April 2010

An appreciation of Tommy Manzella

Tommy Manzella is not in the Astros’ lineup almost every day to hit. That’s supposed to be handled by Hunter Pence, Carlos Lee, Lance Berkman and Pedro Feliz. Manzella is in the lineup to play defense and make the kind of dazzling plays like he did in Thursday’s loss to the Reds.

Manzella started a terrific 6-4-3 double play to end the seventh, going to his right and backhanding a ball off the bat of Ryan Hanigan. He topped himself in the eighth when pitcher Bronson Arroyo hit a grounder over the mound which Manzella fielded in shallow center field and whirled and threw out Arroyo at first base.

You won’t see two better plays this year.

Manzella said he’s getting more used to playing behind the pitchers and knowing what pitches they’re going to throw and where the balls might be hit.

“I’m able to make adjustments and I feel like my range is starting to expand,” he said.

He feels really comfortable playing behind Roy Oswalt, who works at a quick pace.

“That’s ideal,” he said. “The quicker the pace, the better it is for the infielders because we’re all on our toes. Nights like tonight where you know he’s working quick and moving the ball in and out, you almost get in a rhythm with him.”

When it came to turn the double play in the seventh inning, Manzella said he’s been taught a good defensive player makes sure he gets the first out and leaves everything else to the other player. In this case, second baseman Kaz Matsui.

“I’m not trying to be quick and hurry and get two,” he said. “When you see a ball like that, my job is to try to get the ball to Kaz as quickly as I can and he made a great turn and that’s almost like a do-or-die play. It’s a do-or-die with a little bit of caution. I didn’t go crazy. I got to it as quickly as I could and made sure we go the first one, and luckily the feed was good enough to let him turn the double play.”

On the play in which he robbed Arroyo of a hit, Manzella knew Arroyo wouldn’t get down the line as quickly as most of the rest of the lineup, so he changed his approach as the ball skipped over the mound and past second base.

“Maybe with someone quicker running it would have been a bang-bang play, but I had an idea he was running and I was able to take a deeper angle and give myself more time,” he said.

With Michael Bourn in center field and Manzella at shortstop, the Astros have two terrific defensive players.


The roof is closed, but not because of twilight

The roof was closed at Minute Maid Park for Thursday’s series finale against the Reds, but it has nothing to do the ball that center-fielder Michael Bourn and right-fielder Hunter Pence lost in the twilight sky Wednesday, which led to the Reds scoring four unearned runs in a 6-4 win.

The Houston area was experiencing high winds and ominous clouds hovered over the ballpark the entire afternoon.

“I think they’d rather have it open as much as they can, but we’re happy to have it closed,” Astros manager Brad Mills said.

Both Pence and Bourn said it’s extremely difficult to follow fly balls during twilight, and Mills said bullpen coach Jamie Quirk lost track of the ball that glanced off the glove of Hunter Pence in right-center field Wednesday. The play took place right in front of the Astros’ bullpen.


Astros need young pitchers to step up

Bud Norris struggled with his control Tuesday against the Reds, walking four batters and hitting one more in six-plus innings of work. He took the loss to fall to 1-2 with a 5.60 ERA through four starts. Right-hander Felipe Paulino will carry an 0-2 record and 5.94 ERA into his fourth start Wednesday against the Reds.

With Roy Oswalt on top of his game, Wandy Rodriguez getting better by the start and Brett Myers pitching in and out of trouble to keep his team competitive nearly every start, the Astros’ chances of staying relevant in the NL Central could fall into the hands of Norris and Paulino.

At this time last year, the Astros had Mike Hampton, Russ Ortiz and Brian Moehler at the bottom of the rotation, so they’re in much better shape with Norris and Paulino. Both of them  have tremendous stuff and the ability to dominate, and their best years are still ahead of them, unlike Hampton and Ortiz.

Norris has just 14 Major League starts under his belt and has been up and down, and Paulino has started only 23 games in his career and this year has pitched better than the numbers have indicated. If this is the year one of them or — dare we say? — both of them figure it all out, the Astros have the makings of a pretty good rotation in the future. Perhaps that future begins Wednesday. 


Who are the real Astros?

