February 2013

Game 7: Big inning lifts Astros past Yankees

What happened: Brandon Laird’s grand slam to right-center field in the sixth inning keyed a six-run outburst and propelled the Astros to a 7-6 win over the split-squad Yankees on Thursday afternoon at Osceola County Stadium (boxscore).

Here’s the video clip of Laird’s grand slam:

What we learned: RHP Lucas Harrell has his sinker working. Harrell attacked the strike zone and coasted through three innings  against a Yankees team that didn’t have any of its marquee players. Still, Harrell was sharp and threw 32 pitches and then went to the bullpen and threw 20 more to get his work in.

“I was hoping I could go another inning,” he said. “I was hoping to get up to 50 pitches. I told [pitching coach Doug Brocail] before the game my goal is to try to throw around 50 pitches. You try to be efficient but sometimes at Spring Training it works the other way. You want to go ahead and throw the 50 pitches, but you also want to get those pitches in against live batters.”

What we learned II: OF Rick Ankiel is a little locked in right now. Ankiel, who’s having a terrific spring at the plate, led off the fifth inning with a solo homer — his first with the Astros. He is 6-for-9 this spring with 12 total bases.

“I just take it day by day on what pitches we’re seeing,” he said. “I feel like it’s early and [opposing pitchers] are working on their heaters, but later on in camp you’ll start seeing more breaking stuff, cutters, and that type of stuff. It might be more important to get at-bats later on as it is now.”

What else: A hustling double by OF Brandon Barnes drew praise from manager Bo Porter, who said: “He made the guy make a play to get him out. It was a great, aggressive play.” … The Astros had a pair of runners thrown out trying to steal, and Porter later said they missed a couple of signs. … The Astros turned three double plays, with SS Jonathan Villar and 2B Jose Altuve playing well up the middle.

What went wrong: RHP Ross Seaton made a throwing error in the sixth that was costly. He fielded a come-backer to the mound with one out, turned to fire to second and threw the ball away. It was a potential inning-ending double play ball, and the Yankees went on to score five runs in the inning.

“A 1-6-3 double play and the inning’s over,” Porter said. “We don’t execute it, and 32 pitches later the score is 5-1. … It’s the perfect example of how big innings happen and something we still continue to stress to our guys that you have to play the game fundamentally sound.”

What they said: “Everybody wants to be up in a situation like that. He was a guy that couldn’t find the zone and I was looking for a pitch that I could handle, and he left one over the plate and I put a good swing on it.” — IF Brandon Laird on his sixth-inning grand slam.

What’s next: RHP Bud Norris makes his second start of the spring when the Astros play host to the Cardinals at 12:05 p.m. CT at Osceola County Stadium on Friday. Norris, who could be the club’s Opening Day starter, threw two innings in his first outing of the season on Sunday and is scheduled to pitch three innings against St. Louis. The game will be broadcast on CSN Houston.

Who’s injured: C Max Stassi underwent surgery Thursday morning in Philadelphia to repair a sports hernia. He’s out four-to-six weeks. … RHP Hector Ambriz (sprained ankle) threw off the mound Thursday and is near game action.

Links of the day: Had RHP John Ely not been traded to the Astros, he’d be playing in Korea. The Astros notebook has Dave Clark’s thoughts on Chris Carter’s progress in LF, C Jason Castro discussing plate collisions, OF Jimmy Paredes talking about working out with the Yankees’ Robinson Cano, and much more.

Tweet of the day:

The day in photos:

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Alan Ashby and Bill Brown brush up for first broadcast by talking to Bo Porter

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Roger Clemens, in boots and jeans, is back in camp

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Bud Norris gets conditioning work in

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Hector Ambriz throws as trainers watch

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J.D. Martinez having fun

Harrell keeps ball down, coasts through 3 innings

Astros starter Lucas Harrell breezed through three innings against water-down Yankees team Thursday afternoon, allowing three hits in three scoreless innings.  He said he tried to keep his sinker down the zone, which resulted in a steady diet of ground balls.

