March 2012

Bixler, Sanchez among Astros roster cuts

The Astros trimmed their Major League roster by five more players Wednesday morning, reassigning infielders Angel Sanchez, Scott Moore and Brian Bixler to Minor League camp, optioning right-hander Enerio Del Rosario to the Minor Leagues and releasing infielder Joe Thurston. They’re down to 34 players in camp.

Bixler was the biggest surprise, considering he’s had a good camp at the plate and has shown his versatility by playing in the outfield. He slugged his third homer of the spring on Tuesday.

“It’s tough to talk to a guy about that, but he knows the situation we’re in,” general manager Jeff Luhnow said. “He’s going to go to Triple-A and he’s going to be ready. He’s the type of guy who can play a lot of positions, has tools and is well-liked with our big league staff. I have a feeling if an opportunity arises, he’ll be back.”

Bixler will see time at shortstop and center field at Triple-A Oklahoma City.

Sanchez, meanwhile, spent all of last season with the Astros and was the Opening Day starter at shortstop. He was slowed by a back injury early in spring, but was hitting .412 in Grapefruit League play.

“That’s one of his best assets is that he does swing the bat and takes a really good Major League at-bat,” Luhnow said. “That’s going to give him an opportunity to have a career at the big league level. Right now, we need him to go to Oklahoma City and play shortstop almost every day and be ready in case there’s a need.”

The moves leave the Astros with seven infielders, meaning one more cut will need to be made. If you have Carlos Lee, Jose Altuve, Jed Lowrie and Chris Johnson starting on the infield, the final two spots will come down to Matt Downs, Brett Wallace and Rule 5 pick Marwin Gonzalez.

The Astros are settled with Jason Castro and Chris Snyder at catcher (Carlos Corporan and Landon Powell are still in camp) and have to cut one more outfielder, likely from among Justin Ruggiano, Travis Buck or J.B. Shuck.

“We still have a couple of extra position players, but you guys can look at it and take your best guess,” Luhnow said. “We’re still going to use all our available time to figure it out. As we’re making decisions, we’re being quick about letting players know they’re not longer in the mix. Anybody that’s still in the club is still in the mix.”

Remaining players in Astros camp (non-roster players in italics):

Pitchers –Fernando Abad (LHP), David Carpenter, Rhiner Cruz, Sergio Escalona (LHP), J.A. Happ (LHP), Lucas Harrell, Livan Hernandez, Wilton Lopez, Jordan Lyles, Brandon Lyon, Brett Myers, Bud Norris, Fernando Rodriguez, Wandy Rodriguez (LHP), Henry Sosa, Kyle Weiland, Wesley Wright (LHP).

Catchers — Jason Castro, Carlos Corporan, Landon Powell, Chris Snyder.

Infielders — Jose Altuve, Matt Downs, Marwin Gonzalez, Chris Johnson, Carlos Lee, Jed Lowrie, Brett Wallace.

Outfielders — Brian Bogusevic, Travis Buck, J.D. Martinez, Justin Ruggiano, Jordan Schafer, J.B. Shuck.

Game 24: Astros storm from behind to bolster Wandy

The Astros came from five runs down in the second inning and drilled the Tigers, 14-7, on Tuesday afternoon at Osceola County Stadium (boxscore).

Before we get to the breakdown, be sure to check out the Astros notebook, which is chock full of Astros news, including an update on center field Jordan Schafer, what Jed Lowrie is doing to swing the bat so well and how Angel Sanchez is trying his hand in the outfield. And there’s much more.

The big news came earlier in the day when the Astros released veteran pitcher Zach Duke and veteran outfielder Jack Cust after both struggled throughout the spring.

Here’s the breakdown:

What went right: Wandy Rodriguez got off to a very shaky start by giving up five runs in the first two innings and then settled down to finish with four very strong innings against the Tigers. He allowed six hits and five runs and threw a spring-high 90 pitches in six innings, but he got better as the game progressed and retired 12 of the final 14 batters he faced.

“I told you the other day, I wanted to go longer in the game and I did it today. I tried to throw everything, my breaking ball, my fastball, my change-up,” Rodriguez said. “I used a lot of my change-up today and threw a lot of good ones today.”

Fernando Abad came into the game and got a big out in the seventh, and Brandon Lyon threw a scoreless inning.

