Archive for the ‘ Dailies ’ Category

Another shot at the 25-man roster

We’re one week away from the start of the Astros season and Opening Day in Philadelphia. Astros staffers are already packing up boxes and will put them on the truck, which will leave for Minute Maid Park this weekend. The team has four remaining games in Florida, including tonight’s game against the Yankees in Tampa, before leaving Tuesday morning for an exhibition game in Oklahoma City.

The roster is slowly starting to take shape in the last few days, but there are still 36 healthy players in camp so there are plenty of more cuts to come.

Since the last time I tried to predict the Opening Day roster a couple weeks ago, I’ve already been proven to be wrong. Tommy Manzella was optioned to Minor League camp, and Ryan Rowland-Smith is out of the running for the rotation. Not surprisingly, things changed and I missed the mark with a couple of those.

So let’s try it again:

CATCHERS (2)

Humberto Quintero

J.R. Towles

Comment: Both have had a nice spring at the plate, and unless the Astros find another catcher in the next week, it looks like Quintero and Towles will split the catching duties. What is known is that Quintero is a lock.

INFIELDERS (6)

Brett Wallace (L)

Bill Hall

Clint Barmes

Chris Johnson

Matt Downs

Angel Sanchez

Comment: I’m swapping Manzella for Sanchez, who’s out of options. The Astros like his bat, but the problem is he doesn’t run very well and he’s not as versatile on defense as Anderson Hernandez, who’s a switch-hitter. Unless J.B. Shuck makes the club in the outfield — see below — or Carlos Corporan gets a catching spot, the Astros won’t have any left-handers on the bench, which could bode well for Hernandez. Still, I’m picking Sanchez.

OUTFIELDERS (5)

Carlos Lee

Hunter Pence

Michael Bourn (L)

Jason Michaels

Jason Bourgeois

Comment: I’m sticking with Bourgeois, especially now that Brian Bogusevic is out of the picture. I can’t imagine the Astros would go with J.B. Shuck, who barely got his feet wet at Triple-A last year, to have a reserve role in the outfield. Shuck has performed well in Florida, but so has Bourgeois. Sure, he’s right-handed, but he plays great defense and can fly, so he’d get plenty of chances to pinch-run. He also swung the bat well this spring.

STARTING PITCHERS (5)

Brett Myers

Wandy Rodriguez (L)

J.A. Happ (L)

Bud Norris

Nelson Figueroa

Comment: This is set.

RELIEF PITCHERS (7)

Brandon Lyon (closer)

Wilton Lopez

Mark Melancon

Jeff Fulchino

Enerio Del Rosario

Henry Villar

Ryan Rowland-Smith (L)

Comment: Yes, I’ve omitted left-hander Fernando Abad and the two Rule 5 guys — Lance Pendleton and Anuery Rodriguez. Abad has really struggled this spring after a great showing in winter ball, so perhaps he could start the season in Triple-A until he gets it ironed out. If Abad and non-roster invitee Gustavo Chacin don’t make the team, that would leave Rowland-Smith, who’s out of options, as the left-handed specialist. I think he’s probably more served to be a long relief-type pitcher, but he does have more appearances in his career in the bullpen than as a starter.

I think the only locks are Lyon and Lopez. I’m pretty sure Melancon and Del Rosario have put pitched themselves onto the team, and Fulchino has performed well despite Thursday’s hiccup. Then there’s Villar, who’s been throwing two-inning stints with some good success. I really don’t have much confidence in any of these guesses beyond Lyon and Lopez, so stay tuned.

Game 30: Pitchers struggle in loss to Rays

The Tampa Bay Rays were able to take better advantage of the wind blowing out to right field at Osceola County Stadium on Thursday afternoon than the Astros, who dropped an 11-3 decision to the Rays, who hit a pair of home runs.

The big news of the day were the roster moves made by the Astros, which included sending Tommy Manzella and Brian Bogusevic to Minor League camp. Also, they re-signed former Astros pitcher Fernando Nieve to a Minor League contract.

Here’s the breakdown:

What went right: Bud Norris got off to a quick start, sending down six batters in a row after allowing the first two hitters to reach. The Rays started getting better swings in the third and fourth and pushed across four runs, but Norris was able to throw 79 pitches and looks strong.

