Day 31: Pitching shines after rough first inning

With the start of the regular season just two weeks away, the Astros lost to the split-squad St. Louis Cardinals 6-4 on Monday afternoon at Osceola County Stadium. The Cardinals scored five of their six runs in the first inning, but Houston’s pitching the rest of the way was pretty good.

Here’s the breakdown:

The good: Relief pitchers Sammy Gervacio and Wilton Lopez each threw two scoreless innings and struck out three batters, and after the game manager Brad Mills was asked if they were in the thick of the bullpen race. Gervacio has allowed three hits and one run in nine innings, and Lopez has pitched six scoreless innings and given up thee hits.

“There’s no doubt,” Mills said. “The way they’ve thrown the ball in the spring, you have to consider them.”

At the plate, the Astros had 10 hits while playing without injured starters Lance Berkman, Tommy Manzella and Michael Bourn. Carlos Lee went 3-for-3 with a double and an RBI, and Pedro Feliz socked his second homer of the spring in the second inning. Chris Shelton, a non-roster invitee playing first base, went 2-for-3 with two doubles.

Mills put Geoff Blum at shortstop for the first time this spring, and he played an excellent defensive game and made a pair of diving stops.  Mills didn’t rule out using the veteran infielder at shortstop if Manzella isn’t healthy to start the season.

“I know it’s Tommy’s job,” Blum said. “I’m not going out there to shuffle lineups and that kind of thing. That’s Millsie’s job. I just want him to know if something should happen again injury-wise or whatever I can play there. I know [first base coach Bobby] Meacham’s seen me play quite a bit of short or second, but you have to give the manager confidence you can go out and do it.”

The bad: The first inning was a nightmare for Wandy Rodriguez, who got a ground ball out to start the game and then gave up a single, walked a batter, gave up a double, hit a batter and allowed a three-run homer to David Freese. When the dust settled, the Cards scored five runs on four hits in the first.

Rodriguez, who wound up throwing 90 pitches, held St. Louis to no runs and three hits in his next three innings when he got better command of his breaking pitches. He was forced to throw fastballs in the first inning because he couldn’t command his breaking pitches for strikes.

“The hitters were looking fastball and I threw it right down the middle,” he said. “That was killing me. The first inning, that was my big mistake.”

Mills liked the adjustments the lefty made.

“He didn’t have any command of his breaking ball and that’s all he had to throw was his fastball, and that’s awfully tough when all that they are doing is sitting on their fastball,” he said. “His second inning on he was able to find that curveball and throw it for strikes, and now they couldn’t sit on his fastball. He made the adjustment and did a real good job.”

The only error committed in the game came when catcher J.R. Towles tried to throw out Tyler Green at second base in the fourth and threw the ball into center field.

What they said: “We want him to have his full arsenal when he takes the mound, where he can throw any pitch in any count for strikes. That’s the type of pitcher he is. He’s able to throw his fastball, changeup, curveball and sinker at any time and then he’s really effective. Today, for whatever reason, he was able to find his curveball.” - Mills on Rodriguez.

What’s next: The Astros will leave most of their regular players, with the exception of Pedro Feliz and Kaz Matsui, behind when they travel to Bradenton, Fla., on Tuesday to face the Pittsburgh Pirates at 12:05 p.m. CT. Felipe Paulino will get the start, with Brandon Lyon and Gary Majewski also scheduled to pitch.

The Astros play on the road the next three games and five of the next seven, during which they will cover about 1,100 miles across Florida. Mills is like most managers in that he likes to give his veteran positions players relief from making long trips, but just about all of them will make long trips at some point in the next week.

Houston plays in Port St. Lucie on Wednesday and Clearwater on Thursday.

Astro-notes: Mills said Monday morning his group of injured players were improving: Lance Berkman (knee surgery), Michael Bourn (strained oblique), Jason Bourgeois (strained hamstring), Tommy Manzella (strained quadriceps) and Yorman Bazardo (shoulder strain). Right-hander Alberto Arias (shoulder strain) had an MRI on Monday and results were pending. Also, left-hander Wesley Wright was ill on Monday. … Because of rainouts, split-squad games and Monday’s off day, the starting rotation has been thrown a little off. Reliever Casey Daigle will make a spot start Wednesday at the New York Mets.

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