The Astros bashed out 13 hits, including four doubles and two home runs, en route to scoring 14 runs. Jason Castro ripped a two-run double in the second inning and went 2-for-4 with two runs scored. Jed Lowrie hit the ball hard once again, including a two-run single to right field from the left side of the plate.

Brian Bogusevic went 2-for-3 with three runs, two RBIs and two walks and hit a two-run homer in the fourth inning for the last of the Astros’ nine unanswered runs after falling behind 5-0. Jose Altuve went 2-for-2 with two runs scored and also walked a pair of times, which is a very good sign.

Brian Bixler came off the bench and launched a long, three-run homer to left field in the eighth inning, giving him three homers in 25 spring at-bats. The other hits belonged to J.B. Shuck, Angel Sanchez, who’s hitting .412, Carlos Lee, Chris Johnson and Jake Goebbert.

The Astros didn’t commit an error and were 7-for-15 with runners in scoring position.

What went wrong: Rodriguez struggled early, giving up a Brennan Boesch homer in the first and allowing four more runs in the second, including a inside-the-park homer by Austin Jackson. J.B. Shuck couldn’t corral Jackson’s fly ball at the wall and it rolled back towards the infield.

Mills said he is continued to be concerned with the number of runs the Astros are giving up in first innings this year. He said they’ve given up 25 runs in the first inning in 24 games this spring.

“We need to kind of clean that up a little bit,” he said.

Rhiner Cruz’s run of good pitching ended when he gave up a run, a hit, two walks and hit a batter in two-thirds of an inning in the seventh, raising his spring ERA to 8.53. Wilton Lopez allowed two hits and a run in the ninth.

What they said: “The big thing was to see Wandy come back and pitch like he did. He was frustrated with himself when they were able to jump out in front of us with that five-run lead. He wasn’t happy with himself, but he saw the guys get right back into the game and Wandy was able to continue and pitch very well.” — Astros manager Brad Mills on Tuesday’s outing by left-hander Wandy Rodriguez.

What’s next: Lucas Harrell will start against the Marlins at 12:05 p.m. CT on Wednesday in Kissimmee. Harrell is starting in place of Bud Norris, whose start was pushed back two days because of tightness in his triceps. Harrell is trying to win a bullpen spot as a long reliever, but he could start the year in the rotation at Triple-A.

Injury update: Center fielder Jordan Schafer flew to Atlanta on Tuesday to be examined by the same hand specialist he saw when he broke his wrist in 2009. General manager Jeff Luhnow said he’s likely out of game action until the weekend. … Right-hander Bud Norris, who’s dealing with tightness in his right triceps, said Tuesday he hopes to be 100 percent when he starts Friday against the Braves.

There are no photos today, but check back tomorrow. Until then, stay cool.

Schafer to see hand specialist in Atlanta

Astros center fielder Jordan Schafer, who hasn’t played since injuring his left hand making a diving catch in the outfield March 18, was scheduled to fly to Atlanta on Tuesday afternoon to be examined by a hand specialist, general manager Jeff Luhnow said.

Schafer had hoped to return to the lineup Monday after taking batting practice over the weekend, but the hand hasn’t responded as well as he had hoped. He was held out of drills completely Tuesday. Schafer was diagnosed with a hand sprain, but said Saturday it’s more of an issue with the nerves in his hand.

“My sense is that by the weekend he’ll be back hitting and hopefully be in games by the end of the weekend,” Luhnow said. “We have to be cautious and if he feels any discomfort at all we’re going to take it easy on him. The goal is to have him ready to go on Opening Day.”

Schafer has had plenty of problems with his left hand in the past. He had left wrist surgery at the end of the 2009 season, and last year broke a joint on his left middle finger. He was on the disabled list with that injury when the Astros acquired him from the Braves last July as part of the Michael Bourn deal. Schafer is having a terrific spring and is hitting .391 (9-for-23).

Astros manager Brad Mills said he’s not yet worried about Schafer not being ready for Opening Day.

“As each day we go, those concerns probably grow,” he said. “As of right now, we’ve got a ways to go. If we get to Sunday and he’s not in there, it becomes a concern because he hasn’t faced live pitching.”


Astros release Duke, Cust

Left-handed pitcher Zach Duke and outfielder Jack Cust, a pair of veterans trying to find a home in Houston, were both released by the team Tuesday morning in a move that certainly was no surprise.

