Tal Smith on Tal’s Hill

On the heels of the Astros’ decision announced Thursday to get rid of Tal’s Hill for next season, I checked in with the man for whom the hill in center field was named – former Astros president and general manager Tal Smith.

“It was an interesting feature that created some conversation and uniqueness for the ballpark, and I thought it really added a dimension because now and then it was really exciting and fun to see Michael Bourn or Lance Berkman go up the hill make a marvelous catch,” said Smith, who’s still active in baseball by doing consulting work.

Smith said Astros president of baseball operations Reid Ryan called him Thursday morning and told him about the upcoming changes.

“I think over the years the hill has provided a lot of memorable plays without any mishap,” Smith said. “I know there’s always been concern about injuries and so on. As I pointed out, I’ve seen more players stumble over the pitching mound than I have on Tal’s Hill. I’m a proponent that defensive plays can be very exciting and they help provide some of those.”

Smith said when the ballpark’s initial dimensions were discussed, the large center field offset the short 315 feet down the left-field line and 326 feet down the right field line.

“We knew left field and the Crawford Boxes were going to be a hitter’s haven and as we saw in the year 2000, the pitchers learned to use center field to adjust for the short lines, particularly down left field,” he said. “It proved a good balance. It’s going to take a while to adjust. Shortening center field by that much in a ballpark that has a short left and where right field is not all that difficult, it creates somewhat of a dilemma for pitchers.

“It will provide more offense and maybe that’s good. Everybody’s got their own thoughts.”

Astros owner Jim Crane said the removal of the Hill had nothing to do with Smith personally and said the club would still like to honor him in some way under the new configuration.

“From my standpoint, it was never about the nomenclature, a personal tribute,” Smith said. “It evolved as a means of identification. I was asked by [former owner] Drayton [McLane] in a meeting with the designers and architects and other staff members what we could do to make the ballpark interesting.”

Smith the Astros considered the monuments at Yankee Stadium, the ivy at Wrigley Field, the Green Monster in Boston and the hills and inclines at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field when coming up with a concept for Minute Maid Park, which opened as Enron Field in 2000.

“I saw Frank Robinson navigate [the hills at Crosley Field] without any difficulty,” Smith said. “It wasn’t anything I particularly advocated, and the name Tal’s Hill was used for an identification standpoint and it took on a life of its own.”

Smith maintained his sense of humor.

“Facetiously, they did that so they could have somebody to blame for it,” he joked.

Astros plan to remove Tal’s HIll for 2016

The Astros have received preliminary approval from the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority their plans for a $15-million renovation to Minute Maid Park that would include the removal Tal’s Hill in center field and moving the flag poles so they’re no longer in play.

Astros owner Jim Crane thanked the Sports Authority for their support at a meeting Thursday morning and said the renovation project would begin as soon as the season ends and would be finished in time for the 2016 season. The renovations would include more fan-friendly areas in center field.

The Astros hope to eventually open a Hall of Fame beyond center field or in Union Station, but that’s not part of the $15 million plan that’s been approved. The Astros will pay for the project.

“We’ve been working for some time to look at how we can improve the ballpark and we’ve gone through a number of renovations, including the diamond club, the club level, the locker rooms, the offices,” Crane told MLB.com “This is one of our big projects we knew we wanted to do. We did a lot of studies on other ballparks on the entertainment areas in center field and ours is very outdated over the life of the stadium, which has been great.

“We’ve submitted a plan to renovate center field and make it more fan-friendly and get more participation from the fans and really draw some more people in there.”

Crane said the center field fence, which currently sits 436 feet from home plate, would be brought in to about 409 feet. The extra space beyond the wall would be used for additional concessions and fan-friendly areas where spectators can watch the game.

Astros president of business operations Reid Ryan and senior vice president of business operations Marcel Braithwaite toured more than 20 ballparks last year to get ideas for reimagining the center field area.

“As you know, Tal’s Hill, some people love it, some people hate it,” Crane said. “We just thought it would be a better ballpark by moving that in. It will still be a very deep center field. There’s always been concern with the flag poles in play and danger in that and also the injuries going up the Hill, so we think this would be better for the players, utilize the space better and be a very pretty ballpark.”

Minute Maid Park, which opened in 2000, is owned by the taxpayers of Harris County and the city of Houston, so any changes must be approved by the Sports Authority, which serves as the landlord.

“Any time our tenants want to spend a significant amount money to upgrade our facilities, I think it’s in the taxpayers’ best interest to do that,” said Kenny Friedman, chairman of the Sports Authority. “We’ve been working with them all along on what their ideas are. They have great ideas, and I think the public will be excited by what they’re planning on doing there.”