“The whole point here, even winding down, is getting those pitches and getting the arm strength up there,” Norris said. “I felt like I threw a lot of quality pitches, good pitches that were close and competitive. The three walks to Johnny [Damon] didn’t help me, but I felt good.”

Mark Melancon was the only pitcher on the mound Thursday that did not give up a run. He pitched a scoreless seventh, retiring all three batters he faced, including one by strikeout.

Michael Bourn (.283 average this spring) went 2-for-4 at the plate, and Brett Wallace went 2-for-3 with singles in his first two at-bats and he drove in his 18th run of the spring. Jason Michaels had an RBI double, and J.R. Towles connected on his third homer of the spring.

What went wrong: Jeff Fulchino had a 1-2-3 inning in the fifth before running into trouble in the sixth. He gave up a two-run homer to Sam Fuld that was likely wind-aided, but it still counts. Fulchino allowed two hits and one walk and struck out two batters in two innings.

Wilton Lopez had a rare blip, giving up two runs and two hits in one inning, raising his ERA to 3.38 (the same as Melancon’s). Fernando Abad’s rough spring continued as he couldn’t get the ball down and allowed three hits and three runs, including a home run, in the ninth inning. The lefty’s spring ERA is 11.74.

Carlos Lee (.204 spring average) went 0-for-4, and Chris Johnson (.263) went 0-for-4 for the second game in a row. Bill Hall went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts and is hitting .188 this spring.

What they said: “With Bud, he had good stuff and he was able to work out of that jam in the first and really did a good job. As the innings went along and kept getting into those jams, he started to overthrow a little bit, but his stuff was still there. Abad, we’d like to get his fastball command a little better. The other pitches, he has good command and is down.” — Astros manager Brad Mills.

What’s next: Right-hander Nelson Figueroa, the Astros’ fifth starter, will make his final start of the spring when the Astros face the New York Yankees at 6:05 p.m. CT on Friday in Tampa, Fla. Ryan Rowland-Smith, Ross Wolf, Jose Valdez and Gustavo Chacin are also scheduled to pitch for the Astros, who will take every position player to the game except for left-fielder Carlos Lee and catchers J.R. Towles and Carlos Corporan.

Injury update: Hunter Pence, who took three stitches in his right shin Wednesday after sliding home, was held out Thursday as a precaution by manager Brad Mills. … Second baseman Bill Hall fouled a ball off his foot, but said he was fine.

Ah, yes. The return of the pictures:

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Above: Mark Melancon pitches to Ryan Rowland-Smith while I play umpire. I called it a strike.

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Above: Brad Mills hits some ground balls during drills.

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Above: Robinson Cancel (left) puts on his gear as he talks to Carlos Corporan. Astros signed Cancel a couple of weeks ago to Minor League deal, and they reassigned him to Major League camp on Thursday. He will stay with the team through next week’s exhibition against Boston, but will start the year in Triple-A.

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Above: Pitchers Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers put in their work in the bullpen Thursday morning, with pitching coach Brad Arnsberg watching closely.

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Above: The flags give an indication of how hard the wind was blowing out Thursday.

Bourgeois or Shuck will grab final outfield spot

Unless the Astros acquire another outfielder in the next week, Jason Bourgeois or J.B. Shuck will begin the season as the fifth outfielder. Bourgeois served in that role for a time last year, and even started 11 games in center field at the end of the season when Michael Bourn went on the disabled list.

The two have emerged as the only candidates to win the final outfield spot after Brian Bogusevic was optioned to Minor League camp on Thursday. Bourgeois has certainly had a strong camp, entering Thursday hitting .314 with four stolen bases. The fact Bogusevic swings the bat from the left side was a bonus for him, but Bourgeois’ good spring couldn’t be ignored.

Shuck is somewhat of a surprise to still be at camp. A non-roster invitee, he’s a career .303 average in the Minor Leagues, but he’s only played 36 games above Double-A. He bats left-handed and can play all three outfield positions.

Astros general manager Ed Wade said the role of a bench player, such as what Bogusevic was going to be asked to play, is difficult for a young player.

“The bat-off-the-bench role is tough for a young guy to roll himself into,” Wade said. “They’re used to get 375, 400 at-bats at the Minor League level and maybe get called up and still be sharp and game ready. It becomes much more difficult when you get four or five at-bats a week at the big league level and understand what the level of preparation is associated with that.

