Day 39: Busy, busy day at Astros camp

What a day at Astros camp.

The day began with the news the Astros had made nine roster moves, which essentially gave the starting catching job to J.R. Towles, and ended with Lance Berkman telling MLB.com he suffered a setback Tuesday in his recovery from arthroscopic knee surgery. In between, Bud Norris pitched well against the Phillies and Matt Lindstrom was named closer.

Other than that…

Let’s start with the biggest news, which is Berkman. It’s growing increasingly unlikely he’d be ready for Opening Day. He felt so good taking batting practice Tuesday he said he was about “70 percent” certain he’d be ready for Monday. After trying to run, his hopes diminished.

“When I tried to run, I just couldn’t do it,” he said. “They’re going to back me down for a few days and see what happens.”

The recovery time on the surgery was two to four weeks, and Berkman has barely passed the halfway point. If he starts the season in the disabled list, he would have to miss at least the first four games of the regular season before being eligible to return.

Astros GM Ed Wade plans to meet with Berkman and head athletic trainer Nate Lucero on Wednesday to talk about the slugger’s immediate future.

“I was hopeful that by increasing activities that it wouldn’t irritate it, and apparently it’s going to,” he said. “I need to drop down to where I just swing a little bit. Today I took ground balls and moved around a good bit, and it didn’t respond like I wanted it to.”

If Berkman starts the year on the DL – and that is a good possibility – that would create another opening on the roster. We’ll get to that later. But if Berkman is placed on the DL, the earliest he’s be able to play in the fifth game of the season, April 10, against Philadelphia.

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Lindstrom, who had a terrific spring, was named closer by manager Brad Mills after Tuesday’s game against the Phillies. The hard-throwing right-hander hasn’t allowed an earned run in eight appearances this spring, though he nearly did Tuesday after he loaded the bases with no outs and worked his way out of the jam.

Lindstrom came to camp competing with Brandon Lyon for the closer’s role, but Lyon was behind and didn’t appear in a game until March 18. Lyon had a cyst drained in his right shoulder in January and had to get his arm strength back.

But Lindstrom left little doubt with how well he’s pitched.

“He’s throwing the ball well, and obviously with Brandon Lyon slow getting out of the gate from the cyst, it’s a logical move to make having him down there close to games in the ninth inning and still have an alternative to run with Lyon at some point,” Wade said.

Lyon, who signed a three-year, $15-million deal, has 54 career saves, including 26 with Arizona in 2008. Lindstrom has saved 20 games in his career, including 15 with Florida last year.

“We told Brandon Lyon he was going to be extremely valuable for us and going to be extremely valuable getting to us getting to that point as we go forward,” Mills said. “Nothing against Brandon at all, but when Matt did throw the ball as well as he did and Brandon was getting slow in getting going, that was probably it.”

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The Astros trimmed their roster by nine players Tuesday morning to get to 29, and in the process awarded an Opening Day roster spot to catcher J.R. Towles, who was competing with No. 1 prospect Jason Castro for the starting position. They haven’t announced Towles is the starter, but the belief all along was Towles and Castro were competing for the starting spot with Humberto Quintero as backup.

Castro was among nine players told by Mills and Wade they weren’t going to make the Opening Day roster. Castro and right-hander Casey Daigle were reassigned to Minor League camp, and right-hander Wilton Lopez and utility man Edwin Maysonet were optioned to Triple-A Round Rock.

In addition, non-roster invitees Gary Majewski (right-hander), Gustavo Chacin (left-hander), Drew Meyer (infielder), Chris Shelton (first baseman) and Kevin Cash (catcher) were reassigned to Minor League camp, but will remain with the team through this weekend’s exhibition games in Houston. Daigle will remain with the team until after he pitches Thursday’s Grapefruit League finale.

What does this all mean?

Towles is going to be the starting catcher. He told reporters team brass told him he was going to be the everyday guy. That’s not surprising. Castro had a very good spring, but Towles had a better spring at the plate and has some experience. And what’s wrong with Castro getting his feet wet in Round Rock?

The moves also leave the Astros with 14 pitchers, two of which (Alberto Arias and Yorman Bazardo) are injured. They’re likely going to carry 12 pitchers so it appears here are the 12: Roy Oswalt, Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, Bud Norris, Felipe Paulino, Brian Moehler, Matt Lindstrom, Brandon Lyon, Jeff Fulchino, Chris Sampson, Tim Byrdak and Sammy Gervacio.

Gervacio had a great spring and deserved it, but Lopez and Daigle had great springs and were sent out. I’m guessing we’ll see those guys again soon.

What about the infield? The Astros have seven infielders remaining, including Lance Berkman, who could be headed to the disabled list. If Berkman is disabled, that leaves Geoff Blum, Kaz Matsui, Tommy Manzella, Pedro Feliz, Chris Johnson and Jeff Keppinger as the six infielders.

That’s why I was somewhat surprised they sent out Maysonet on Tuesday. If Berkman is disabled, Maysonet seems to be a much better fit to make the team as a utility infielder than Johnson, who’s a third baseman. Johnson has had a great spring, but they still want him to play every day. It will be interesting to see what they do if Berkman is disabled.

The Astros need to trim one more outfielder from among the two non-roster players: Cory Sullivan and Jason Bourgeois. Let’s be honest: Sullivan is the guy, especially considering Bourgeois had had trouble staying healthy.

So final four roster cuts could be the four injured guys: Berkman, Arias, Bazardo and Bourgeois.

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As far as the game goes, the Astros beat the Phillies 5-2 on Tuesday to improve to 13-12 with two Grapefruit League games left. Philadelphia pretty much had its Opening Day lineup on the field, except for pitcher and catcher, so this was a good test for Bud Norris.

Here’s the breakdown:

The good: Norris held the Phillies to six hits and two runs and struck out seven batters in five innings. He had a 1-2-3 first, allowed two runs and three hits in the second and one hit in each of the other three innings.

“I felt great,” he said. “The plan was to go out there and throw strikes and compete and give my team a chance to win the game. I competed and made a lot of pitches.”

Lindstrom walked two batters and allowed a hit to load the bases with no outs in the sixth, but he got two strikeouts and a groundout to escape and keep his spring ERA spotless. Jeff Fulchino threw a scoreless inning and had two strikeouts, Tim Byrdak allowed one hit and struck out one batter in one inning and Chris Sampson struck out three batters in one inning.

At the plate, Michael Bourn went 4-for-5 with two doubles, a triple and a stolen base and appears to be fully recovered from his strained oblique. Carlos Lee went 2-for-3 with an RBI double and a three-run double, and Pedro Feliz had two hits. Hunter Pence scored two runs.

The bad: They were 3-for-16 with runners in scoring position. OK, now I’m nitpicking.

What they said: “I thought he threw the ball really well. It scared the daylights out of me when he stuck his hand up there, but at the same time I thought he threw the ball really well and it was so nice to see. The ball was coming out of his hand really good, even after he was hit in the hand.” - Mills on Norris, who was hit in the pitching hand by a line drive in the third.

What’s next: The Astros will send left-hander Wandy Rodriguez to the mound Wednesday against the Braves in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., at 12:05 p.m. CT. Rodriguez is scheduled to throw only two innings before catching a plane for Houston, where his wife is scheduled to deliver the couple’s second child Thursday. Moehler, Sampson and Gervacio are also scheduled to pitch. Right-hander Roy Oswalt, who had an injection into his lower back Monday in Houston, will start a Minor League game Wednesday. Shortstop Tommy Manzella will also play in that game.

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