Brathwaite, who said the Astros will begin putting the center field project out to bid soon to make sure they’re staying with in the budget, said the eventual Hall of Fame concept will aim to preserve the legacy of the franchise.

“We want to make sure we’ve have a great home to celebrate the tremendous history we have here,” he said.

Keuchel wins second AL Pitcher of the Month award

Astros left-hander Dallas Keuchel won his second consecutive American League Pitcher of the Month award, joining Andy Pettitte and Randy Johnson as the only pitchers in club history to win the award twice in a single season.

Keuchel went 4-1 in his six starts in May, posting a 2.62 ERA and 38 strikeouts while allowing a .223 opponents’ average. The southpaw closed the month with back-to-back complete games, including a four-hit, 11-strikeout, shutout against the White Sox on Saturday at Minute Maid Park.

Keuchel and Johnson are the only pitchers in Astros history to win consecutive pitcher of the month awards.

During the month, Keuchel led the AL in innings pitched, ranked tied for first in complete games, tied for fourth in wins, eighth in strikeouts and ninth in ERA. He currently leads all Major League pitchers in innings pitched (81 2/3), ERA (1.76), opponents’ average (.183) and groundball-to-fly ball ratio (4.68), while ranking tied for second in the AL in wins (7).

The 1979 season was the only other year when the Astros took home multiple pitcher of the month awards, as RHP Ken Forsch (April), RHP Joe Niekro (May), RHP Joaquin Andujar (June) and RHP J.R. Richard (September) all received National League Pitcher of the Month honors that year.

Astros’ Minor League Players of the Month

The Astros’ player development department has named May’s Minor League Pitchers and Players of the Month at each of their four in-season minor league affiliates (these awards are chosen every month by the field staff of each team):

At Triple-A Fresno, IF Jon Singleton was named the May Player of the Month and RHP Dan Straily was named the May Pitcher of the Month. Singleton had a historic month of May, as his 37 RBIs marked the most by a Triple-A player in a single month since May 2011, when IF Brett Lawrie and IF Mike Carp each put up 37 RBIs. In 29 total May games, Singleton hit .286 with seven doubles, one triple, 10 homers and a 1.001 OPS. This included a stretch in which he hit three grand slams and five total home runs over a five-game span, in addition to setting a Fresno single-game club record with 10 RBIs on May 13. The 23-year-old currently leads all of Minor League baseball in homers (14) and RBIs (49). In five May starts, Straily went 2-2 with a 3.07 ERA, 28 strikeouts and just three walks. During his final start of the month on May 30, Straily struck out 10 batters in six innings of one-run ball.

IF Tony Kemp was named the Double-A Corpus Christi Player of the Month after batting .326 with 11 stolen bases and a .417 on-base percentage in 23 games in May. The left-handed hitter currently ranks third in the Texas League in batting average, and ranks seventh among all Minor League hitters in on-base percentage (.437). Winning his second consecutive Corpus Christi Pitcher of the Month Award was RHP Chris Devenski, who went 4-0 with a 1.01 ERA and 19 strikeouts in five games (four starts) in May. On Friday, Devenski and LHP Josh Hader combined to throw the first no-hitter in Hooks franchise history in what was a rain-shortened, 4-0 win. Devenski’s 0.59 ERA this season ranks second in all of minor league baseball.

A second-round pick by the Astros in 2014, IF A.J. Reed took home Lancaster’s May Player of the Month honors. Reed’s 10 homers in May were tied for the most in the minors with Singleton. In 28 total games during the month, he hit .327 with 29 RBIs and a 1.080 OPS. Reed currently leads the California League in home runs (13) and ranks second in RBIs (42) and fourth in OPS. RHP Joe Musgrove earned JetHawks’ May Pitcher of the Month honors after going 3-0 with a 3.00 ERA, 36 strikeouts and no walks in five games (three starts) with the club. Musgrove, who was named the Quad Cities April Pitcher of the Month, has recorded 59 strikeouts while walking just one batter in 49 2/3 innings between Lancaster (five games) and Quad Cities (five) this season.

C Jacob Nottingham was named the Quad Cities’ Player of the Month for May after hitting .355 with 13 extra-base hits (8 doubles, 1 triple, 4 homers), 20 RBI and a .997 OPS in 23 games. A sixth-round selection by the Astros in 2013, the 20-year old is leading the Midwest League in OPS (.956), while ranking fourth in homers (8) and batting average (.327). RHP Akeem Bostick won the River Bandits Pitcher of the Month award as he went 1-1 with a 1.29 ERA and just nine hits allowed (.125 opponents’ average) in four games (three starts) in May. Bostick was a second round pick by the Rangers in 2013, and was acquired by Houston on Jan. 21, 2015 in exchange for C Carlos Corporan.