“We’re fortunate here that we have a guy like Jason Michaels who’s done it and can help mentor younger players, if we have a young guy filling that role. We recognize it’s a tough one to fill, and we felt the right thing for us right now was to let Bogie go play and figure that one out down the road.”

When asked about Shuck in that role, Wade said: “It’s held against the same backdrop. That’s a tough job. J.B. makes a really good contact, he can bunt, he’s an above-average runner and can play all three defensive positions. He’s still in the mix.”

The decision to send Manzella to the Minors was somewhat surprising, considering he was hitting .278 this spring and is a polished defensive player. What probably worked against Manzella — last year’s Opening Day shortstop — was his lack of experience at third base and second base. 

His departure leaves four infielders — Matt Downs, Anderson Hernandez, Angel Sanchez and Oswaldo Navarro — battling for two spots. Downs might have the upper hand because he can play anywhere and has swung the bat well, but Hernandez can also be moved all over the diamond and is a switch-hitter. Sanchez is out of options and performed well last year with the Astros.

“We’ve got things to figure out,” Wade said. “One would say your big decisions are made. You’ve decided who your fifth starter is, you’ve decided who your closer it, you’ve decided this, that and the other thing. The fact of the matter is we recognize the importance of the composition of the bench and what opportunities it provides for [manager Brad Mills].

“In call candor, we’re going to be guided by what Millsie feels is appropriate with the composition of the bench because he’s the one that will look down there and make sure that,, as best we can, we’ve provided him the pieces to make effective moves late in the game.”

Game 29: Pence, Quintero lead 16-hit attack

With the wind blowing out at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla., Wednesday’s game between the Astros and Pirates figured to be high scoring. It didn’t disappoint, either, with the Astros awaking from their offensive slumber to outslug the Pirates, winning 10-6.

Before we get to the recap, click here to read about which players are out of options for the Astros and how that might affect roster decisions. Click here to read about which two catchers appear to be the most likely to be on the Opening Day roster.

There were plenty of good things to happen for the Astros, so let’s get to the recap:

What went right: After behind held to six hits in their previous two games, the Astros bashed 16 hits against the Pirates. Hunter Pence led the way by going 3-for-3 with his first spring homer, raising his average to .385.

Pence doubled in the first and hit a long homer to left field in the third.

“Whenever the season starts, it would feel better if you do that,” Pence said.

Brian Bogusevic, battling for an outfield spot, came off the bench and went 2-for-2 with two runs scored, and Jason Michaels was 2-for-4 with a run scored and an RBI to raise his spring average to .413. Then there was Humberto Quintero, who not only picked off a pair of runners but was 3-for-3. He’s now hitting .452.

Brett Wallace drove in three runs, pushing his spring total to a team-leading 17 RBIs. He had sacrifice flies in the first and fifth innings and an RBI single in the ninth. Angel Sanchez went 1-for-3 in his return from a back injury and reported no problems, and Brian Esposito and Matt Downs each had a hit in their only at-bats.

The Astros also did a nice job in situations, going 4-for-5 in getting runners home from third base with less than two outs and 3-for-3 in moving runners over from second base. Starting pitcher J.A. Happ even but down a pair of sacrifice bunts.

Happ threw 100 pitches in six innings of work. The results weren’t great – nine hits, five earned runs and two walks allowed – but the pitching conditions weren’t the best. All in all, it was a good sign to see him throw so many pitches.

Enerio Del Rosario threw another scoreless inning, running his spring scoreless streak to 11 1/3 innings. Gustavo Chacin worked a scoreless ninth, and Wesley Wright didn’t allow a run in two-thirds of an inning, though he gave up one hit and one walk.

What went wrong: Not much, outside of the runs allowed by Happ. Chris Johnson had a tough day, going 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and a fielding error. Still, he’s hitting .283 this spring. Jose Valdez gave up two hits and one run in one-third of an inning.

What they said: “I think I made adjustments after the first two innings. I was disappointed after that second inning. I kind of had a bad series of executions in a couple of hitters, situational-type things with the pitcher at the plate, guys on second and third. After that I think I kept ball down better than I did in the first two innings in the last four and tried to build off that.” – Astros starter J.A. Happ on his outing Wednesday.