Cust, who signed a one-year, non-guaranteed, $600,000 contract with the Astros with an option for 2013, and Duke, who was on a Minor League contract, both struggled mightily this spring. Cust had one hit in 25 spring at-bats and never appeared in the outfield because of discomfort in his left elbow.

“The thing with Cust, we weren’t able to use him in the outfield all of spring really,” Astros manager Brad Mills said. “He got to play a couple of innings of a ‘B’ game out there and the bat wasn’t there and what we had hoped. We know he’s got the ability to do that, but it wasn’t able to show in the 30-something plate appearances we gave him,”

Duke was 0-3 with an 11.30 ERA in four games (three starts) for the Astros this spring and had allowed 25 hits and 18 runs in 14 1/3 innings.

Duke was a candidate for the fifth starter spot, leaving youngsters Kyle Weiland and Jordan Lyles battling for that position. The moves leave the Astros with 39 players in camp.

“Any time you have to give a release to somebody, that’s a difficult thing to do,” Mills said. “In Duke’s case, we thought that the location of his pitches wasn’t quite where it needed to be and then his breaking ball wasn’t quite the breaking ball we thought we could transfer over into our bullpen.

“We thought his sinker was on top of his game, and the command wasn’t there. It just didn’t translate into a starter for us, and with that breaking ball being so inconsistent we weren’t able to use him out of the bullpen.”

Other news from Tuesday morning:

  • Center fielder Jordan Schafer will be held out of hitting drills completely Tuesday to give his left hand more time to heal, and there’s a chance he could be given Wednesday of as well. Schafer injury his left hand making a diving catch in the outfield March 18 and irritated a nerve in the hand.
  • Right-hander Bud Norris said he could have pitched Wednesday, but the Astros are giving him two extra days. Norris says he’ll be ready to go on Friday against the Braves in Kissimmee

Tuesday’s lineup vs. Tigers:

CF J.B. Shuck

SS Jed Lowrie

RF Brian Bogusevic

1B Carlos Lee

3B Chris Johnson

DH Chris Snyder

LF Matt Downs

C Jason Castro

2B Jose Altuve

LHP Wandy Rodriguez

Game 23: Lyles pounds the strike zone

The Astros got homers from Chris Johnson and Brandon Barnes, but lost to the Nationals, 7-4, on Monday afternoon (boxscore).

All the news of the day can be found here, including how Johnson has a good shot to win the MLB NCAA bracket challenge. Tons of other stuff in there, too, including updates on Jordan Schafer, a more in-depth look at Lyles’ outing and a look at the catching situation.

Here’s the recap:

What went right: Astros starter Jordan Lyles had his best command of the spring, throwing 89 pitches in 4 2/3 innings in the loss to Washington. He would have finished the fourth, but Chris Johnson made a fielding error at third that led to three unearned runs coming across. Lyles gave up eight hits and three earned runs and walked one batter.

Chris Johnson launched his second homer of the spring and appears to have a death grip on the starting third base job. He’s hitting .325 with a team-high four homers this spring. Brandon Barnes, a Minor League outfielder who was in Major League camp early in the spring, went 2-for-3 with an impressive homer. Joe Thurston, Carlos Corporan and J.B. Shuck had the other hits.

Hard-throwing Rule 5 pick Rhiner Cruz has put himself is in the thick of the bullpen race by throwing another 1-2-3 inning. Fernando Rodriguez also threw a perfect inning for the Astros. Minor League left-hander Kevin Chapman, who was acquired from the Royals in the Humberto Quintero/Jason Bourgeois trade, pitched in the game and gave up a homer.

Catcher Chris Snyder started in consecutive games for the first time and had no issues.

What went wrong: You would certainly like to start seeing the starters work deeper and put up better numbers, though Lyles pitched better than his line indicated. Johnson’s error was mentioned earlier, but it cost the Astros three runs in the fifth inning.

The top of the batting order really struggled, with Brian Bixler (0-for-4), Jose Altuve (0-for-4), Brett Wallace (0-for-4) and J.D. Martinez (0-for-3) combining to go 0-for-15.

What they said: “I had a couple of long innings, and I think that’s going to help down the road. I don’t know the most pitches I threw in one inning, but there were two innings I threw a lot, and it’s good for me right now. Overall, to go out there and feel healthy and get those pitches in — an inning or two more would have been better — but I’m satisfied with the pitch count and how I threw the ball over the plate.” — Astros pitcher Jordan Lyles on his outing Monday.

