July 2009

Astros face rotation questions

Unless Roy Oswalt makes a drastic improvement in his battle with a strained lower back, he’s likely headed to the disabled list Monday, leaving the Astros in need of a starting pitcher for Tuesday’s game against the Giants.

There really isn’t anyone in the bullpen who at this point would be capable of starting, so it’s likely the Astros would have to call upon a player from Triple-A Round Rock. The most likely candidate is Yorman Bazardo, who was 9-4 with a 2.76 ERA in 21 games (18 starts) entering Friday.

Because of Thursday’s off day, putting Oswalt on the DL would mean he would only miss two starts, so don’t reach for the panic button. He was originally started to pitch Sunday, but rookie Bud Norris will take his spot. Russ Ortiz was scheduled to go Tuesday before his release, and Oswalt will wait until Monday to see if he’s ready for that.

Now, on Friday I asked Roy about his back and I think he took a shot at me. He said his back was hurting, but he could do about 90 percent of the jobs in America, but pitching wasn’t one of them. I asked him if he could do my job, and he said his hands feel good.

Hey, pal, this job isn’t as easy as it looks from down there on the field.

 

Norris has a chance to be special

Astros fans are going to love Bud Norris. They’re going to love his 97 mph fastball and his confidence on the mound, and they’re going to love his sound bites. Not that Norris is going to say anything controversial like LaTroy Hawkins, but like Hawkins he’s engaging, well-spoken and likable.

If he turns out to be a good pitcher, he’s the complete package.

Norris, who gave up one run and three hits in his Major League debut on Wednesday at Wrigley Field, has some work ahead of him. He could start Sunday for the Astros, but nothing is really set in stone. He could be sent back to Round Rock or he could be in the rotation for the rest of the year.

With Mike Hampton struggling and Russ Ortiz having trouble pitching deep into games, why not give Norris the ball every five days for the rest of the season and see what he can do? The Astros’ rotation is full of thirtysomethings, but Norris is 24 and young and energetic. Remember how Hunter Pence energized the lineup in 2007? Perhaps Norris could do the same thing for the rotation.

 

Recapping a wild night at Wrigley

The Astros’ 100th game of the season was anything but ordinary. They lost Roy Oswalt to a lower back strain in the second inning and watched relievers Wesley Wright and Jeff Fulchino each give up three runs in relief. Thanks to 17 hits and big games from Michael Bourn, Jeff Keppinger and Miguel Tejada, they still thumped the Cubs, 11-6.

The win moved them to within 2 1/2 games of first place, which is now occupied by St. Louis. The Cubs are one-half back and the Astros are in third place with two games remaining at Wrigley before moving onto Busch Stadium.

Here’s a quick rundown of all the things that went on Tuesday with the Astros:

– RHP LaTroy Hawkins was placed on the 15-day disabled list prior to the game with shingles, which has been causing back pain. Hawkins is a mess. He can barely stand up and can’t sit at all, which means he’s doing a lot of laying on his back.

– RHP Doug Brocail was activated from the disabled list to take Hawkins’ spot on the roster. Brocail, who hasn’t pitched since May 4 because of a right hamstring strain, made four of his six scheduled Minor League rehab starts before having his stint cut short at Double-A Corpus Christi. He will join the team in Chicago on Wednesday.

– LHP Wesley Wright was taken to the hospital following Tuesday’s game with possible appendicitis. Wright pitched 2 1/3 innings after Roy Oswalt left the game (more on that below) and had a crisp inning before walking five batters and giving up three runs in one inning. No word on his condition.

– RHP Roy Oswalt will fly home to Houston on Wednesday after leaving Tuesday’s game after 1 2/3 innings with a strained left lower back. He said the back bothered him slightly in his previous start five days earlier against St. Louis and it flared up again in the bullpen two days later. Oswalt was on the DL in 2006 with a mid-back sparin and last year with a left hip abductor strain. An MRI of Oswalt’s back taken last July showed a small disc protrusion.

– RHP Jeff Fulchino and LHP Wesley Wright each picked up their first Major League hits. Wright singled to left in his first Major League plate appearance, becoming the Astros pitcher to do that since Brad Lidge in 2002. Fulchino also got a ball stuck in his jersey on a ball hit by Kosuke Fukudome.

– 2B Jeff Keppinger started in place of Kaz Matsui and had four hits. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready so see Keppinger play more than Matsui. Money aside, Keppinger is just a better hitter. He started and succeeded Tuesday and wasn’t facing a lefty, which is how he’s been used so often.Keppinger is hitting .283 with a .362 on-base percentage, and Matsui is hitting .244 with a .300 on-base percentage.