“I tried to work it a lot today and I think the results kind of showed with the ground balls,” he said. “When the defense is playing good and throwing strikes, it’s always a good combo.”

Harrell also attacked the strike zone more than his first outing of the spring.

“So the big thing I was trying to do was attack the strike zone and get early contact and also throw a lot of strike one,” he said.

Harrell threw 20 more pitches in the bullpen to get more work in.

“I was hoping I could go another inning,” he said. “I was hoping to get up to 50 pitches. I told [pitching coach Doug Brocail] before the game my goal is to try to throw around 50 pitches. You try to be efficient but sometimes at Spring Training it works the other way. You want to go ahead and throw the 50 pitches, but you also want to get those pitches in against live batters.”

Astros lineup vs. Yankees

Astros lineup for Thursday’s game against the Yankees:

2B Jose Altuve

CF Justin Maxwell

1B Carlos Pena

LF Chris Carter

C Jason Castro

RF J.D. Martinez

DH Rick Ankiel

3B Marwin Gonzalez

SS Jonathan Villar

RHP Lucas Harrell

Here’s manager Bo Porter talking about Wednesday’s game:

Game 5: Springer leads offensive surge

What happened:  The Astros bashed out 18 hits, including a pair of home runs by George Springer in his first start of the spring, to beat the Blue Jays, 10-1, on Wednesday afternoon in Dunedin (boxscore).

What we learned: RHP Alex White will be a huge factor in the race for the rotation. White, acquired in last December’s trade that sent Wilton Lopez to the Rockies, threw two scoreless innings in his spring debut against a tough Blue Jays lineup, but his entire body of work this spring has opened some eyes.

“I put in a lot of time this offseason and made a lot of changes throughout my delivery to be more consistent,” White said. “I think now I’m just kind of seeing that I’ve put in the work and hopefully good things will happen. I have to make sure I throw a lot of strikes, and that’s the key.”

What we learned II: CF George Springer could be ready for prime time. Springer, who barely got his feet wet last year at Double-A, made his first spring start and clubbed a pair of impressive homers, a three-run shot in the fourth and a two-run shot in the fifth.

“It felt good,” he said. “I was trying to get my timing back and just hitting the ball hard. I honestly say the key to those at-bats were the guys who were on base ahead of me. [Matt] Dominguez and [Carlos] Corporan had some great at-bats and was able to get me into a fastball-hitting count.”

What we learned III: RHP Jarred Cosart is looking forward to getting a start. Cosart, a starter, has pitched twice in relief, throwing two scoreless innings Wednesday. He’s been piggybacking other starters, but should get a turn to start a game the next time through the rotation.

“It’s a little different as far as warming up and stuff,” he said. “I like to go out there pretty early before a game and get going. I’m in big league camp for the first time so I’ll go with my role and whatever they want me to do, I’ll do. I’ve adjusted well to it. We’ll see what happens from here, but hopefully I can get back in the starting routine.”

What else: Ten of the Astros’ 18 hits were for extra bases – eight doubles and two homers. … The Astros have 68 hits in six games. … C Carlos Corporan went 2-for-2 with two doubles and continues to draw praise from the pitchers. He’s hitting .667 early in the spring. … 1B Nate Freiman had a line drive double off center field wall, going 1-for-3 to raise his average to .385. … OF J.D. Martinez, starting in right field, had a pair of hits. … 3B Matt Dominguez went 2-for-2 with two runs scored.

What went wrong: Well, not much. Tyler Greene let a ball get past him at shortstop in the second, but the Astros wound up getting an out on the play to end the inning. … J.P. Arencibia homered off LHP Wesley Wright, who gave up three hits in one inning.

What they said: “Outstanding. He really laid into those two balls with really good swings and got the head out. I thought the second one was better than the first one. It was a good day all around. We swung the bat well and the pitching was outstanding.” – manager Bo Porter on Springer.

What’s next: RHP Lucas Harrell will become the first Astros starter to take the mound for the second time when he gets the ball for Thursday’s 12:05 p.m. CT game against the Yankees in Kissimmee. Harrell, the Astros’ Pitcher of the Year last season, went two innings and allowed four hits and two runs on Saturday against the Phillies in Clearwater in his first spring start. The game will be televised on CSN Houston with Alan Ashby making his return to the Houston airwaves.