What’s next: Right-hander Bud Norris, coming off his best start of the spring, makes his final Grapefruit League start of the spring when the Astros return to Osceola County Stadium to meet the Tampa Bay Rays at 12:05 p.m. CT on Thursday. Norris, who’s the No. 4 starter in the Astros’ rotation, threw five scoreless innings against the Cardinals on Saturday. Brandon Lyon, Mark Melancon, Fernando Abad and Ross Wolf are also scheduled to pitch for the Astros.

Injury update: Right fielder Hunter Pence needed four stitches to close a gash on his right shin Wednesday, an injury that occurred while he was sliding into home plate in the fifth inning. He said he would be fine to play Thursday. … Infielder Angel Sanchez (back) returned to the lineup and went 1-for-3 and said his back feels great.

And, no, I don’t have any photos for the second day in a row. I left my camera in the press box when I went to the field, but rest assured I’m coming back strong tomorrow in Kissimmee. See you then.

Options a factor a decision time

As the Astros debate their remaining roster decisions in the next few days, one of the factors that will come into play is which players are out of options. Players who are out of options and don’t make the 25-man roster must clear waivers before being sent to the Minor Leagues, so the Astros would risk losing them.

The Astros have seven players who are out of options for 2011 – right-handers Nelson Figueroa and Alberto Arias, infielders Clint Barmes, Angel Sanchez and Jeff Keppinger, catcher Humberto Quintero and left-hander Ryan Rowland-Smith. Of those, only Sanchez and Rowland-Smith are battling for roster spots at this point.

“It’s certainly something we talk about,” general manager Ed Wade said. “We try to weigh all factors, including out-of-options status. Whether it’s one of the out-of-options guys or the Rule 5 players, we try to factor in everything before we make a decision.”

Sanchez, who returned to the lineup Wednesday after missing a few days with an upper back strain, is among five players competing for two backup spots on the infield. Rowland-Smith is in the hunt for a slot in the bullpen. Keppinger will start the year on the disabled list, and Arias is likely to be disabled, as well. Barmes, Figueroa and Quintero are locks to make the club.

Pitchers Lance Pendleton and Aneury Rodriguez were both taken in the Rule 5 Draft, which means they must remain on the 25-man roster all season or be offered back to their former clubs. That’s assuming, the Astros can’t work out a trade to keep them. Pendleton came from the Yankees, and Rodriguez from the Rays.

Game 28: Strong return for Wandy

The Astros — playing without regulars Hunter Pence, Chris Johnson and Brett Wallace — were held to two hits on Tuesday in a 3-1 loss to the Nationals. But the news of the day was the solid return of left-hander Wandy Rodriguez, who pitched four strong innings in his first start in nearly two weeks.

Here’s the breakdown:

What went right: Rodriguez, who will start the Astros’ second regular-season game of the year, allowed three hits and one unearned run and no walks in four innings. He threw 70 pitches in the game, and then tossed 12 more in the bullpen to reach his pitch count instead of perhaps getting pulled in the middle of an inning.

Right-hander Henry Villar has helped his chances of the making the club with a terrific spring performance. He threw two more scoreless innings Wednesday against the Nationals, striking out two batters, to lower his ERA to 1.80.

Villar, who made the jump from Double-A to the Majors last year, has thrown two innings in his past four spring outings, pushing his Grapefruit  League total to 12 innings. He’s allowed three hits, one walk and one earned run and struck out eight batters in that span.

Not much to report at the plate. The Astros had only two hits, a third-inning single by Oswaldo Navarro and an RBI single by Michael Bourn in the sixth.

Several Astros starters played nine innings Tuesday in 84-degree heat Wednesday, including center fielder Michael Bourn, shortstop Clint Barmes, second baseman Bill Hall, catcher J.R. Towles and first baseman Matt Downs. Building up endurance is important.

What went wrong: The Astros were held to two hits, going 2-for-27 at the plate against four different Washington pitchers. Clint Barmes (.208 spring average) was 0-for-4, and Bill Hall (.200), Carlos Lee (.222), J.R. Towles (.314) and Matt Downs (.256) were 0-for-3.