– RHP Bud Norris, the No. 2 ranked prospect in the Astros’ system by Baseball America, was called up following Tuesday’s game and will join the team Wednesday. Norris said he was charting pitches in stands during Round Rock’s game in Memphis, Tenn., when the clubhouse attendant fetched him and told him trainer Mike Freer wanted to see him. Freer told him to pack his bags for Chicago.

Norris is a starter, but could be used as a reliever. There are questions surrounding the health of both Roy Oswalt (back) and Wesley Wright (possible appendicitis), so Norris’ role is yet to be determined. He was 4-9 with a 2.63 ERA in 19 starts for the Express.

Norris heading to the Majors

The Astros are preparing to call up top pitching prospect Bud Norris, who is 4-9 with a 2.63 ERA in 19 starts at Triple-A Round Rock. He will be in uniform at Wrigley Field on Wednesday.

Astros starter Roy Oswalt left Tuesday’s game with a lower back strain and the club announced it would call up Doug Brocail to join the team Wednesday. It’s unclear how Norris fits into picture.

Norris was ranked as the No. 2 prospect in the system prior to this season by Baseball America, which rated him as having the best fastball in the system among Minor Leaguers. He went 3-8 with a 4.05 ERA last year at Double-A Corpus Christi and was impressive in the Arizona Fall League, posting a 1.89 ERA with one in 12 games.

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Astros react to Soriano's antics

In case you missed it, Alfonso Soriano hit a walk-off grand slam in the 13th inning Monday and didn’t exactly bring to mind thoughts of Cal Ripken when he rounded the bases.

First, Soriano admired the home run for a few seconds before running, and when he did start running it was right in front of Astros pitcher Chris Sampson as he was coming off the mound. Secondly, Soriano appeared to be point at the Astros dugout on his way to first, but he was pointing to his family sitting next to the dugout.

Finally, Soriano waved his hand in front of his face as he rounded third. That was a strange move that made no sense, but after some further investigation it appears he might have been doing the opposite of Miguel Tejada‘s spotlight routine, waving his hand in front of his face like a magician as if to say, “you can’t see me.”

Whatever the case, most of the Astros players I spoke with prior to Tuesday’s game brushed off Soriano’s antics. A couple of veteran players didn’t have a problem with it, especially since it came on a game-winning home run. Jose Valverde, who himself does plenty of antics on the field, wasn’t about to call the kettle black.

“I do a lot of stuff out there, too, so there’s nothing I can say,” he said.

I can’t imagine Soriano’s routine sat too well, though, with Sampson, who had a front-row seat. Needless to say, it will be interesting to see what happens the next time Sampson faces Soriano.

Rice mentions Cooper in HOF speech

Near the end of Jim Rice‘s Hall of Fame induction speech Sunday he ran down a long list of people he wanted to thank, including former coaches and his family. One of the last people he mentioned was Astros manager Cecil Cooper, Rice’s former roommate and teammate with the Boston Red Sox.

The two have remained close friends through the years, and Cooper sent Rice a text message and voice mail Sunday to send along his congratulations. Here’s what Rice had to say about Cooper:

“And, of course, a good friend of mine, Cecil Cooper, my roomie, my ace, my buddy, my friend to the end.”

Cooper was touched by Rice’s words.

“Jimmy and I are good friends and have been friends a long, long time,” he said. “We go back to the early ’70s, and I’m just pleased that he’s in there, he’s a Hall of Famer. He deserves it.”

Cooper recorded the induction ceremony and watched it on the plane to Chicago on Sunday.

“I didn’t expect anything differently from Jim,” he said. “He’s a good guy. Our families are close and always visit each other during Thanksgiving. We’ve been doing that for over 30 years.”

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Astros infielder Darin Erstad, who’s been on the DL for a week with a hamstring strain, took some batting practice Monday, but it wasn’t a big deal to the gritty Erstad. He said the hamstring was never an issue while he was hitting, but the challenge will be when he begins running.

Also, Aaron Boone took some batting practice Monday in his quest to return to action from March heart surgery.

Manager Cecil Cooper said LaTroy Hawkins, who’s been suffering from upper back pain and shingles, would be available Monday after his MRI came back negative, and infielder Edwin Maysonet would rejoin the club Tuesday after he went home to Puerto Rico to be with his wife, who was expecting a child.

This week could make or break Astros

We’re not even in August yet and the NL Central is a complete mess, so perhaps it’s a little early to put such a big emphasis on a road trip like the one the Astros have coming up. They open a four-game series Monday at Wrigley Field against the Cubs before playing three games against the Cardinals in St. Louis.

Simply put, these are seven huge games. The Astros are chasing both the Cubs and Cardinals in the standings, and there’s no better way to make up ground in the standings than to play the teams you’re trying to catch.

The Astros have played extremely well on the road this year, going 22-23. And in four of these games on this road trip, they will have Wandy Rodriguez and Roy Oswalt starting two games each. If they can win at least three of those starts and scratch out another win somewhere else, they’ll have a winning road trip.