Who’s injured: RHP Hector Ambriz (sprained ankle) is scheduled to face live pitching soon. . … C Max Stassi (oblique) was scheduled to get an MRI on Philadelphia on Wednesday for a possible sports hernia.

Links of the day: Check out the Astros notebook for Delino DeShields Jr. talking about getting to hit together in the lineup, prospect Telvin Nash on how/why he lost 30 pounds and the plan for J.D. Martinez to get time in right field.

And don’t miss the feature story on Wesley Wright, who has gone from Rule 5 pick to elder statesman in five years:

The day in photos

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Robbie Grossman

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J.D. Martinez

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MLB.com’s Richard Justice talks to Bo Porter

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GM Jeff Luhnow talks to bullpen coach Dennis Martinez

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Matt Dominguez

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Robert Ford interviews Nate Freiman

White solid in Astros debut

Alex White, who was acquired in last December’s trade with the Rockies, made his first start for the Astros on Wednesday against the Blue Jays and threw two scoreless innings. He threw 25 pitches, 14 strikes, and allowed one hits and one walk.

He was facing a Blue Jays lineup stacked with regulars Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Adam Lind, Brett Lawrie, Colby Rasmus, J.P. Arencibia and Emilio Bonifacio.

“It was good to get out there and get some work in,” he said. “I felt really good. There were a few things I wanted to work on mechanically with my delivery and it felt great today. If I can stay consistent in my delivery, I think my command is pretty good.”

White said he threw mostly two-seam and four-seam fastballs.

“I threw maybe two breaking balls and maybe one or two splits,” he said. “I have to throw my fastball for a strike and that’s what I’m trying to do here early and make sure I have command of it.”

White feels he’s made a good impression early in camp.

“I put in a lot of time this offseason and made a lot of changes throughout my delivery to be more consistent,” White said. “I think now I’m just kind of seeing that I’ve put in the work and hopefully good things will happen. I have to make sure I throw a lot of strikes, and that’s the key.”

White was the last of the Astros’ candidates for the rotation to get a shot to show new manager Bo Porter what he can, but he knows the competition is going to be good for all involved.

“I’ve gotten to know a lot of these guys pretty well and they’re all good guys,” he said. “We enjoy competition. We obviously want these spots and we’re going to do everything we can to earn them and keep pitching.”

Game 4: Wallace, Castro stay hot in win over Tigers

What happened:  The split-squad Astros got a two-run homer from Jason Castro — his second in as many games — and a solo shot from Brett Wallace to pull away from the Tigers for a 9-4 win on Tuesday afternoon at rainy Osceola County Stadium (boxscore).

For the game story and boxcore on the Astros’ 7-2 split-squad loss to the Rays in Port Charlotte, click here.

What we learned: C Jason Castro feels as good at the plate as he has in a long time, going 2-for-2. He homered to left-center field in his first at-bat and later singled, also to the opposite field. He has two homers in two games this spring. He’s made a minor adjustment to allow him to stay on the ball a little bit more and drive it the other way.

“I’ve been seeing the ball pretty well and been getting some good pitches, trying to be aggressive,” he said. “I know it’s early in spring and guys throw a lot of fastballs right now. I’m trying to take advantage of that and it’s been good so far. The swing feels really good and I think I’m seeing the ball well. So that’s part of it. That’s what I’m looking for right now is comfort-ability and getting back in the rhythm of hitting and facing live pitching.”

What we learned II: The work IF Brett Wallace put in during the winter with hitting coach John Mallee is paying quick dividends. Wallace went 3-for-4 with a long homer to center field in the win while starting at third base.

“The ball I hit to center was a changeup, and that was something we worked on, being able to stay on my legs and if it’s not a fastball down the middle that I won’t come out of them and I will stay back on them,” Wallace said. “It’s definitely something we worked on and it’s encouraging and I just have to try to repeat it over and over.”