Have you checked the National League standings lately? All 16 teams are bunched up within four games of each other after three weeks. The Pirates got off to a hot start but have lost six in a row, and the Astros lost their first eight and have won eight out of 10. Water finds its level.

So what about the Astros? They played three strong teams with good pitching out of the chute and were swept by San Francisco and Philadelphia and lost two out of three at St. Louis. Then they took two out of three from an enigmatic Cubs team, before returning home to win two of three from a good Florida team and sweeping the terrible Pirates.

Florida ran a couple of good arms at the Astros in Anibal Sanchez and Josh Johnson, but the Astros pitching staff was able to hold down one of the best hitting teams in the NL.

The Astros open a three-game series Tuesday against the Reds, who are also struggling and playing below expectations. Houston has played six in a row at home and has 10 of its next 14 at Minute Maid Park, and it needs to take advantage of playing weaker teams at home. So far, the Astros have done just that.

Even so, the jury is out on this team. Beginning in mid-May, the Astros played 22 out of 33 on the road, with trips to St. Louis, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Milwuakee, Colorado and Yankees on the schedule. By then, we should know. We should know if Astros are going to be contenders or also-rans in the NL Central.

If the starting pitching continues to hold up and the offense keeps improving — Hunter Pence and Carlos Lee still have a long way to go — maybe this little team will do something after all. But after three weeks, it’s hard to get a grasp on the real Astros.

Some interesting Astros stats

Here are some interesting stats from Astros-land, prior to Sunday:

  • Astros pitchers are first in the NL with a .346 batting average (9-for-26).
  • Astros pinch-hitters are hitting .308, which is tied for third in the NL.
  • Jeff Keppinger’s .533 batting average againast left-handers ranks second in the NL.
  • The Astros’ bullpen had thrown 11 consecutive scoreless innings entering Sunday.
  • Astros starters have posted a 2.81 ERA in the last nine games. The Astros are 7-3 in those games.
  • Lance Berkman’s first home run of the season will tie him with Reggie Smith for fifth-place all-time for switch-hitters. He has 313 homers.
  • The Astros are 6-2 when scoring four or more runs, and 1-8 when scoring three or fewer.
  • Four of the Astros’ five starting pitchers are from their own farm system: Bud Norris, Roy Oswalt, Felipe Paulino and Wandy Rodriguez. The only one that’s not is Brett Myers, who signed a free agent before this season.

Mills vows to eliminate mistakes

Astros manager Brad Mills said there were some things that took place during Wednesday’s win over the Marlins that he felt he needed to address with his team. Mills didn’t get into many specifics, short of saying the base running had to be better.

The one specific issue Mills did address was a throw left-fielder Carlos Lee made in the fifth inning. With runners at first and second and one out, Gaby Sanchez hit a ball high off the left-field wall. Lee apparently threw to the wrong base while getting the ball back to the infield.

“We were talking to Carlos about where he’s going to throw the ball when that ball comes off the wall,” Mills said. “We talked about our baserunning for one thing. There were some other issues that I don’t want to really get into, but there was one significant issue we wanted to address what happened last night and we did and we’re moving on.

“Those little things might not show up last night as a big issue, but it will rear its head at some point in the near future if it’s not addressed, and that’s what we want to do.”

The Astros struggled on the bases Wednesday. Lee was caught stealing to end the first inning, and Lance Berkman was thrown out by a large margin trying to steal third base in the sixth inning. Lee also went to first to third on a grounder in the eighth, though he made it safely to third because of a pair of bad throws.

“We’re open to using anchors-are-us online if we could order some anchors for our guys so they just stop running,” Astros general manager Ed Wade said. “We have to run the bases smart, particularly when we have some guys struggling at the plate. We can’t give outs away. You want to be aggressive and things happen, but last night they were really happening.”


Emptying the Astros notebook

Tommy Manzella, who has started 10 games at shortstop this year, was out of the starting lineup Wednesday in what manager Brad Mills said was a scheduled day off. Manzella is hitting .206 this season and took some extra batting practice before the game against the Marlins.

“The more swings I take, the closer I am to getting there,” Manzella said. “I’m not one to think you have to overwork, or even when you’re going good, you have to take a million swings to keep it there. Right now, I’m trying a bunch of different things, not to change anything I’m doing, but trying things that will click to get my swing back to where it is when I am successful.”

