July 2009

Berkman returns to lineup, Pudge gets hockey number

Lance Berkman had a swarm of reporters and television cameras waiting by his locker when he arrived at the ballpark Monday, many of whom followed him on the field during batting practice when he stopped to talk with general manager Ed Wade and head athletic trainer Nate Lucero.

Everyone wanted to know if Berkman was going to return to the lineup for the first time since he suffered a mild calf strain Thursday.

“He said he could still feel something in there, but it’s not like a pulled muscle that’s there all the time,” Wade said. “He’s in the lineup and he’ll see. Dr. [Jim] Muntz will be here tonight get a chance to talk to him and take a look at him a little bit, but he felt he was ready to go.”

Berkman doubled into left-center in his first at-bat in the first inning, and he was clearly favoring the leg somewhat. Fortunately for the Astros, Berkman made it into second base easily and didn’t have to test the leg too much.

“When you have a muscle issue for three days you’re not going to be 100 percent better, but I think it’s manageable,” Berkman said before the game.

Berkman felt he needed to get on the field as soon as possible, even if he’s not 100 percent.

“These are important games for us, and it’s just not the Cardinals, but we have a stretch here where we’re facing some tough teams and teams in our division and teams we have to beat if we want to get where w e want to go,” Berkman said. “It’s important for me to be in the lineup.”


Astros catcher Ivan Rodriguez switched his jersey number to No. 77 on Monday. Pudge wore No. 7 throughout his career with the Yankees, but he couldn’t wear that number with the Astros because it was retired last year in honor of Craig Biggio. So, he did the next best thing. He doubled up.

“I was just missing my number and pretty much all my career I have been No. 7,” he said. “I respect that I cannot where No. 7 here because it’s retired, but it’s always a good thing to have two sevens instead of one. “

Astros expect quiet deadline

Astros general manager Ed Wade reiterated his stance Saturday that he doesn’t see his club making an impact trade before the July 31 deadline.

Wade said the Astros don’t want to give up prospects and aren’t in position to add salary. Also, Houston entered play Sunday three games out of first place in the NL Central.

“We’ll have conversations with clubs,” he said. “I just don’t want to raise undo expectations that we’re going to really be active at the trading deadline because that’s not going to be the case. We’re not going to be in a position to make a deal of significance.

“We’ve talked about where our payroll is at this point in time and we’re going to be very reluctant to give up a lot of young players. But we’ll continue to have conversations if there’s ways to improve.”

The kinds of things Wade anticipates doing are more along the lines of adding inexpensive pieces like Chris Coste, who was claimed off waivers July 10. Relievers Chris Sampson and Doug Brocail could also return from the disabled list soon.

“A year ago at this time we had a real pressing need for starting pitching and bullpen help and we went out and got [Randy] Wolf and [LaTroy] Hawkins,” Wade said. “The way Roy [Oswalt] and Wandy [Rodriguez] are pitching at the top of the rotation and the way the other three guys have gotten us deep enough into games, puts us in a position where we’re not in dire need to go out and add starting pitching.”

Cooper explains Saturday's lineup

The Astros had an unusual lineup Saturday against the Dodgers with Chris Coste at first base and Jason Michaels in center field. Coste was playing in place of the injured Lance Berkman, and Michaels was in place of Michael Bourn, who was given the day off.

“I need to get Michaels going somehow,” manager Cecil Cooper said. “I think this is a pretty good test, and the other guy [Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw] has been tough against left-handed hitters. This will give Michaels a chance to hopefully get going.”

This will be the 10th start of the season for Michaels. He’s hitting .173 this season, and eight of his 13 hits have been doubles.

Coste, acquired July 10 off waivers from Philadelphia, will be making his first start for the Astros while facing a left-handed starter.

“That’s going to be his role for now,” Cooper said. “That’s going to be a role he can fill.”

Second baseman Kaz Matsui, who’s hitting lead-off with Bourn out, has four consecutive multi-hit games coming into Saturday. He has reached base safely via a hit or walk in 10 consecutive games. Batting right-handed, he’s hitting .348 with a .444 on-base percentage this year.