What else: SS Tyler Greene did a nice job at top of the lineup with two walks. Porter said when you’re not getting hits you sometimes get anxious, but it was a good sign for him to expand the zone and take his walks. … RHP John Ely, who’s battling for a starting spot, allowed a two-run homer in the fourth before coming back with a clean fifth. … OF Michael Burgess, who was taken in the Triple-A phase of the Rule 5 Draft, made a nice diving catch in foul territory to end the game. … RHP Josh Fields got on the mound for the first time, closing out the eighth and finishing the Tigers off in the ninth. … OF Robbie Grossman and OF Trevor Crowe each had two-run extra-base hits in the fifth.

What went wrong: Wallace, starting at third base, made a fielding error in the fifth inning that led to a run, but manager Bo Porter shrugged it off: “I think he knocked in more than he let in.”… Minor League IF Nolan Fontana had a throwing error.

What they said: “From a hitter standpoint, this is the time of year that you really want to work  on being on time with the fastball. Castro laid out some great swings, [Rick] Ankiel laid out some good swings, Wallace swung the bat well today. From a pitching standpoint, our pitchers did a great job, especially the starters [Erik] Bedard and Ely, of locating their fastballs well,” — Astros manager Bo Porter.

Here’s Erik Bedard, Brett Wallace, Jason Castro and Bo Porter on the game:

What’s next: RHP Alex White, acquired from the Rockies in a trade for Wilton Lopez in December, will make his first start of the season for the Astros when they travel to Dunedin, Fla., to meet the Toronto Blue Jays at 12:05 p.m. CT Wednesday. He was 2-9 with a 5.51 ERA in 23 games (20 starts) for Colorado last year.

Who’s injured: RHP Hector Ambriz (sprained ankle) has thrown in the bullpen and could face live pitching soon. . … C Max Stassi (oblique) was scheduled to travel to Philadelphia on Tuesday to get an MRI and see a specialist about a possible sports hernia.

Links of the day: Jose Martinez, who was MVP at Double-A Corpus Christi last year, has overcame an unthinkable tragedy and has taken advantage of his second chance with the Astros. Here’s video of Martinez talking about his struggles:

The Astros notebook has Ambriz and Stassi talking about their injuries, prospects Nolan Fontana and Mike Foltynewicz on their appearance on the spring roster, Wallace on his comfort level at third base, plus much more.

The day in photos

Bud Norris.

My man Bud Norris.

Jose Altuve

Jose Altuve.

Brett Wallace and Michael Burgess.

Brett Wallace and Michael Burgess.

Delino DeShields.

Delino DeShields.

Brett Wallace.

Brett Wallace.

Dallas Keuchel.

Dallas Keuchel.

Nolan Fontana.

Nolan Fontana.

Nolan Fontana and Robbie Grossman.

Max Stassi and Robbie Grossman.

Injury update and lineup

Here’s what’s going on in Kissimmee on this Tuesday morning:

  • Max Stassi

    Max Stassi

    Catcher Max Stassi is scheduled to fly to Philadelphia today to be examined by Dr. William Meyers on Wednesday and undergo an MRI. Stassi has been bothered by an oblique injury for quite a while, and the Astros fear he has a sports hernia. “I’ll hopefully get some good news,” he said. “Worst-case, a sports hernia puts me out four to six weeks. That will set me back a little bit, but I can move forward from there. I’m in good spirits. I just want to clear up what’s been nagging me.”

  • Right-hander Hector Ambriz, who sprained his left ankle two weeks ago, was set to play catch today and throw live batting practice in the next few days. That will be his final hurdle before getting into a game. “I can’t wait, especially now that the games have started and watching everybody out there compete,” he said. “It’s baseball season and I want to get out there and pitch.”
  • With the Astros having split squads today, a few Minor League players have been summoned from the minicamp to be in uniform in case they’re needed. Among the Minor League players in uniform for the Astros for today’s game against the Tigers are pitcher Mike Foltynewicz, infielder Nolan Fontana and outfielder Michael Burgess, who was take in the Triple-A phase of the Rule 5 Draft.