What’s next: Left-hander Wandy Rodriguez, who’s expected to be the Astros’ Opening Day starter, makes his fourth start of the spring when the Astros return home to face the Detroit Tigers at 12:05 p.m. CT at Osceola County Stadium on Tuesday, live on Gameday Audio. Rodriguez has allowed nine earned runs in his previous two starts and is looking to pitch deeper into the game.

Injury update: CF Jordan Schafer’s return from a sprained left hand suffered March 18 has been put on hold. The Astros had hoped Schafer would play Monday, but he didn’t make the trip. Manager Brad Mills told reporters early Monday he thought Schafer would play Tuesday against the Tigers, but said following the game it wasn’t likely to happen. … RHP Bud Norris (triceps tightness) had his start pushed back to Friday against the Braves in Kissimmee. Mills said he’s not overly concerned about Norris’ health and wanted to give him a couple of more days (Lucas Harrell will start Wednesday).

Check out the photos:

Astros players await batting practice Monday.

Led by J.D. Martinez, the Astros stretch prior to the game.

Brandon Barnes practices his swing. It worked. He homered not long after.

Chris Snyder thinks Dave Raymond is funny.

Game 22: Happ battles, Cosart dazzles

It was a rough day at the ballparks (plural) on Sunday for the Astros, whose split squad was beaten, 11-1, by the Braves in Lake Buena Vista (boxscore) and 9-7 in 10 innings by the Pirates in Kissimmee (boxscore).

I chose to stay in Kissimmee, mostly for the chance to see top prospect Jarred Cosart make a Grapefruit League appearance and I’m glad I did. More on that later.

Here’s the link to the notebook, which includes Brian Bixler’s thoughts on playing the outfield and Brian Bogusevic talking about his struggles. Check back soon for reaction from Cosart about his performance.

Here’s the breakdown of the loss to the Pirates:

What went right: Jarred Cosart, the team’s top pitching prospect, pitched in his first Major League Grapefruit League game and gave up seven hits and four runs and struck out five batters in 3 1/3 innings. I put this under the “What went right” category because he was electrifying at times, pitching at 96, 97-mph and hitting 98-mph. He struck out the side in his first inning of work and had a 1-2-3 inning in his third inning. The two other innings were messy, but Cosart is here to learn and improve.

J.A. Happ’s line of five innings and nine hits and three runs wasn’t terrific, but he made some big pitches at key times and limited the damage. It didn’t hurt the Astros turned a pair of double plays behind him, either. When Cosart couldn’t finish the ninth because of his pitch count, Fernando Abad came in and got the final two outs.

At the plate, J.B. Shuck went 1-for-4 with a three-run triple in the seventh inning that tied the game at 6. Jed Lowrie hit his second homer of the spring, and both have been from the left side of the plate, which is huge. Brian Bogusevic went 2-for-3 with two walks and appears to be having better at-bats. Catcher Chris Snyder hit his third homer of the spring, off fellow University of Houston product Brad Lincoln.

Left-fielder J.D. Martinez threw out a runner at first base in the first inning after a running catch for a nice double play. The Astros didn’t make an error…officially.

What went wrong: Astros pitchers gave up 20 hits, including 18 singles. Happ allowed nine hits, Cosart seven and Enerio Del Rosario four hits in the 10th inning in his only inning of work. Del Rosario was having a pretty good spring prior to that outing. J.D. Martinez and Carlos Lee each went 0-for-3.

Minor League infielder Ben Orloff allowed the Pirates to tie the game in the ninth with Cosart on the mound when he lost a popup in the sun and couldn’t catch it, allowing a runner to scamper home from third. Orloff threw to second to get a force out, which is why he wasn’t charged with an error.

Happ was inconsistent, working in and out of trouble in all five of his innings. He loaded the bases with no outs in the fourth and allowed only one run, which was a good result at the time.

What they said: “It was a good experience with ups and downs. I did some good and some bad, and it’s part of the game and the learning curve, I guess. I was very excited and had a lot of adrenaline and tried to learn some stuff while I was there.” — Astros pitching prospect Jarred Cosart on his first Grapefruit League outing Sunday.

What’s next: Center fielder Jordan Schafer, who’s been out of action since March 18 with a sprained left wrist suffered while making a diving catch, is scheduled to return to the lineup Monday when the Astros face the Washington Nationals at 12:05 p.m. CT in Viera, Fla. Jordan Lyles, a candidate for the fifth starter spot, will start the game for the Astros.