The Astros made one error, which led to the Nationals pushing across an unearned run in the third. Barmes made a nice two-out stop of a ground ball and bounced his throw past Downs at first base, and the runner eventually scored.

Left-hander Fernando Abad continued his Spring Training struggles , allowing four hits and two runs in one inning Tuesday. He gave up a two-run, tie-breaking homer to Mike Morse in the eighth inning to suffer the loss.

What they said: “You know what, the last inning I felt my shoulder a little bit tired because I had a long time of not throwing in a game. But everything is fine. I feel great.” – Astros pitcher Wandy Rodriguez on his first start since March 10.

What’s next: Left-hander J.A. Happ makes his second-to-last start of the spring when the Astros travel to Bradenton, Fla., on Wednesday to meet the Pirates at 12:05 p.m. CT. Happ, who will start the Astros’ third regular-season game, is coming off his best start of the spring, holding the Marlins to four hits and no earned runs in four innings Friday in Jupiter, Fla. Jose Valdez, Enerio Del Rosario, Gustavo Chacin and Wesley Wright are also scheduled to pitch

Injury update: Closer Brandon Lyon was supposed to throw one inning in a Minor League game on Tuesday, but he had to be scratched due to an illness. … Infielder Angel Sanchez, meanwhile, was able to play in a Minor League game in Kissimmee. He led off five innings and went 1-for-3 with two walks and had no problems with his ailing back. Mills said Sanchez will return to the lineup Wednesday against the Pirates in Bradenton.

Sorry, no photos today. Will break out the trusty camera again in Bradenton on Wednesday.

Game 27: Myers hits wall against Tigers

It was an ugly Monday in Kissimmee, where the Astros gave up 18 hits and were routed by the Detroit Tigers, 9-1, at Osceola County Stadium. Of course, the big news of the day came in the morning. Astros manager Brad Mills announced Nelson Figueroa would get the final spot in the rotation after Jordan Lyles was reassigned to Minor League camp.

Here’s the breakdown of Monday’s game.

What went right: The best sight of the day was left-hander Wesley Wright, featuring his new sidearm delivery, coming on with the bases loaded in the sixth and getting three consecutive outs, allowing one runner to score on a sacrifice fly. He was the only Astros pitcher to take the mound and be charged with any runs allowed.

All four of the Astros’ hits were by their starting outfielders. Michael Bourn went 2-for-4 with a run scored and a stolen base. Both of his hits, including a bunt hit in the fifth inning, came against Tigers left-hander Phil Coke. Hunter Pence, who drove in the Astros’ only run in the first inning, and Carlos Lee each had one hit.

What went wrong: Brett Myers, making his second-to-last spring start before taking the ball on Opening Day for the Astros, gave up 12 hits, three walks and five earned runs in five innings, pushing his spring ERA to 9.00 in five starts. Myers said it simply wasn’t his day.

It’s not unusual for Myers to give up hits, considering his aggressive nature. The Tigers came out aggressive at the plate and had Myers worn out by the sixth inning, which he and manager Brad Mills consider a good thing.

“I hit a wall in that last inning and got a little tired,” he said. “That’s good because I needed to go through that to be able to get where I needed to be.”

Myers said his goal next time out is to throw more than 100 pitches. Mills said he would have to sit down with pitching coach Brad Arnsberg and map out a plan for Myers’ final start.

Wilton Lopez, who hadn’t allowed a hit or a walk in his first six outings of the spring, allowed one hit and one run in one inning, but struck out two batters. Jeff Fulchino gave up two hits and a run in one inning, and Mark Melancon allowed three hits and two runs in one inning. Both have ERAs of 3.86 this spring.

At the plate, Tommy Manzella was 0-for-3 with a walk, Chris Johnson played nine innings and was 0-for-2 with two strikeouts, and catcher Humberto Quintero was 0-for-3, lowering his spring average to .393.

What they said: “I felt like I could have had results today, but some balls found the hole. There were some weak ground balls that go through. It’s the game of baseball and that’s what happens. I’d rather give them up now than during the season.” - Astros pitcher Brett Myers on his outing Monday.

What’s next: Left-hander Wandy Rodriguez, who hasn’t pitched since leaving his March 10 start with mild shoulder tendinitis, returns to the mound Tuesday when the Astros face the Washington Nationals at 12:05 p.m. CT in Viera, Fla. Rodriguez, who will start the second game of the year, has pitched in only three games this spring, allowing three earned runs in seven innings in his previous two starts following a rocky debut.