“He’s been really going strong,” he said. “He’s really swung good from the right side. The left side, he’s been missing a little bit and chasing a lot of bad balls. The last few games he’s looked much better from the left side.”

Cooper said Matsui would likely be out of the lineup Sunday for rest.


Boone on way back, Towles injured and former first-round pick released

Before we begin, you can now follow me on twitter: www.twitter.com/brianmctaggart

Aaron Boone, who underwent open heart surgery March 27, will rejoin the team Thursday in Houston and begin working in preparation for returning to the field this season.  Astros general manager Ed Wade said Boone is in good shape and will help the team at some point this year.

“I think there’s a real significant chance he’s going to be ready to play,” Wade said. “He’s very optimistic and feels good where he is now. He has to start baseball activities and see where it all leads, but from the standpoint of his overall health he feels great.”

Boone and his wife, Laura, welcomed their second child on Wednesday in Arizona, a daughter named Bella James.


Catcher J.R. Towles broke his nose in a tractor accident during the All-Star break, but he isn’t expected to miss any significant time. Yes, I said tractor. Towles is hitting .303 with three homers and 17 RBIs through 41 games at Triple-A Round Rock.

Here are some other batting averages at Round Rock. Perhaps you’ll notice a trend:
Brian Bogusevic: .272
Tommy Manzella: .272
Mark Saccomanno: .270
Reggie Abercrombie: .262
Chris Johnson: .271
Yordany Ramirez: .268
Matt Kata: .270


Outfielder Eli Iorg, selected by the Astros in the first round (compensation pick at No. 38 overall) in the 2005 draft was released Friday. Iorg, who helped the University of Tennessee reach the College World Series in 2005, hit .209 in 20 games with Triple-A Round Rock this year. He was at short-season Tri-City on a rehab assignment when he was released.

Iorg was a career .274 hitter in 331 career Minor League games entering this season. Iorg was part of the forgettable 2005 draft class for the Astros that included pitcher Brian Bogusevic (no. 24 overall) and catcher Ralph Henriquez (No. 72 overall).  Bogusevic switched to outfield from pitcher a year ago.


Brocail, Bagwell and Manny on prowl in LA

Relief pitcher Doug Brocail was back on the road with the Astros on Thursday, which meant the clubhouse scene was a little more jovial. Brocail took pride in finishing a crossword puzzle and then welcomed reporters to get into the box against him.

That’s because Brocail will be throwing a simulated game Friday. He’s been on the disabled list since May 4 with a strained left hamstring and was giddy over getting back on the mound to face hitters and field his position.

Depending on how he does Friday, Brocail could be close to setting a schedule for a Minor League rehab assignment.

“I need to get in the situation of breaking to first [base],” Brocail said. “You can’t really get that until you get in the game. As much as I hate rehab assignments, this one is going to be a necessity only because if I over-stride or if I move too quickly, I’ve got to know what it’s going to do.”


Astros manager Cecil Cooper said he will approach pitching to Dodgers slugger Manny Ramirez during this weekend’s series in Los Angeles the same way he has pitched to Cardinals All-Star Albert Pujols.

“If there’s a chance to walk him when he has a chance to hurt you, you have to walk him,” Cooper said. “The only way to do that is you have to get the guys out in front of him. Will he change the strategy? Not a whole lot. But you can’t let him beat you.”


Jeff Bagwell, the Astros’ all-time leader in home runs and RBIs and a special assistant to the general manager, is making a rare road trip with the club this weekend in Los Angeles.

“I think he’s here more to visit with [Dodgers catcher Brad] Ausmus than he is with us,” Houston manager Cecil Cooper said.

Actually, Bagwell will remain with the big club through the weekend before heading to the Astros’ Single-A affiliate in Lancaster next week to check some of the organization’s prospects.

Bring on the second half

Jose Valverde is boarding my flight to Los Angeles as I sit at the airport Thursday morning. At least we know the Astros didn’t trade him. Valverde is going to be a key piece to the Astros’ second-half chances if they’re to make a run to the playoffs.

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Astros’ season comes down to the final days of the season as it has so many times in the past. I think we’ll know in the next three weeks whether we have contenders on our hands. The schedule to start the second half is brutal, beginning with this week’s series at Los Angeles.