Injury update: RHP Wilton Lopez, who hadn’t pitched since March 9 because of forearm tightness, returned to the mound and worked a 1-2-3 inning against the Braves with two strikeouts. … CF Jordan Schafer, who’s been out of action since March 18 with a sprained left wrist suffered while making a diving catch, is scheduled to return to the lineup Monday when the Astros face the Nationals. … OF Jack Cust (elbow) was again limited to pinch-hit duties Sunday and drew a walk against the Pirates. … Bud Norris (triceps tightness) threw 30-40 fastball in the bullpen Sunday in an effort to get ready for his next start. … LHP Sergio Escalona (ulnar collateral ligament) will miss the entire season and will under Tommy John surgery next week.

Here are the photos:

Astros Minor Leagues hang out in the outfield, including Jarred Cosart (28) and my man Alberto Arias (far right).

Livan Hernandez is always keeping it loose.

Brett Myers still wants to hit for some reason.

Jordan Schafer takes BP a week removed from spraining his hand.

Clint Barmes made his return to Kissimmee and played a hard 10 innings.

Mike Barnett gives Jordan Schafer a few pointers.

Astros split up to face Pirates, Braves

The Astros will play their first split-squad games of the spring today when they meet the Pirates in Kissimmee and send another team to play the Braves down the road in Disney. Both games are scheduled to start at 12:05 p.m. CT.

“You hate having split squads this late in camp, but at the same time to get these guys some extra at-bats is good,” Astros manager Brad Mills said. “Other than that, you’d probably prefer not to have them. We’re getting enough innings from our pitchers right now, but to get these guys enough at-bats is big.”

Mills will stay with the team in Kissimmee, sending bench coach Joe Pettini and pitching coach Doug Brocail to the game against the Braves.

“The biggest thing is I wanted to be around some of the guys that are here,” he said. “We kept [outfielder Brian Bogusevic] here and I want to see him. I want to see the middle infielders, Jed [Lowrie] and [Jose] Altuve, as well. That was the biggest determining factor for me. Plus, Broke wanted to see [Zach] Duke and we were going to be split up there and that meant I stayed here.”

Here are some morning notes:

  • Astros center fielder Jordan Schafer, who sprained his left hand making a diving catch in the outfield a week ago, is scheduled to return to the lineup Monday when the Astros face the Nationals in Viera, Fla. “He took some swings in the cage this morning and he feels a lot better,” Mills said.
  • Jack Cust, who has yet to play in the outfield in the Grapefruit League this spring because of a sore elbow, still isn’t ready to play defense. Cust will get a pinch-hit at-bat on Sunday against the Pirates and was scheduled to have another pinch-hit at-bat Monday against the Nationals.
  • Mills isn’t ready to commit to shortstop Jed Lowrie in the No. 2 spot in the batting order, but he’s certainly leaning that way. “He sees a lot of pitches, gets on base,” Mills said. “I like having a left-hander in that spot because if you’ve got a guy on, you’ve got a big hole there [on the right side of the infield]. He, especially, is able to utilize that hole.”
  • Jarred Cosart, the Astros’ top pitching prospect, will make an appearance on the mound in a Grapefruit League game for the first time this spring when he pitches against the Pirates in relief. He’s scheduled to throw four innings.
  • Catcher Jason Castro will start back-to-back games for the first time this spring when he starts against the Braves today. Catcher Chris Snyder, who starts today against the Pirates, will catch Monday against the Nationals in his first back-to-back outings.
  • Bud Norris threw 30-40 pitches during his Sunday bullpen session, throwing nothing but fastballs. Norris is trying to work though some minor tightness in his triceps and forearm.

Here is the lineup for the game in Kissimmee against the Pirates:

CF J.B. Shuck

SS Jed Lowrie

LF J.D. Martinez

1B Carlos Lee

RF Brian Bogusevic

C Chris Snyder

3B Brett Wallace

2B Jose Altuve

LHP J.A. Happ

Here is the lineup for the game at Disney against the Braves:

CF Brian Bixler

2B Scott Moore

RF Travis Buck

1B Matt Downs

3B Chris Johnson

C Jason Castro

LF Justin Ruggiano

SS Marwin Gonzalez

LHP Zach Duke

Escalona to have Tommy John surgery

Astros left-handed relief pitcher Sergio Escalona was told Saturday he had a torn ligament in his left elbow and will have to undergo Tommy John surgery next week in Houston. He will miss the entire 2012 season.