Injury update: Infielder Angel Sanchez (back) took batting practice and is expected to be in the lineup Wednesday at the Pirates.

How about some photos?

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Above: Enos Cabell, a special assistant, gives some advice to third baseman Chris Johnson.

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Above: Matt Downs and Jason Michaels await their turn in the batting cage.

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Above: Michael Bourn practices his jump from third as coach Dave Clark watches.

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Above: Hunter Pence does an interview with some media from Corpus Christi.

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Above: Former Astros closer Jose Valverde stretches at Osceola County Stadium.

Lyles among 7 cut by the Astros on Monday

The Astros trimmed their spring roster by seven players Monday morning, with the most notable player on the list being top prospect Jordan Lyles, who had a 1.98 ERA in 13 2/3 innings and appeared to be one of the favorites for the fifth starter’s job.

Astros manager Brad Mills informed Nelson Figueroa on Monday he had won the fifth starter’s job. 

The Astros set their pitching rotation, with the 36-year-old Figueroa – the oldest player on the team – securing the final spot behind right-hander Brett Myers, left-handers J.A. Happ and Wandy Rodriguez and right-hander Bud Norris.

When the Astros open the season with a three-game series at the Phillies on April 1, two of their three starters will be former Phillies. Myers will start Opening Day against Roy Halladay and be followed by Rodriguez, who will face Cliff Lee on April 2, and Happ, who will square off against his old team and former Astros ace Roy Oswalt in the series finale April 3.

Cutting Lyles had to be a difficult call, but considering he’ll pitch at 20 years old all season and has barely gotten his feet wet at Triple-A, it was certainly understandable.

The Astros also optioned pitcher Sergio Escalona to the Minor Leagues and reassigned pitchers Patrick Urckfitz, Fernando Rodriguez and Casey Fien and outfielders Drew Locke and T.J. Steele. The one non-roster outfielder still in the mix is J.B. Shuck.

“I knew it was coming, sort of,” said Lyles, who will open the season in the rotation at Triple-A Oklahoma City. “I’ll just go down there to camp for a little bit, get ready for the season, have a couple of good months and see what happens.”

Lyles said he wasn’t surprised by the news.

“I knew being younger and the money side of the game… But Figgy pitched well enough to earn a spot and you can’t hold that against him,” Lyles said. “I think I opened some eyes this spring. I know they haven’t seen me before, but now they have. Whenever they need a guy to go out there on the mound for them during the season, maybe I’m first in line.”

Lyles said Astros management just told him to continue what he’s been doing and didn’t give any hints about his immediate future.

“If it comes in a couple of months or at the end of the season, it really doesn’t matter,” he said. “I just want to get ready and build on the season I had last year.”

Lyles was named the Astros’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year last year after going a combined 7-12 with a 3.57 ERA in a season split between Double-A Corpus Christi and Triple-A Round Rock. He got six starts at the end of the year in Round Rock and was 0-3 with a 5.40 ERA in his Triple-A debut.

“It will be good to get back there and to kind of get back to where I was at the end of the year,” Lyles said. “I didn’t really have the best starts last year, so it will be good to get back there and show them what I can do at the Triple-A level.”

Game 25: Lyles, Figueroa emerge in rotation battle

The Astros aren’t saying it just yet, but you can certainly read between lines. The race for the fifth starter’s spot appears to be down to veteran Nelson Figueroa and top prospect Jordan Lyles, both of whom pitched well in their outings Sunday.

Lyles pitched in relief and held the Pirates to two hits and one run and struck out four batters in 3 2/3 innings, drawing some terrific praise from manager Brad Mills and catcher Humberto Quintero, who said ‘Wow’ when asked about his first time catching the 20-year-old.

“I’m excited when I see a young pitcher like this throw that kind of stuff. I’m surprised and excited because I’ve never seen a 20-year-old throw fastballs and breaking balls like that,” Quintero said.

Figueroa started the other split-squad game against the Braves in Lake Buena Vista and gave up six hits and one earned run in five innings, lowering his ERA to 3.86. General manager Ed Wade admitted Figueroa might have come to camp with a leg up, and now it seems he’s pretty much a lock to make the team in some role.

