] has been hitting in front of him and getting on base. I don’t know if it’s the guys behind him or the guys in front of him, but he usually ends up putting the ball in play.”

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Watching the highlights from Monday night’s game, both Roy Oswalt of the Astros and Tim Lincecum of the Giants threw two-hit complete games. Of course, the Astros play the Giants this weekend in San Francisco, which had me getting excited for a Lincecum-Oswalt match-up since they both pitched Monday.

Astros general manager Ed Wade reminded me the Astros are working with a six-man rotation, meaning Oswalt will likely go Sunday and Lincecum on Saturday. Oh well.

Interleague recap

One of the most strange stats in the history of Interleague Play is this: the Astros have a 100-100 record against the American League. Of course, Interleague Play is over for another season (with the exception of a make-up game), and here is a recap courtesy of Major League Baseball:

With one game of Interleague Play remaining on the 2009 schedule (a make-up of the June 16th CHI-CWS rainout), the American League has posted a 137-114 record, marking the sixth straight season in which the A.L. has won the season-series and extending its all-time Interleague lead to 1,673-1,533 (.522).

Nine of the A.L.’s 14 Clubs finished over .500. A.L. Clubs collected a .263 batting average with 1,201 runsscored, 315 home runs and a 3.91 ERA, compared to the N.L.’s .257 batting average, 1,061 runs scored,249 home runs and 4.46 ERA.

Major League Baseball drew 8,371,002 fans during Interleague games this season for an average of 33,351 per game. The 2009 Interleague average is 16.1 percent higher than this season’s current intraleague average of 28,727 per game. Since its inception in 1997, Interleague Play has drawn 12 percent more fans than intraleague games; Interleague Play has averaged 33,260 fans per game, compared to the intraleague average of 29,706 fans per game during the same span.

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, who scored a Major League-leading 118 runs, earned the top Interleague record with a 14-4 (.778) mark, followed by the Tampa Bay Rays, who went 13-5 (.722), and the Minnesota Twins, who were 12-6 (667). Overall, A.L. East Clubs went 52-38 (.578) in Interleague Play,with three of its five Clubs going 11-7 or better. The New York Yankees, who were 10-8 in Interleague Play this year, have baseball’s best all-time Interleague record at 133-95 (.583), followed by the Minnesota Twins at 132-96 (.579). The Colorado Rockies recorded the N.L.’s best Interleague mark with an 11-4 record,followed by the Florida Marlins, who were 10-8. The Marlins still hold the National League’s best all-time Interleague record at 120-99 (.548).

The Interleague leaders in 2009 were Casey McGehee of the Milwaukee Brewers with a .429 batting average (min.: 3.1 PA per team’s games played); Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners with 33 hits; Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals with nine home runs; Hanley Ramirez of the Florida Marlins with 24 RBI; Aaron Cook (3-0) and Jason Hammel (3-0) of the Colorado Rockies, Tommy Hanson (3-0) of the Atlanta Braves, Felix Hernandez (3-0) of the Seattle Mariners, J.P. Howell (3-0) and Andy Sonnanstine (3-1) of the Tampa Bay Rays, Rick Porcello (3-0) of the Detroit Tigers, Kevin Slowey of the Minnesota Twins (3-1) and Tim Wakefield (3-0) of the Boston Red Sox with three wins each; Felix Hernandez with a 0.84 ERA (min.: 1.0 IP per team’s games played); and Huston Street of the Colorado Rockies with eight saves.

Interleague Play’s all-time statistical leaders include Albert Pujols with a .355 batting average; Derek Jeter with 303 hits; Jim Thome with 56 home runs; Alex Rodriguez with 163 RBI; Mike Mussina with 21 wins; Freddy Garcia with a 2.57 ERA; and Mariano Rivera with 59 saves.

Costly loss for Astros on Sunday

If the Astros’ playoff hopes comes down to the final weekend of the season as they have done so many times in the past, they will be able to point at Sunday’s 4-3 loss to the Detroit Tigers as perhaps the game that sunk them.

One strike away from polishing off a three-game sweep of the Tigers, Brandon Inge hit a two-run homer in the ninth off Jose Valverde to send Detroit to a win. What makes the loss even more difficult for the Astros is they squandered a great chance to gain ground in the National League Central Division.

The Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals, who began Sunday tied for first place, both lost. Instead of being three games out, the Astros remain four games behind the division leaders.

“This one hurts real bad,” manager Cecil Cooper said. “Probably the worst one of the year for me. We had a chance to sweep a very good team. We held them at bay all day with some great pitching and then we let it slip. It hurts real bad. I’m going to say that. Real bad. It was a chance for us to get close to the guys at the top, but we let it slip.”