Escalona, 27, appeared in 49 games for the Astros last year and went 2-1 with a 2.93 ERA as the team’s left-handed specialist out of the bullpen.

“Obviously, Sergio is an effective left-handed pitcher and we’re going to have to find someone to replace him,” Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said. “It’s definitely a setback.”

Escalona injured his elbow swinging a bat early in the spring and only pitched in two Grapefruit League games because of discomfort. An MRI taken on Escalona’s elbow Friday at Florida Hospital revealed the tear of his ulnar collateral ligament.

“They told me there were two options,” Escalona told “One option was shutting down half of the season and start recovering again. I didn’t want to take the chance. The thing is, they told me you can do that but if you start hurting again at the end of the season you have to take the surgery anyway. The best option is take the surgery right now and get ready for the next Spring Training. It’s going to be a long year for me doing the rehab.”

Escalona was acquired by the Astros in a trade with the Phillies on Jan. 10, 2011 and was a valuable bullpen piece.

“I thought this was going to be my year in the big leagues,” Escalona said. “You have to learn to handle things this. I’m OK with that. What can I say?”

The Astros have left-handers Wesley Wright and Fernando Abad still in camp, as well as veteran Zach Duke, who’s competing for a spot in the bullpen and in the rotation.

“This probably makes us think about Duke’s role if he doesn’t win a spot in the rotation,” Luhnow said. “[Xavier] Cedeno pitched well, even though he was re-assigned [Friday]. He’s pitched well and he’s shown he’s got some future as a lefty out of the bullpen. There are some options and we’re not panicking. We’d prefer to have a healthy Sergio on the team, but it’s not to be and we’re going to move onto plan B.”

Game 19: Astros pitchers stifle Nationals

The Astros sent the Nationals to their ninth loss in their last 10 games by riding strong pitching to beat Washington, 5-1, on Friday afternoon at Osceola County Stadium. Here is the boxscore.

Of course, the big news of the day at Astros camp was the announcement that Jimmy Paredes was being sent to Minor League camp to work at second base, meaning Chris Johnson is the likely starter at third base. Here’s a video package of Astros manager Brad Mills and GM Jeff Luhnow talking about the decision.

Here is the breakdown of Friday’s game:

What went right: Pitching, pitching, pitching. The Astros held the Nationals to three hits and didn’t give up a hit until Jayson Werth singled with two outs in the seventh inning off Brett Myers. Starter Bud Norris walked one batter in three hitless innings and Lucas Harrell retired all nine batters he faced. Then there was another strong outing by Myers, who pitched a scoreless innings while working in back-to-back games for the second time this spring. Brandon Lyon also had a scoreless inning.

Astros manager Brad Mills said early Friday he wanted to see the Astros tighten things up with only two weeks left before the start of the regular season, and the team did just that. Houston bashed 12 hits and didn’t make an error. Brian Bixler, starting in the outfield, strengthened his case to make the team by going 2-for-4 with a homer against his former team while starting in the outfield. Chris Johnson also belted a homer.

Carlos Lee also had a pair of hits and an RBI. Jed Lowrie, Travis Buck, Justin Ruggiano, Jose Altuve, Jack Cust and Brett Wallace also had hits. For Cust, his pinch-hit single in the third inning was his first of the spring, snapping an 0-for-24 drought. Cust still isn’t seeing any time in the outfield because of cranky left elbow.

What went wrong: Bud Norris was held to three innings because he woke up Friday with tightness in his triceps, but manager Brad Mills has no concerns and says Norris will be able to make his next start.

Other than a homer allowed by Fernando Abad to Jason Michaels, there’s not much that went wrong for the Astros. The only starting position player to not get a hit was Brian Bogusevic, but he walked and stole a base and scored.

What’s next: The race for the fifth spot in the starting pitching rotation will take center stage when Kyle Weiland takes the mound to face the Pirates at 12:05 p.m. CT in Bradenton, Fla. Weiland has allowed four hits and two runs in seven innings in his last two spring starts.

What they said: “He really had a tough time getting his arm loose and had a little tightness in his triceps. So when he went out there, [pitching coach Doug Brocail] was saying, ‘Let’s see if we can get 45 pitches out of you anyway and get some work in and get through three innings.’ Sure enough he did, and he threw the ball really well.” — Astros manager Brad Mills on starting pitcher Bud Norris.