Jordan Lyles pitches for the Astros in Port Charlotte against the Rays today, and if you missed it, here’s in interview I did with him:

Astros lineup Tuesday at home against Tigers (split-squad is also playing Tampa in Port Charlotte):

SS Tyler Greene

2B Jose Altuve

1B Carlos Pena

DH J.D. Martinez

3B Brett Wallace

RF Rick Ankiel

C Jason Castro

LF Fernando Martinez

CF Trevor Crowe

LHP Erik Bedard

McTaggart talks about Porter, Astros

Here MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart talking about the Astros

Game 2: Astros rally to tie Mets

What happened: The Astros rallied from five runs down and scored once in the bottom of the ninth on an RBI hit by George Springer to finish in a 7-7 tie with the Mets (boxscore). The Mets were playing a split squad and didn’t have enough bodies to continue.

“It was great just to battle back and come back from an early deficit,” Astros manager Bo Porter said. “The guys had great ABs and [ground] the at-bats out and really gave us a chance to win the game late in the ballgames.”

What we learned : C Jason Castro can really swing it when he’s healthy. This was the first winter Castro had to prepare for the season following his catastrophic knee injury of two years ago, and he homered in his second at-bat of the spring. Remember, he hit four homers in his final seven games of last year and has shown some pop.

“One of the things I noticed real early on in the spring by watching him catch bullpens and watching how he was moving around, he’s finally healthy,” Porter said. “He’s legs are underneath him. When your legs aren’t underneath you, it’s hard to drive a baseball. I think we’re now starting to see the Castro we all believed we were getting when we drafted him.”

What else: RHP Bud Norris battled while using just his fastball and change-up (he didn’t throw any breaking stuff). He located his pitches well and got his work in. … RHP Jose Veras missed some spots a few times, but he worked through a difficult inning. … 2B Delino DeShields Jr. made things happen with his legs when he pinch-ran at first, stole second, went to third on an error and scored on a wild pitch. He’s fun to watch. … RHP Chia-Jen Lo threw the ball well and was down in the zone consistently in the ninth inning and had an explosive fastball with late life. … OF Fernando Martinez homered in his first at-bat on Sunday. If he can stay healthy, he’ll be a threat.

What went wrong: RHP Bud Norris and RHP Brad Peacock gave up homers and RHP Jose Veras struggled to find the zone at times, but it was the first time in a game for everyone that threw on Sunday so results aren’t as important as getting in the work.

“I struggled to find the strike zone the first couple of hitters, but I’m going to work at it every day and it will get better,” Peacock said. “I threw everything today. It wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be, but it will get better as spring goes on.”

What they said: “The first at-bat of spring, there’s always a lot of intensity and I just tried to relax my second at-bat. It definitely helped me free up my hands a little bit. I’m trying to go through the process and build up the results will come, but I’m really focusing on just getting to where I’m comfortable heading into the season.” — C Jason Castro, who was 1-for-2 with a homer.

What’s next: Right-hander Philip Humber makes his first start for the Astros when they travel to Jupiter, Fla., to meet the St. Louis Cardinals at 12:05 p.m. CT. Humber, a native Texan who played college baseball in Houston, signed a one-year deal with the Astros after being claimed off waivers.

Who’s injured: RHP Hector Ambriz (sprained ankle) has thrown in the bullpen and could face live pitching soon. . … C Max Stassi (oblique) will travel to Philadelphia to see a specialist about a possible sports hernia.

Links of the day: Feature on Vince Coleman, the great base stealer who is in camp this year with the Astros as an outfield/baserunning instructor. The notebook has an update on health of Max Stassi, Trevor Crowe’s thoughts of coming to Houston and manager Bo Porter explaining how to defend a shift.

The day in photos

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Hitting coach John Mallee talks to a player.

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Matt Dominguez.

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Jose Altuve and J.D. Martinez.

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J.D. Martinez and Justin Maxwell.

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Jason Castro and Carlos Corporan.

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Bo Porter.

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Jimmy Paredes.