“Going into this road trip we’re going to see what we’re made of,” Astros third baseman Geoff Blum said. “We’re going toi have to wait and see. That’s part of the fun of it is looking ahead and being able to go play those games.”

What’s for certain is the Astros can’t afford to lay an egg this week. I expect the Cardinals and/or Cubs to get on a roll, and the Astros can only hope it doesn’t begin at their expense.

Do you have pennant fever?

The last week has seen the Astros play some incredible baseball, capped with the sweep of the first-place Cardinals. They split a series in L.A. with the Dodgers, who have the best record in baseball, and likely should have won three of four games. They swept a Cardinals team that manhandled them earlier in the year.

Since May 30, they Astros are 30-17 and they have gone 11-4 since getting shut out in back-to-back games in San Francisco July 3-4. What’s changed? The starting pitching, led by Wandy Rodriguez and Roy Oswalt, has been terrific, and they are finally getting some clutch hits.

Before you get too excited, just remember that are more than two months remaining and a long way to go. I’m not ready to say quite yet the Astros will be contenders into September. They open a huge road trip Monday with four games in Chicago and then three more in St. Louis. If they come out of that trip still within striking distance of first place, we might have ourselves a pennant race.

Sampson almost ready to return

Right-hander Chris Sampson, who’s eligible to come off the disabled list Sunday, threw in the bullpen at Minute Maid Park prior to Wednesday’s game and says he’s on track to return to action in time for next week’s crucial road trip to Chicago and St. Louis. He’s been on the DL retroactive July 10 with right shoulder spasms.

“I felt like I hadn’t slept in two days and slept on a rock-hard bed when I did sleep,” Sampson said. “Not only was my [shoulder] a little stiff, but my body’s stiff. I cut some pitches off today, but based on the circumstances of the last couple of days I felt great.”

Sampson worked out at the ballpark before scurrying to The Methodist Hospital to pick us his wife, Heather. She gave birth Tuesday to the couple’s second child, a boy named Colt Parker Sampson.

Sampson will throw lightly during Thursday’s off day and throw a simulated game Friday.

“That will be a better judge because I’ll have had a normal life for a couple of days,” Sampson said. “I don’t think there’s anything to set me back.”

Meanwhile, second baseman Kaz Matsui, who fouled a ball off his right knee Tuesday and crumpled to the ground, was back in the lineup Wednesday and said he was fine. Lance Berkman is progressing in his battle with a Grade 2 calf strain and could return to the lineup Friday.

Sitting out is tough on Berkman

Just so you know, it’s killing Lance Berkman not be in the lineup for the final two games of the St. Louis series. He admits he’s getting paid too much money to sit on the bench, the but the reality is that Berkman would hurt the Astros even more if he tried to play through his calf strain and went on the disabled list.

There’s a reason I picked Berkman as the team’s MVP at mid-season, and not just because he leads the Astros in nearly every offensive category except for batting average. One of the reasons the Astros got off to such a miserable start is Berkman got off to a bad start. Without him, their lineup isn’t nearly as good.

Berkman said the precedent sent by Astros icons Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio makes it hard for him to sit when injured. Biggio went on the disabled list once in his 20-year career, and Bagwell played through a painful shoulder condition as he career wound down.

“There’s a lot to be said for the way those guys conducted themselves,” Berkman said. “You can’t get away from Baggy and Bidge here because they were the ultimate professionals on the field and played the game hard. Other guys like AusmusBrad is the toughest pretty boy I’ve ever been around in my life — he’d catch and have all kinds of things and you’d never know about it.

“They set a standard a lot of guys have followed, and we’ve always been an organization that if we can get out on the field that’s what you should do. We have an obligation to the fans and an obligation to the organization and to your teammates most of all to all to play if at all possible.”

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Astros catcher Ivan Rodriguez believes the Astros are in the midst of something special, and he should know. He was the starting catcher for the 2003 World Series champion Florida Marlins, who overcome a slot start to make the playoffs and win it all. The Marlins were 48-45 through 93 games in 2003 (the Astros are 47-46).

“We had a bad first half and we came back and finished 20 games over .500 and were able to get to the playoffs and win the World Series,” he said. “That’s baseball. We have to go out there and play hard every day.”

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Astros general manager Ed Wade said he had good reports on Doug Brocail‘s first rehab outing Monday at Triple-A Round Rock. Brocail, who has been out since May 4 with a left hamstring strain, threw one hitless inning with one strikeout for the Express in the first of six scheduled rehab outings.

“Doug had a real good outing last night at Round Rock and threw one inning and had to cover first base on the last hitter he faced,” Wade said. “He threw 14 pitches and went to the bullpen and threw 11 more to get to 25. He came through it great. That’s a big move in the right direction to get him in there.”

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