Marisnick moved to leadoff spot

Astros center fielder Jake Marisnick has flourished hitting in front of Jose Altuve for much of this season, but after entering Saturday in a mini-slump (1-for-15 over his previous five games), manager A.J. Hinch was hoping moving him to the top of the order would do the trick.

Marisnick will still be hitting in front of Altuve, who was moved down to second against the Angels. Marisnick hit ninth the first two weeks of the season, with Altuve in the leadoff spot. Marisnick was hitting a scorching .382 through Sunday, but has one hit  since.

“His results haven’t been great, but I don’t call it struggling,” Hinch said. “He’s had a couple of games he hasn’t recorded as many hits as he did at the beginning of the season, but I wouldn’t say struggling is fair. He plays with a ton of energy, plays a terrific  defense.”

With Marisnick hitting leadoff, he figures to get at least one more at-bat per game, which could help him. Also, Marisnick has plenty of speed and Altuve has a great bat control, so the Astros will be able to embark on more hit and runs and push the tempo more. It also gives the Astros some team speed at the top.

“I’m not married to it,” Hinch said. “Things change quickly, but I like Marisnick and Altuve hitting back to back. When Marisnick was hot early, it was very tempting to move him in the order.”

Altuve hit second in the order much of last  year.

“I feel really comfortable in that position,” he said. “We’re also going to have Jake Marisnick getting one more at-bat, and for me he’s the best hitter right now on the team. That’s going to give your team one more chance to score a  run.”

Marisnick was a leadoff hitter coming through the Minor Leagues with the Marlins.

“Hopefully we feed off of each other and get rolling and get this offense going a little bit,” he said. “We’ve been struggling here the last couple of games. It would be nice to get rolling.”


Astros’ Minor League Players of Month

The Astros’ player development department has named April’s Minor League Pitchers and Players of the Month at each of their four in-season minor league affiliates (these awards are chosen every month by the field staff of each team):

At Triple-A Fresno, RHP Richard Rodriguez was named April Pitcher of the Month after going 1-0 with a 2.65 ERA in seven games during the month. The right-hander closed out April with three straight scoreless outings, spanning eight innings. Fresno’s Player of the Month award went to OF Preston Tucker, who led all of Minor League baseball in home runs (nine) and RBIs (29) during the month of April. The left-handed hitter batted .329  with a .371 on-base percentage and a .683 slugging percentage (1.054 OPS) during the month.

 RHP Chris Devenski fired 19 1/3 scoreless innings across four games (two starts) en route to getting named Double-A Corpus Christi’s Pitcher of the Month for April. Acquired by the Astros in the Brett Myers trade with the White Sox in 2012, Devenski was named the Texas League Pitcher of the Week for the week of April 20-26. He went 2-0 with 16 strikeouts and a .121 opponents’ batting average in April while leading the Texas League in ERA. SS Carlos Correa was named the Hooks’ Player of the Month for April after hitting .385 with 11 doubles, one triple, five homers, 22 RBIs, five steals and a 1.198 OPS in 19 April games. Ranked by MLB.com as the No. 3 prospect in baseball, Correa was named the Texas League Player of the Week for the week of April 20-26. During the month of April, he ranked among the top five Double A players in extra-base hits (first), doubles (first), slugging (first), OPS (first), hits (T-first), runs (19, T-first), RBIs (second), batting average (third) and homers (T-third).

At Class A Lancaster, RHP Tyler Brunnemann earned Pitcher of the Month honors after giving up just one run in 15 2/3 relief innings in April. Last year’s California League Championship Series MVP fanned 18 batters in his eight games during the month. The Astros 2014 Minor League Player of the Year, OF Brett Phillips, picked up right where he left off by claiming JetHawks’ Player of the Month honors this April. The left-handed hitter posted a .341 batting average with 13 extra-base hits (six doubles, three triples, four homers) and a 1.013 OPS in 20 games in April. Phillips ranked second in the California League in total bases (52) and fourth in OPS in April.

Class A Quad Cities Pitcher of the Month honors went to RHP Joe Musgrove, who went 3-1 with a 0.87 ERA and 20 strikeouts in four games (two starts) in April. Musgrove walked just one batter in his 20 2/3 innings, posting the fifth-lowest ERA in the Midwest League during the month. A 2014 draftee (13th round), C Jamie Ritchie received Quad Cities Player of the Month honors after hitting .344 with two doubles, one homer, seven RBIs and a .467 on-base percentage in 17 games in April. Ritchie finished second in the Midwest League in on-base percentage, fourth in OPS (.926) and sixth in batting average during the month.