Game 1: Astros hit, run, pitch way past Phillies

What happened: The Astros bashed out 14 hits, including a home run by Brandon Barnes, and got some solid pitching across the board to beat the Phillies, 8-3, in their Grapefruit League opener and American League debut (boxscore) on Saturday. After practicing their post-game handshake for two weeks, the Astros finally got a chance to use with their first win of the spring.

“Offensively these guys swung the bats and ran the bases great,” manager Bo Porter said. “I think base running was a key factor in the game and it put a lot of pressure on the other team and created more scoring opportunities for us.”

What we learned: The Astros are going to be aggressive. They stole four bases early in the game, including a double steal by Tyler Greene and Trevor Crowe in the third inning, and Porter says they will force the issue and put pressure on opponents as much as possible.

“It’s a staple of our team,” Porter said. “I told the guys earlier on in the spring that if you want to find out an identity of a ballclub, watch them run the bases. It’s aggressive, but it’s controlled aggression, and we are only going to take advantage of the opportunities that are presented in front of us.”

What we learned II: RHP Jarred Cosart does OK in pressure. Cosart, the right-hander who’s battling for a spot on the club, returned to Clearwater to face his former team and pitched two perfect innings, overcoming some nerves in the bullpen prior to the game. He was acquired by Houston from the Phillies in 2011. Cosart had good arm speed on his changeup and was locating his fastball well.

“I felt great,” he said. “I was a little worried in the bullpen. It was a little off down there. Originally, I was supposed to come in in the fourth and that didn’t work out and they wanted to get Xavier [Cedeno] some work with some lefties and face [Ryan] Howard and some other guys. That kind of threw me off. I got in there and was a little sporadic in the bullpen. Nerves had something to do with that. When I got out there, it was clicking pretty well and I was getting the ball out of my glove, which is what we had been working on all Spring Training. I’m ecstatic.”

What we learned III: Barnes is a gamer. Barnes made a good first impression by hitting Houston’s first homer of the spring and throwing out a runner at the plate from center field. Here’s video of the homer.

“I’m just going to come out here and play as hard as I can,” Barnes said. “I went out to winter ball and worked on some things, and I’m just trying to carry it over here and keep going. We’re going to make a good push at this and we’re going to work hard every day.”

What else: RHP Lucas Harrell had a few mechanical issues, but for the most part he kept the ball down and made it through two innings and got in his work in his first start (Harrell video here). … OF Robbie Grossman made a nice impression by going 2-for-3, and 2B Marwin Gonzalez also went 2-for-3. … RHP Josh Zeid, RHP Sam Demel and LHP Xavier Cedeno each threw a scoreless inning.

What went wrong: The Astros had one mental mistake in the first inning. With Howard at at-bat and a shift moving another infielder to the right side of the second base, Chase Utley was able to advance two bases when no one covered third on a ball hit between first and second.

What they said: “It always feels good when you play well. More importantly, we played clean baseball. There were no errors, we swung the bat well and our situational hitting was good. Defensively, we made the plays we were supposed to make, and when you do those things right it gives you the best chance to win ballgames.” — manager Bo Porter.

What’s next: RHP Bud Norris takes the mound for the Astros in their first home game of Grapefruit League play at 12:05 p.m. CT Sunday against the Mets at Osceola County Stadium. He’s scheduled to throw two innings. Second baseman Jose Altuve, catcher Jason Castro, outfielder Rick Ankiel and designated hitter Carlos Pena, all of whom didn’t make the trip to Clearwater on Saturday, are scheduled to get their first game action.

Who’s injured: RHP Hector Ambriz (sprained ankle) and catcher Max Stassi (oblique) continue to progress.

Links of the day: Astros notebook has Carlos Correa’s thoughts as he hits camp, some thoughts on how the Astros are going to get creative with their pitching staff in the Minor Leagues and much more.

The day in photos:

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Bo Porter warms up his arm.

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Bo Porter gets interviewed.

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The future: Jarred Cosart, George Springer and Delino DeShields.

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Jeff Murphy and Ryan Howard.

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Bo Porter throws batting practice.

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