Manzella keeps detailed notes about his swing when he’s in a groove so he can go over them when he’s struggling. He says the swing feels the same as it does when he’s going good.

“I might be making a minor adjustment to where I’m doing something different, but it’ exactly how I felt when I was going good,” Manzella said.

Jeff Keppinger started at shortstop in place of Manzella. It’s his fourth start of the season at shortstop, and he’s started seven games at second base.


The Astros’ bench has come up huge in recent games, with Jason Michaels winning Sunday’s game in Chicago with a pinch-hit sacrifice fly in the 10th inning and Kaz Matsui coming off the bench to push the winning across with the bunt in the eighth Tuesday. Michaels added a pinch-hit homer in that game.

And on Wednesday night, Geoff Blum delivered a pinch-hit, two-run triple in the seventh to win the game.

“Those guys are doing a really good job,” Mills said. “You feel for those guys that don’t get a whole lot of playing time, but when they come through like that you’re thrilled to death for them.”

Mills has a soft spot in his heart for players who are called upon to come off the bench in big situations. He played four years in the Majors and was primarily a bench player, so he knows how important it is to keep them fresh and informed of their roles.

“I’ve had the opportunity to see things done in a certain way, see how it works with the places I’ve been like with [manager] Terry [Francona] with Boston the last six years and how things have been successful,” said Mills, who spent the previous six years as Boston’s bench coach.


Center fielder Michael Bourn, who led the National League with 61 stolen bases last year, stole second and third base in the first inning Tuesday and scored on a ground ball by Lance Berkman. Bourn can tell teams are keeping a closer eye on him this year.

“Last year they wouldn’t care if I was going, but now they stay in and pick,” Bourn said.

Bourn walked to lead off Wednesday’s game and promptly stole second, giving him three steals in two days. He only had one stolen base prior to the Marlins series. And he also ran his way out of a key rundown between second and third in the sixth inning.

Part of the reason Bourn hadn’t run much in the first two weeks of the season was because the Astros were often playing from behind and were in need of some big innings. Mills has given Bourn a green light to run when he sees fit.

“He’s made a big step in understanding when to go and when not to go and when he’s able to get a jump and when he’s not able,” he said. “That’s huge when base runners can make that turn and get that realization. That’s really huge.”


Humberto Quintero got the start behind the plate for the Astros on Wednesday against the Marlins. It was the seventh start of the season for Quintero, which matches the seven starts for J.R. Towles. Quintero responded with his first homer of the season.

Mills said the reason Quintero was in the lineup Wednesday was so he could catch Bud Norris, who pitched so well when Quintero caught him five days earlier in St. Louis. Towles caught Norris in his first start of the season.

“That’s the reason he’s in there,” Mills said. “Bud threw the ball so well in St. Louis that I felt, ‘You know what? Let’s give Q another shot with him.’ It’s nothing against J.R. or anything. He’s been swinging the bat well and doing a good job behind the plate.

“We’re still in the phase of seeing what works and what doesn’t work and who fits where and why.”


Astros doing it all right on winning streak

This is probably the best stretch of baseball the Astros have played since the 2008 season. They never won more than four games in a row last year, and they have a chance to win No. 5 in a row Thursday when they face the Marlins in the final game of the series.

What’s the key? Starting pitching? Relief pitching? Clutch hitting? Check, check and check.

Astros starters have posted a 3.07 ERA with 35 strikeouts in the last seven games, a span in which the club is 5-2. The bullpen has been tremendous, with Brandon Lyon ironing things out and Matt Lindstrom getting saves in four consecutive games. And you can’t say enough about Wilton Lopez, who threw two scoreless innings Wednesday.

The return of Lance Berkman, who has three RBI groundouts in two games, has been key in many ways. It allows Geoff Blum to be a factor off the bench, and Blum did just that in the seventh inning Wednesday by hitting his first career pinch-hit triple to win the game. Jason Michaels came up big off the bench with a sac fly in the 10th Sunday in Chicago and hit a pinch-hit homer Tuesday.

“We’re awesome,” Blum said of the bench brigade.

And center-fielder Michael Bourn ran down nearly everything hit his way in center field Wednesday and is starting to become a big factor on the bases with three stolen bases in two games. He also managed to avoid a tag in a rundown and wound up on third and eventually scoring. That was a huge play.