The Astros also play road trips at St. Louis and Chicago in the coming weeks and play host to St. Louis and the Mets. Entering Thursday, 30 of the Astros’ next 33 games are teams that currently have a winning record. Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be interesting.

Astros line up pitching after All-Star break

Wandy Rodriguez, and not Roy Oswalt, will get the ball to start the second half of the season Thursday in Los Angeles, manager Cecil Cooper said Saturday. Cooper wants to give Oswalt an extra day of rest to recover from the bone bruise on two of his fingers, an injury he suffered swinging the bat in the sixth inning Friday.

Oswalt, who will start Friday at Dodger Stadium, said Saturday he will be ready to pitch and expects to be recovered from his injury. Mike Hampton, who was roughed up Saturday, will start Saturday at Dodger Stadium and Russ Ortiz will start the final game of the series.

Cooper said Rodriguez is staying in Houston during the All-Star break and will throw a bullpen session at Minute Maid Park.


In case you missed it, the Astros claimed catcher Chris Coste off waivers on Friday. Coste, who spent 11 years in the Minor Leagues, including five in independent ball, broke in with the Phillies in 2006 and last year won a World Series ring. Wearing No. 41, he saw his first action for the Astros in the seventh inning Saturday.

The addition of Coste makes the Astros the first team in the Majors to have two players born in North Dakota on the roster at the same time. Coste was born in Fargo, N.D., and Darin Erstad is from nearby Jamestown, N.D. Those in Jamestown upset that it was reported their favorite son was from Fargo should take note that Erstad was quick to remind a reporter of his real hometown and urged everyone to refrain from writing letters. 



Astros honor firefighters

MLB.com associate reporter Jason Grodsky filed the following story on the Astros visiting with members of the Houston Fire Department prior to Friday’s game.

HOUSTON — Before the Astros took the field in the second game of Houston’s four-game set with the Nationals on Friday, members of the team made a difference in the community by paying tribute to local firefighters.

Hunter Pence, Miguel Tejada, Ivan Rodriguez, LaTroy Hawkins, Russ Ortiz, Geoff Blum, Chris Sampson, Doug Brocail and manager Cecil Cooper each visited local firehouses that matched their uniform number on Friday morning, paying tribute to Houston firefighters James Harlow and Damion Hobbs, who died on duty this spring.

“It’s nice to spend time with those guys, especially with the dangerous job they do,” Rodriguez said. “In times like that to just sign autograph and be shown around is worth while.”

The families of Harlow and Hobbs were honored during pregame ceremonies and the Astros wore Houston Fire Department caps Friday. After the game, the players signed the hats for auction to benefit the Firefighters Protection Fund.

“That’s pretty special,” Cooper said. “Those guys put a lot of work and a lot of hours. They risk their lives. They’re almost like the servicemen fighting the war. They’re going in these buildings and doing these things. A lot of it is volunteer time, and that’s pretty big. Especially to be able to do something for them to show them how much we appreciate them.”

On Thursday, Rodriguez and first base coach Jose Cruz attended a lunch to support Houston Police officer Henry Canales, who was shot and killed while conducting an undercover investigation into the sale of stolen televisions on June 23.

Rodriguez and Cruz attended the lunch on their own to pay their respects to Canales’ children, Stephanie Canales, 17, and Henry Jr., 13. They signed memorabilia to be auctioned off at a barbecue hosted by two local police unions. The funds from the auction will go to raise money for a scholarship fund for the two children.

“That just tells you that they care,” Cooper said of Cruz and Rodriguez. “They care about people and what happens to people who are in the industry like that, people who protect us.”

Several members of the Houston Police Department’s Organization of Spanish Speaking Officers attended the lunch, as did Homicide Division officer David Vasquez, a former minor-leaguer who freelances as an associate Astros scout for Rusty Pendergrass, who was also present for the event.

“It was great and nice to be able to get out and help the community and meet people,” Rodriguez said. “I’m sure those people enjoy meeting people like Cruz and myself and  it was a good cause and a great time.”