Now the Astros will play their final road trip prior to the All-Star break, beginning with a four-game series at San Diego that begins Monday. The Astros will play at San Francisco next weekend.

“San Diego is a kind of youngish team with a lot of talent, kind of a mixed grab of talent,” Cooper said. “But I think they’re very capable, but we have to go there and not take them lightly. We have to go there and play hard and aggressive the way we’ve been playing.

“San Francisco has a great pitching staff so we have to go there and be ready to play. It’s a big [road trip].”

And kudos for Russ Ortiz for another well-pitched game. He went a season-high 7 1/3 innings Sunday and allowed two runs on six hits to lower his ERA to 3.36 ERA. The Astros have a tough decision ahead when Mike Hampton comes off the disabled list, but Ortiz has certainly pitched well enough to stay in the rotation.

 

Berkman back in No. 3 hole

Astros first baseman Lance Berkman was shuffling across the clubhouse Sunday morning when told by reporters he was hitting third in the lineup for the first time since May 30.

“It doesn’t matter to me one way or the other,” Berkman said.

The Astros were 16-28 with Berkman in the No. 3 hole heading into Sunday’s game against Detroit and 15-8 when he had hit fifth, which he has done most of June. But with Miguel Tejada out of the lineup for a day off, Berkman was back in his familiar No. 3 spot.

“This is just today,” manager Cecil Cooper said. “Tomorrow he could be hitting eighth.”

When pressed by reporters, Cooper finally gave his thoughts on Berkman.

“He’s a three-hole hitter,” he said. “That’s who he is. He’s the best hitter we have. He’s struggled all year for the most part, but he’s the best hitter we’ve got. That’s where you put your best guy. I’d love to see him get back there because that’s where he belongs.”

Berkman wasn’t so sure.

“I think we have three or four guys who could hit there, and it’s a matter of what works the best,” he said.

Berkman entered Sunday hitting .296 with 11 homers and 34 RBIs since April, when he hit .162 with five homers and 10 RBIs. He was hitting .236 with 10 homers and 29 RBIs in the No. 3 spot and .286 with five homers and 13 RBIs in the No. 5 spot.

“With the exception of the first month, I’ve felt pretty good at the plate,” Berkman said. 

 

So long, Brandon Backe

Brandon Backe, one of the most popular players wear to an Astros uniform in the past 10 years, appears to be done in Houston.

The hometown favorite was designated for assignment following Friday night’s game, meaning the Astros have 10 days to trade him or release him. Backe has the right to demand his release, and based on his comments late Friday it appears that will be what he’s going to do.

The departure of Backe leaves the Astros with only three remaining players from their 2005 World Series team — Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez.

Backe was acquired from Tampa Bay in exchange for Geoff Blum on Dec. 14, 2003 and quickly became a fan favorite with his big-game performances and outward passion for the game.

He went 5-3 for the Astros in 2004 in mostly a relief role, before going 10-8 in the rotation in 2005. He struggled with injuries in 2006 before having Tommy John surgery, which cost him almost all of the 2007 season.

He came back healthy in 2008, but didn’t pitch well. He made 31 starts and was 9-14 with a 6.05 ERA, leading the league in earned runs (112) and home runs (36). Surprisingly, the Astros signed him to a $1.55 million contract for 2009, but he strained an intercostal muscle in spring and missed two months. By the time he returned, the Astros really had no use for him anymore with Felipe Paulino showing promise and Russ Ortiz pitching so well.

Backe was a hometown kid from Galveston who possessed great fire on the mound, but more than anything Astros fans will remember him for coming up huge in the playoffs.

In Game 5 of the 2004 NLCS, Backe held St. Louis to one hit over eight scoreless innings in a game the Astros eventually won on Jeff Kent‘s homer in the ninth. He held St. Louis to two hits and one run in 5 2/3 innings in Game 4 of the 2005 NLCS and delivered in the World Series that year, throwing seven scoreless innings agains tthe White Sox in Game 4.

Backe was understandably frustrated and disappointed over not getting a chance to rejoin the rotation this year after making six Minor League rehab starts. But the Astros have given Backe more than enough chances, including 31 starts last year, to prove he’s a capable Major League starter.

Thus, the Brandon Backe era appears to be over. Here’s hoping another team gives him a shot.

Who are the Astros' All-Stars?

Fan voting for next month’s All-Star Game is winding down, and the Astros have three players who should get strong consideration for the National League team: shortstop Miguel Tejada and outfielders Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence. There are no Astros players even close to getting voted in as a starter like Lance Berkman did last year, but at least one player will be going as a reserve.

Astros manager Cecil Cooper threw center fielder Michael Bourn, who leads the National League in steals, into the All-Star mix.