Injury update: CF Jordan Schafer, who sprained his left hand making a diving catch in the outfield on Sunday, said he’s still a few days away from being able to return to the lineup. Schafer took some swings off a tee Friday but had to shut it down when he tried to hit live pitching. … LHP Sergio Escalona has hit a roadblock in his recovery from a hyper extended left elbow suffered swinging a bat early in camp. The Astros said he was set to be examined by a doctor. … OF Jack Cust was originally scheduled to start in the outfield in Friday’s B game, but was moved to designated hitter because of his balky left elbow. Cust has yet to make an appearance in the outfield during a Grapefruit League game this spring, but he came off the bench and delivered a pinch-hit in the third to snap an 0-for-24 spring drought.

Here are the pictures:

Brett Wallace reacts to a ball being hit while playing third base in B game.

Carlos Corporan trots into second base following a double in B game.

Jack Cust stands on deck while Brad Mills watches during a B game.

Ross Seaton fires a pitch in a B game.

Telvin Nash, Josh Zeid and Austin Wates sit in the dugout during B game.

Paredes sent to Minors and back to second base

It appears Chris Johnson will start at third base for the Astros on Opening Day the second year in a row.

The Astros cut six players from Major League camp on Friday morning, including switch-hitter Jimmy Paredes, who took over as the starter at third base for the final two months of last season. He was battling with Johnson for the starting nod this spring, but will be moved back to second base. He played second base for half the season last year at Corpus Christi before being moved to third.

“The staff sat down and had a long meeting about it and went through these things, and we feel it’s going to be best for him, best for the organization as we move forward,” Astros manager Brad Mills said. “I think a lot of it had to do with how well [Brett] Wallace has played third base this spring, how well C.J. has played this spring. All those things kind of enter into it.”

Mills wasn’t ready to label Johnson as the starter at third, but admitted he has a leg up over Wallace, last year’s Opening Day starter at first who’s been playing some third this spring as well. He also said Brian Bogusevic had the upper hand in right field.

“There’s no doubt C.J. has the upper hand, simply because how he has played,” Mills said. “To sit here and name the starter with two weeks to go, let’s see how things play out. C.J.’s a guy that has gone about his business extremely professional and we want him to continue to do that as well. We don’t want to discount the other guys either, what they’ve done this spring.”

Paredes, outfielder Fernando Martinez and pitcher Aneury Rodriguez were optioned to Triple-A Oklahoma City, and pitchers Xavier Cedeno and Jose Valdez and outfielder Brad Snyder were re-assigned to Minor League camp. That leaves the Astros with 41 players in camp.

Johnson, 27, has had a strong spring, hitting .367 with two homers and five RBIs in 30 at-bats. Paredes, who batted .286 with two homers and 18 RBIs in 46 games after getting called up from Double-A last year, was hitting .190.

Johnson was named the Opening Day starter a year ago after batting .308 with 11 homers and 52 RBIs in 2010, but he got off to a poor start and was sent to Triple-A in August. He hit .251 with seven homers and 42 RBIs in 107 games for Houston last year.

None of the other players sent from Major League camp on Friday were expected to make the club. Martinez, the former top prospect in the Mets system, was claimed off waivers, but he has an option remaining and will start the year in the Minor Leagues.

Remaining players in Astros camp (non-roster players in italics):

Pitchers –Fernando Abad (LHP), David Carpenter, Rhiner Cruz, Enerio Del Rosario, Zach Duke (LHP), Sergio Escalona (LHP), J.A. Happ (LHP), Lucas Harrell, Livan Hernandez, Wilton Lopez, Jordan Lyles, Brandon Lyon, Brett Myers, Bud Norris, Fernando Rodriguez, Wandy Rodriguez (LHP), Henry Sosa, Kyle Weiland, Wesley Wright (LHP).

Catchers — Jason Castro, Carlos Corporan, Landon Powell, Chris Snyder.

Infielders — Jose Altuve, Brian Bixler, Matt Downs, Marwin Gonzalez, Chris Johnson, Carlos Lee, Jed Lowrie, Scott MooreAngel Sanchez, Joe Thurston, Brett Wallace.

Outfielders — Brian Bogusevic, Travis Buck, Jack Cust, J.D. Martinez, Justin Ruggiano, Jordan Schafer, J.B. Shuck.