OK, so not everything was so great Wednesday. Berkman was thrown out by a mile trying to steal third base with the Astros trailing 4-3 in the sixth inning.

“His name is Puma and I don’t think he demonstrated any cat-like actions right there,” manager Brad Mills said.

So, Lance, what did happen?

“I was thinking nobody in the stadium expects me to try to steal third right here,” he said. “It was the sixth inning, and I thought the worst-case scenario would be that we would end up with Carlos [Lee] on second base and two outs in the sixth against a tough pitcher where a hit still ties the game.

“If I made it then we had a chance to score an easy run off a guy that was giving us some fits. The thinking was sound, the mind was willing but the body was weak. If I had to do it all over again clearly I would not have attempted it. Clearly I did not notice my leg was as weak as it is. I’m glad we won the game because you guys would have made a bigger deal out of it.”

If the Astros think it’s great having Berkman back to the lineup, the media surely missed his post-game comments, too.

Late-inning moves bode well for Mills

The return of Lance Berkman was a great deal for the Astros, who got two RBIs from Puma in their 7-5 win over Florida on Tuesday. The Astros have suddenly won four of five games and three in a row and continue to put their 0-8 start in the rearview mirror.

All three wins — the final two wins over Chicago on Saturday and Sunday and Tuesday’s win over Florida — have been nail-biters, although Jason Michaels put Tuesday’s game out of reach with a two-run homer in the eighth.

For the first time we’re starting to see manager Brad Mills pull some strings late in games, and he seems to have this thing down despite his days in the burly American League.

In Saturday’s 4-3 win, the Astros carried a 4-0 lead into the eighth before the Cubs scored three times of Brandon Lyon. Mills yanked Lyon with a runner at second and two outs in favor of Chris Sampson, who did his job by getting a ground ball to end the inning.

In Sunday’s 3-2 win at Wrigley, the Astros were down 2-0 heading into the eighth before rallying for three runs in their final three at-bats to win in 10 innings. Michaels delivered a big pinch-hit sac fly in the 10th, and Mills pieced the bullpen together nicely with Brian Moehler and Tim Byrdak pitching scoreless innings.

Yes, Mills has used 13 different lineups in 13 games, but expect things to settle down now that Berkman is back. He deserves kudos for keeping Jeff Keppinger in the lineup while he’s hot, and on Tuesday Mills dusted off Kaz Matsui and got him to put down a perfect bunt to score Hunter Pence with winning run. Matsui handles the bat very well, so he was the ideal man to hit in that situation

For a team that’s 4-9, it’s so far, so good for Brad Mills.

Astros face roster move ahead of Berkman activation

The Astros will likely activate first baseman Lance Berkman from the 15-day disabled list prior to Tuesday’s game against the Marlins, which means Puma will make his 2010 debut in the season’s 13th game.

Berkman, who underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee March 13, went 3-for-4 with a homer and a double Sunday in his second of two rehab starts at Triple-A Round Rock, and said after the game he was ready to return to action.

“I’ve already talked to Brad Mills and tried to call [general manager] Ed Wade,” Berkman told MLB.com via phone Sunday. “[Mills] asked me if I could go Tuesday, and I said, ‘Absolutely.’ He said is this the type of thing where we’re going to have to nurse you along, and I said, ‘No, you can run me out there for about 10 or 15 games and see what happens.’ I anticipate being in the lineup on Tuesday and not coming out of it until the end of the year.”

Berkman’s long-awaited returns means space has to be created on the 25-man roster. Berkman is an infielder, so it’s likely the Astros will have to make a move with an infielder. The likely choice is rookie Chris Johnson, who’s playing time would dwindle to nearly nothing when Berkman returns and plays first base and Pedro Feliz stays at third full time instead of getting some reps at first.

Could the Astros be considering doing something with Kaz Matsui? He has gotten buried on the bench while Jeff Keppinger is off to a .371 start at the plate. Matsui is hitting .095 but is still owed more than $5 million, so it’s unlikely the Astros would release him at this point. But if they’re going to commit to Keppinger, Matsui is not suited to coming off the bench.

The most important thing for the Astros is Berkman’s return to a lineup that sorely needs him.