“I’ve got four guys who have think are capable of doing and have those kinds of numbers,” Cooper said. “Carlos has been very consistent. He’ hitting .300 and has 12 homer and 40-plus RBIs. You look at Hunter and he’s got a great on-base percentage and has 10 home runs and has been productive. He’s a solid hitter, and Michael Bourn has been getting on and has stolen bases. All three should be considered. And Tejada has been outstanding.”

Tejada is a long shot to make the team in a league where Jimmy Rollins of Philadelphia and Hanley Ramirez of Florida are playing. Tejada is a distant fourth in fan voting behind Ramirez, Rollins and Milwaukee’s J.J. Hardy.

In-stadium voting ends Friday and online voting continues into next week.

Competition in the outfield isn’t quite as stellar, and combined with the fact as many as six outfielers could be picked it appears likely Lee and/or Pence have a better shot at making the team than Tejada. Philadelphia’s Raul Ibanez, Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun and New York’s Carlos Beltran are the three leading vote-getters to start, with Alfonso Soriano in fourth, Shane Victorino in fifth and — yes — Manny Ramirez in sixth.

Pence entered Thursday hitting .324 with 10 homers and 29 RBIs, which are certainly All-Star-worthy numbers. Lee was hitting .300 with 12 homers and 43 RBIs.

The Astros don’t have any pitchers All-Star worthy. Yes, Chris Sampson is having a great year, but middle relievers typically don’t make it. Sorry, Sammy.

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Took some time Thursday to look up some numbers. Here’s where the Astros rank in the National League in a few hitting categories:

Runs: 14th at 286

Hits: Fifth at 634

Homers: 11th at 58

Batting average: Fourth at .267

Batting average with bases empty: Fourth at .278

Batting average with runners in scoring position: Eighth at .256

Extra-base hits: 12th at 195

 

 

 

Tejada taking time out for kids

Astros shortstop Miguel Tejada performed clinics on Tuesday and Wednesday at local YMCA branches. Before each Wednesday home game, Tejada hosts 20 Houston area kids from low-income families to Tejada’s Troops.

Purchased by Tejada, each participant receives a field-level ticket to the game along with $10 in Astros Bucks that can be spent at Minute Maid Park. The experience also includes watching Astros batting practice from the field and the chance to spend time with the five-time All-Star.

Tejada fielded a wide range of questions Wednesday, ranging from his fears to how many kids he has. Among the things Tejada told the group was his favorite travel city was New York and his favorite player growing up was Alfredo Griffin, who is also from the Dominican Republic. Tejada also told the kids to pursue their dreams.

“I like to come speak to children because where I came from kids didn’t have the opportunity to talk to people like me and a lot of people look at me like a role model,” he said. “I came from nothing and look where I am. A lot of bad things can happen and kids can go in a lot of directions.

“When I was a kid, I didn’t have the opportunity to meet Major League players or have famous people to talk to. I wish back in the day, a professional player would have talked to me.”

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The Astros announced that the club has finalized the details of a build-to-lease agreement for a new complex for their Dominican Republic operations. The lease was entered into with D. & F. Sport Field Services, S.A, and will be for a five-year term with an option to renew twice, each option for an additional five-year period.

“The new complex in the Dominican Republic is a huge step forward in our player development process,” general manager Ed Wade said. “The facility will allow us to further the on-field development of our young Latin players along with giving us the opportunities to enhance their diets and provide them with English lessons that will allow them to function at a higher level when they move along the development chain in the United States.

“We’re excited about the advances that we’re making on the international front, and this is one more clear indication of our commitment to find and develop the best talent on a worldwide basis.”

The all-inclusive academy will be located in the Guerra Region of Boca Chica, D.R., and will be conveniently located a half-mile from the new Tampa Bay Rays and L.A. Dodgers facilities, as well as in the same area as the Kansas City Royals and other Major League Dominican Academies. The Astros current Dominican Operations resides in San Pedro de Macoris, D.R.

The complex will consists of two-and-a-half baseball playing fields, six-pack pitching mounds, batting cages and an observation tower among other amenities.

The facility will also include a two-story building with the first floor consisting of administrative offices, educational classrooms, a dining room, full-service industrial kitchen, weight room, training room, manager and coaches offices and locker rooms, equipment room, clubhouse, and laundry room. On the second floor of the building will be player and staff living accommodations, along with a computer lab with 15-20 work stations and a player entertainment room.

The academy should be fully functional by the start of the 2010 Dominican Summer League season.