Hobbled Blum surprised by boos from fans

Geoff Blum had no idea he was the hot topic in Houston sports talk radio on Friday until Astros’ Hall of Fame announcer Milo Hamilton stopped him in the underbelly of Minute Maid Park and informed him he was being ripped by fans on the radio.

The fans booed Blum loudly in the fourth inning Thursday for a perceived lack of effort. He led off the fourth with a double, but probably could have had a triple. Blum is still nursing a sore hamstring and isn’t 100 percent, and he abided by the rule of not making the first out at third base.

“Obviously, I’ve had some hamstring issues in the past,” he said. “I’m running as hard as I can physically, and playing with as much God-given talent as I can. And I decided with Jeff Keppinger hitting behind me and hitting .390 against left-handed pitchers, instead of me chancing getting thrown out at third for the first out, I stayed at second base and in scoring position.”

Blum was harassed by a group of fans behind the Astros’ dugout and they exchanged words, but Blum denied saying anything profane or inflammatory. Blum joked that he told the fans his talent is his hair and not his speed.

“I know I didn’t say anything to regret,” he said. “I’ve been in this game long enough to realize with the media coverage that things can get blown out of proportion, and the fact you guys [media] are here giving me a chance to explain things means a lot to me. I don’t feel I have to apologize because I’m going out and giving it all I’ve got.”

To his credit, Blum beat out and infield single in the sixth and scored from first base on a double by Ivan Rodriguez. Still, he’s perplexed why Astros fans would boo him.

“I’m going to play the game to win for the Astros,” he said. “That’s the name on my jersey and there are 24 other guys in the clubhouse, and I’m playing hard for them and the fans. I would never do anything to disrespect the game in any way, shape or form. It’s weird to get booed. I’ve gotten booed quite a bit, but it’s never in a white uniform.”

So what would Blum like to tell Astros fans?

“I love you guys,” he said. “Keep coming out and cheering or booing or whatever you’re doing. I’m going to keep playing hard. I know my game probably isn’t as exciting as most guys, I’m going to do what I can with what I’ve got.”

Astros area scout Rusty Pendergrass is going to the All-Star Game on Tuesday in St. Louis. Pendergrass, who signed Astros’ All-Star right fielder Hunter Pence and Tampa Bay All-Star outfielder Ben Zobrist (who was traded to Tampa Bay from Houston in 2006 in exchange for Aubrey Huff), both in 2004, will take in the game with his son, courtesy of the Astros.

The Astros will also send assistant general manger/director of scouting Bobby Heck to the Futures Game in St. Louis on Monday. Jason Castro, drafted No. 10 overall last year, was Heck’s first draft pick as a member of the Astros. Castro is playing in the Futures Game for the U.S. team.

Houston general manager Ed Wade said he also invited Glen Barker, the club’s director of Pacific Rim scouting, to watch Chia-Jen Lo pitch for the World Team in the Futures Game, but Barker’s schedule won’t permit it.


Cooper's decision to yank Ortiz made sense

Astros starting pitcher Russ Ortiz was furious following Thursday’s game, a game in which he was pulled after three innings in the win over Washington. Ortiz was mad at manager Cecil Cooper for taking him out so soon and expressed frustrations at not being able to work out of trouble.

I can certainly understand Ortiz’s frustrations and can’t speak to the lack of communication Ortiz says he’s had with the manager, but I can see Cooper’s side of Thursday’s decision a little clearer. The Astros had just gotten a complete game a day earlier from Wandy Rodriguez and have red-hot ace Roy Oswalt pitching Friday, so the bullpen was rested.

Ortiz was bordering on disaster all game, giving up three hits and two runs in the first inning and two hits, one walk and two runs in the third. He threw 68 pitches, but nothing really came easy. Besides, the bullpen picked him up and threw six scoreless innings.

Perhaps Ortiz, who was pitched pretty well in the rotation this year, is trying to get traded, but he certainly wasn’t shy with the media following the game.

“It became apparent to me from the very beginning of the season that I wasn’t going to be given much of a chance or room for error, and today is another example of that,” said Ortiz, who is 3-4 with 4.44 ERA in 20 games this year (10 starts).

Cooper might have been justified in taking Ortiz out of the game, but it doesn’t speak well for the manager when players are openly ripping his decisions to the media.