“I think if you take out that inning and a half over there against the Phillies [on Monday], I think I put myself at the top of the list, hopefully, for the No. 5 starter job,” he said. “I definitely showed all the different things I could do — a continuation of last year — getting out there and pitching, keeping the team in the ballgame. They’ve been all close games for us. The bottom line is I think I can help this team out in that role all year long.”

What is known is that Ryan Rowland-Smith is out of the running for the rotation spot. The team told him upon his arrival at the ballpark Sunday he was now competing for a bullpen spot, and manager Brad Mills said following the game he was now being considered for a bullpen spot. A year after beginning the season as the third man in the rotation in Seattle behind Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez, Rowland-Smith couldn’t crack the Astros’ rotation.

“I want to have a good last week and embrace whatever role they give me and contribute,” Rowland-Smith said. “I’ve probably spent 50 percent of my career in the bullpen, and I’ve had a lot of success in the bullpen before I got a chance to start.”

If you look at the lack of innings Rule 5 picks Aneury Rodriguez and Lance Pendleton have been getting, it’s apparent they’re not being considered for the fifth spot. The team would have to offer them back to their former teams — the Yankees for Pendleton and Rays for Rodriguez — if they don’t make the 25-man roster, or they could work out a trade and keep them in the system.

“The two Rule 5 guys have done a nice job,” Wade said. “In their circumstances, even if we come to a determination that somebody else has stepped into the fifth spot, we’ll probably hold onto them as long as we can. Even if they don’t make the club, we’d love to keep them in the organization, but those are conversations we would have to have with the Yankees and the Rays.”

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The Astros had their last of six split-squad dates of the season Sunday, and lost both — 3-1 to the Pirates in Kissimmee, and 5-3 to the Braves in Lake Buena Vista. I stayed in Kissimmee to watch Jordan Lyles, and I’m glad I did. Here’s a breakdown from that game:

What went right: Jordan Lyles threw 3 2/3 innings in relief and was dominant, holding the Pirates to two hits and one run and striking out four batters in 3 2/3 innings. Fernando Abad had a much needed good outing, throwing a scoreless inning, and Sergio Escalona and Enerio Del Rosario put up zeroes.

Del Rosario, acquired in a trade from the Reds last September, hasn’t allowed an earned run in eight outings, covering 10 innings of work. Mills said he’s in the thick of the race for a bullpen spot.

“He’s thrown the ball extremely well and continues to get outs and throw strikes,” he said.

At the plate, Humberto Quintero went 2-for-2 to raise his spring average to .440, and Jordan Lyles, Hunter Pence (1-for-3) and Matt Downs (1-for-3) had the other hits.

What went wrong: The Astros were stifled offensively by Pirates starter Charlie Morton, who threw six scoreless innings and struck out five batters. Michael Bourn (0-for-3), Anderson Hernandez (0-for-4), Carlos Lee (0-for-3), Brian Bogusevic (0-for-4) and Oswaldo Navarro (0-for-3) had tough days at the plate.

Lyles was charged with his first error of the spring when he dropped an easy tapper to the mound in the fourth inning.

What they said: “I’m just getting ready for the season. I’m still trying to get my arm in shape. I’m going out there and hopefully I can build on the season I had last year. I felt pretty good right now, like I did going into last season. I’m going to continue doing what I’m doing and see where it goes.” – Astros pitcher Jordan Lyles.

What’s next: Brett Myers, who will start for the Astros on Opening Day, will make his second-to-last Grapefruit League start when he faces the Detroit Tigers on Monday at Osceola County Stadium. Myers threw a spring-high five innings in his previous outing, and could approach 100 pitches against the Tigers before being backed down for his final spring start March 26. Among the others scheduled to pitch are Wilton Lopez, Mark Melancon and Jeff Fulchino.

Injury update: Wandy Rodriguez threw without issue in the bullpen Sunday and is good to go for Tuesday’s game after missing a start with mild shoulder tendinitis. … Infielder Angel Sanchez has dealing with a sore back and will be out until at least Wednesday.

Here are the photos:

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Above: Alberto Arias draws chuckles from teammates when he dives and slides across the grass to field a ball during drills on Sunday morning.