New dad Berkman out of lineup; Drayton stays optimistic

Lance Berkman, who had started 63 of the team’s first 67 games, was out of the starting lineup Tuesday against the Royals after his wife, Cara, gave birth to their couple’s fourth daugther on Monday. An off day might come to a good time for Berkman, too, considering he hit .167 (5-for-30) on the team’s nine-game road trip.

With Berkman out of the lineup, Hunter Pence was batting third with the 18th time this year.

Back to Berkman. He now has four girls, putting him on par with Geoff Blum (four girls) but one shy of Doug Brocail (five girls). Interestingly, Jeff Bagwell and Brad Ausmus had nothing but girls, too. Craig Biggio (two boys) was certainly an exception.

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Astros owner Drayton McLane (two boys, if you’re wondering) made his way around the clubhouse as he typically does before games, stopping to shake hands with the players. He also took a few moments to discuss the state of the team with reporters.

McLane is enthused the Astros have won six of seven series entering this week’s series against Kansas City.

“If you go back to 2004, we’re making the move awfully early,” McLane said. “If you remember in 2004 we were way, way down at the All-Star break and we made the playoffs and went within one game of going to the World Series, and in 2005 we were down at the break. The team is grudaally improving and has won a lot of series and wer’e going to do that against the Kansas City Royals.” 

Royals owner David Glass, who was the CEO of Wal-Mart for 27 years and is a close friend of McLane, sat with McLane in his seats behind home plate.

“We have Whataburgers bet on who wins the series,” McLane said.

McLane is optimisitc because ace Roy Oswalt (3-4) hasn’t gotten on the track, and the pitching staff has been slowed by injuries but appears to be getting healthier.

“If you asked me back in spring training, would Roy Oswalt have [three] wins at this stage and I’d say, ‘No, he’d have 8 to 10 wins at this stage,’” McLane said. “So we need Roy and his pitching and he needs run support and I think he will pitch much, much better going forward.

“Mike Hampton has had some injuries and I think he can pitch better going forward and Wandy will be more consistent. If we can get the pitching in there, the hitting will definitely be there, too. We need to get a number of the others that have been injured in there, too.

“That’s the bright light. Some of our star players haven’ t played exceptionally well and they will. It always worries you until they start clicking, but in the last two weeks you see them playing with more confidence.”

 

 

Astros health update

Third baseman Geoff Blum, on the disabled list since June 13 with a left hamstring strain, ran in the outfield and did some other agility drills prior to Sunday’s game at the Metrodome. Blum still has about another week before he can be activated and he could go on a Minor League rehab assignment later this week.

Blum did a few sprints, a couple of side-to-side drills, ran a few bases and pretended he was going from first to third and felt fine.

“I’m going to take tomorrow off and come back on Tuesday and so some more running, hopefully take some ground balls,” he said. “Hopefully by Thursday I’ll be able to go out and rehab somewhere.”

Meanwhile, right-hander Felipe Paulino, who threw in the bullpen Saturday, will throw a simulated game on Tuesday and could possibly go on a rehab assignment before returning to the rotation.

Catcher Humberto Quintero was originally scheduled to start Sunday, but he came down with a sore back and was replaced in the lineup by Ivan Rodriguez. Manager Cecil Cooper said if Quintero can’t play, his third catcher is infielder Edwin Maysonet, who has been catching in the bullpen. 

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Speaking of players in the minors, right-hander Geoff Geary isn’t doing so well since arriving at Triple-A Round Rock. He got the win Saturday night against New Orleans, but gave up four runs, four hits and walked two batters in two innings. His ERA is 14.40. 

The pitching star of the night for the Express was Bud Norris, who struck out 10 batters and threw eight scoreless innings, lowering his ERA to 2.11.  

Backe to the bullpen, Paulino improving

The Astros released their probable pitchers for next week’s Interleague Series against the Kansas City Royals at Minute Maid Park, and it appears right-hander Brandon Backe is getting moved back to the bullpen after making one start. Backe gave up four hits and three runs in four innings Thursday in Arlington and left the game with a finger blister.

Russ Ortiz will open the series Tuesday, and Roy Oswalt will pitch Wednesday on four days of rest. The Astros could have used Monday’s off day to give Oswalt another day coming off a 126-pitch performance Friday in Minnesota, but chose to keep him on four days of rest. Brian Moehler, who pitched Saturday against the Twins, is scheduled to throw Thursday’s finale.

Considering Wandy Rodriguez would be scheduled to pitch Friday against Detroit (the Astros haven’t released their probable starters for that series), Backe is the odd man out.

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Right-hander Felipe Paulino, on the disabled list with a strained groin, threw about 60 pitches in the bullpen prior to Saturday’s game in Minnesota and said he felt fine. He will throw live batting practice next week in Houston, after which the Astros will make a decision about his future. 

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