Lowrie placed on DL; Villar called up

The Astros placed shortstop Jed Lowrie on the 15-day disabled list Tuesday with a still yet-to-be-diagnosed injury to his right thumb. Infielder Jonathan Villar was recalled from Triple-A Fresno and was in uniform for Tuesday’s game against the Padres.

Lowrie suffered the injury while sliding home in the eighth inning of Monday’s 9-4 win over the Padres at Petco Park and flew to Houston on Tuesday for an MRI. The club has not said exactly what the injury is or how long Lowrie is expected to be out.

Infielder Marwin Gonzalez figures to get the lion’s share of playing time at shortstop in Lowrie’s absence.

The injury comes at a bad time for Lowrie, who went 2-for-3 against the Padres on Monday and blasted his fourth homer of the season. Lowrie is hitting .476 (10-for-21) with a .621 on-base percentage during the current road trip in which the Astros have a 6-1 record.

In the eighth inning Monday, Lowrie was on second base when he raced home on a single by Colby Rasmus, saying his knee stuck in the dirt and caused him to land awkwardly on his thumb as he crossed the plate.

“I just stuck,” he said. “I’ve slid like that my whole life. I always slide on my left side and drag my knee across. Today it was like I just stuck. My knee hit and stuck and I flipped over and my hand was in the way.”

This is the eighth trip to the disabled list for Lowrie, who signed a three-year contract with the Astros in December. He was on the disabled list last year with Oakland with a fractured right index finger.

Astros-Mariners lineups

Astros vs. Mariners
Wednesday, April 22, 2015 – Safeco Field (9:10 pm)
Astros (8-6)   Mariners (5-9)
No. Player Pos.   No. Player Pos.
27 Jose Altuve 2B 7 Seth Smith (L) DH
18 Luis Valbuena (L) 3B 16 Austin Jackson CF
4 George Springer RF 22 Robinson Canó (L) 2B
11 Evan Gattis DH 23 Nelson Cruz RF
8 Jed Lowrie (S) SS 15 Kyle Seager (L) 3B
15 Jason Castro (L) C 20 Logan Morrison (L) 1B
23 Chris Carter 1B 13 Dustin Ackley (L) LF
28 Colby Rasmus (L) LF 5 Brad Miller (L) SS
6 Jake Marisnick CF 3 Mike Zunino C
Starting Pitcher Starting Pitcher
56 Roberto Hernandez (0-1, 3.37) RHP 33 J.A. Happ (0-1, 2.70) LHP

Astros-Mariners lineups

Astros vs. Mariners
Tuesday, April 21, 2015 – Safeco Field (9:10 pm)
Houston Astros (7-6)   Seattle Mariners (5-8)
No. Player Pos.   No. Player Pos.
27 Jose Altuve 2B 13 Dustin Ackley (L) LF
18 Luis Valbuena (L) 3B 16 Austin Jackson CF
4 George Springer RF 22 Robinson Canó (L) 2B
11 Evan Gattis DH 23 Nelson Cruz DH
15 Jason Castro (L) C 15 Kyle Seager (L) 3B
9 Marwin Gonzalez (S) SS 7 Seth Smith (L) RF
23 Chris Carter 1B 20 Logan Morrison (L) 1B
28 Colby Rasmus (L) LF 5 Brad Miller (L) SS
6 Jake Marisnick CF 3 Mike Zunino C
Starting Pitcher Starting Pitcher
31 Collin McHugh (2-0, 1.54) RHP 32 Taijuan Walker (0-2, 17.18) RHP

Astros-Mariners lineups

Houston Astros vs. Seattle Mariners
Monday, April 20, 2015 – Safeco Field (9:10 pm)
Houston Astros (6-6)   Seattle Mariners (5-7)
No. Player Pos.   No. Player
27 Jose Altuve 2B 16 Austin Jackson
18 Luis Valbuena (L) 3B 13 Dustin Ackley (L)
4 George Springer RF 22 Robinson Canó (L)
11 Evan Gattis DH 23 Nelson Cruz
8 Jed Lowrie (S) SS 15 Kyle Seager (L)
15 Jason Castro (L) C 7 Seth Smith (L)
9 Marwin Gonzalez (S) 1B 3 Mike Zunino
28 Colby Rasmus (L) LF 20 Logan Morrison (L)
6 Jake Marisnick CF 5 Brad Miller (L)
Starting Pitcher Starting Pitcher
59 Asher Wojciechowski (0-1, 4.50) RHP 18 Hisashi Iwakuma (0-1, 6.55)

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