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Above: Brian Bogusevic flips to Patrick Urckfitz covering 1B during morning drills.

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Above: Wandy Rodriguez, who had missed a start with mild shoulder tendinitis, throws a light bullpen session on Sunday morning. He’s scheduled to pitch Tuesday.

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Above: Brian Bogusevic makes a throw to second base during morning drills.

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Above: See if you can find the ball. Dave Clark hits some balls to the outfielders.

Game 24: Bud bests the Cardinals once again

The Astros beat the split-squad Cardinals, 3-2, on a hot Saturday at Osceola County Stadium, taking their Grapefruit League winning streak to four games. Bud Norris looked extremely sharp against the Cardinals — what else is new? — and the Astros made the most of their seven hits.

Here is the rundown:

What went right: Let’s start with Norris, who had his best spring outing of the year. He pitched five scoreless innings, allowing six singles, no walks and striking out five batters. Norris threw 79 pitches, including 54 strikes.

“Spring’s been ideally getting in your work and the numbers haven’t really been there, but I felt good today and everything was there,” Norris said. “I really mixed pitches well. I was really happy with the seven ground balls and no walks. That was the key for me today, pounding it down in the strike zone.”

Jeff Fulchino and Mark Melancon each threw a scoreless inning in relief, with Melancon lowering his spring ERA to 1.50.

At the plate, the Astros spread seven hits around with Jason Bougeois (.341 spring average), Clint Barmes (.239), Brett Wallace (.362), Matt Downs (.290), Carlos Corporan (.421), J.R. Towles (.379) and Tommy Manzella (.333) each getting one hit. Manzella, Wallace and Corporan had doubles.

Barmes made one of the best defensive plays you’ll ever see at shortstop in the second inning when he went deep into the hole between second and shortstop and threw out Mark Hamilton at first base by a hair. Bourgeois nearly upstaged him in the seventh with a terrific diving catch in center field. Bourgeois then rose to his feet and threw out the runner at first for a great double play. He’s hitting .341 and is making a strong case to make the club as the fifth outfielder.

What went wrong: Not much. There were a few 0-fers: Carlos Lee, Chris Johnson and Jason Michaels were each 0-for-3, though Lee drove in a run. Bill Hall was 0-for-4 with two strikeouts. Brandon Lyon and Casey Fien each allowed two hits and one run in two innings of work.

What they said: “He did have some good results. The thing about Bud is he was really able to make some pitches with both his slider and his fastball and moving his fastball around the zone. He’d get behind a few hitters and he’d come back and when he needed to make a pitch he was able to do it with his fastball and his slider, and he threw some real nice changeups. That was pretty special as well.” – manager Brad Mills on Bud Norris’ strong outing Saturday.

What’s next: All five candidates for the fifth spot in the rotation will be in action Sunday when the Astros play their sixth and final split-squad games of the season. Ryan Rowland-Smith will start in Kissimmee against the Pirates, with Jordan Lyles following him. Lance Pendleton is also scheduled to pitch in that game. Nelson Figueroa will get the start in Lake Buena Vista against the Braves, with Aneury Rodriguez to follow him.

Injury update: Left-hander Wandy Rodriguez, whose previous scheduled start last Tuesday was scratched because of a mild tendinitis in his right shoulder, will throw in the bullpen Sunday and is scheduled to return to the mound Tuesday against Washington in Viera. … Infielder Angel Sanchez (back) fielded ground balls Saturday and said his back feels fine. He will try to take batting practice Sunday. … Center fielder Michael Bourn will return to the lineup Sunday after being held out Saturday as a precaution. “He was under the weather a little bit but he played in the heat and I don’t want to get him run down and so tired he has a setback and get really sick,” manager Brad Mills said.

 Here are the photos:

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Above: Some Astros Minor Leaguers watch drills on one of the back fields.

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Above: Astros ace Brett Myers fires a pitch in the bullpen, with pitching coach Brad Arnsberg catching him.

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Above: Catcher Brian Esposito chases a ball during drills on Saturday morning.

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Above: Matt Downs makes solid contact in batting practice on Saturday.

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Above: Hunter Pence and Jose Cruz sign autographs.

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Above: Lance Berkman, making his return to Osceola County Stadium, yucks it up while he stretches with the Cardinals.

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