Back to basics

capt.4762268c0ea844af8ef9774736ddd29b-4762268c0ea844af8ef9774736ddd29b-0.jpgThere’s something about the way Jeff Bagwell has understood his duties as new Astros hitting coach.

In recent statements told to the Houston Chronicle, Baggy, an Astros legend as none other, has said something that might underline the reason behind his hiring in substitution of Sean Berry, a passionate baseball man and a competent coach as well:

“There’s a certain way the Houston Astros play baseball, and I want to make sure we’re playing that way.”

That’s absolutely true. If there’s something in which your Houston Astros were masters in their glory years which took them to their first (and only, so far) World Series, is that this team was based in two solid tools: pop and speed. Maybe they didn’t have the most powerful batters in the game (except for Lance Berkman and the 2004 version of Carlos Beltran) but they squeezed every at-bat, they were threatening when it came to baserunning, and that, combined with efficient pitching, gave good results.

With Bagwell now at the helm when it comes to BP, can the Astros come back to those go-go ways? And with the players the roster has nowadays?

Bye, bye, bye (Straight losses)

capt.403a173a396c47f59d951ec8ad81450f-403a173a396c47f59d951ec8ad81450f-0.jpgLadies and gentlemen, your Houston Astros have finally achieved their first win for the 2010 season. This is also our very first post during this year. We’ll be honest with you, we were waiting for such a moment, with the only reason we wanted to put things for this club on its right proportion.

Brad Mills has his first Major League win as a manager, and the Astros can breathe a little bit slower (well, and we hope this music doesn’t become a trend at the clubhouse for a long time).

Bud Norris was simply remarkable, pitching one-run baseball off four hits, fanning nine; and he also helped himself with the lumber, driving in a run. This is the Bud Norris we have always heard of, the one we wanted to see.

Of course, this is not just a pitching matter. We have seen one too many times how a lack of offense is the big reason behind a loss, more so than any pitfalls on the mound. Michael Bourn and Jeff Keppinger are the only Astros batting above .300. Pedro Feliz, despite the fact he owns a .294 batting average, is the RBI leader in this franchise after 9 games with… 4. J.R. Towles has only one driven in, with a measly .056.

There’s a lot to be made yet, however, they had a sample today of what they’re capable of. They badly need lift Keppinger some heavy burdens off his shoulders. Carlos Lee should stop picking up his bats at the North Pole.

This pitching staff has been efficient enough, although not outstanding, with several acceptable outings. Roy Oswalt, despite the 0-2 record, has allowed 5 runs in 12 innings, with a 3.75 ERA, for example. Only Felipe Paulino (7.20) and Wandy Rodriguez (6.10) own somewhat alarming ERAs. They can turn this around though.

We are not saying this will be any easy. They are still one and eight. There’s plenty much yet to do, but we cannot write an epitaph for the 2010 Astros just yet.

Written on the Wall

capt.10d8eb787e204194a62600edfd3dcda4.astros_cubs_baseball_cxc104.jpgBefore today’s game on this very blog, we were wondering about the possible fate for Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz. We knew that the upcoming matchup for today would be hard, in the final episode of a crucial series against the Chicago Cubs, which we hope doesn’t come back to haunt the Astros at season’s end.

Hampton had a not-quite-flattering start and Ortiz, sadly, followed suit with yet another terrible start. The numbers kept on piling up, beyond 9 earned runs in 2.1 innings this Thursday.

It was much more than that. It was his 0-5 record in his last 10 outings, a 12.23 ERA in July. It was seeing that, in those few occasions in which Ortiz could do the job, needed a huge amount of pitches.

So Ed Wade had to pull the trigger. There wasn’t much to do. Ortiz was placed on waivers on an unconditional release.

We regret to see Ortiz leaving by the backdoor. He had a chance, and he worked trying to get his career back on track. Sadly, that wasn’t the case.

This is the first step in trying to correct the strange case of a rotation in which the glass is either half full or half empty and there are no in-betweens. We go from the sublime with Wandy Rodriguez (10-6, 2.65) and Roy Oswalt (6-4, 3.61) to… the not that good with Brian Moehler (7-6, 5.16), Hampton (6-8, 5.36) and Ortiz himself (3-5, 4.75).

With a rotation with problems such as these, and a bullpen which has to keep on adding mileage because of so many iffy starts, so the winning path can look as quite dark and winding.

Does Bud Norris have what it takes? He does have a fastball. You saw it yesterday in his brief stint against the Cubs. He got his dream now and he is part of a Major League pitching rotation. The case is that now, he’ll have to prove every five days, that he indeed has what it takes. It’s time for definitions.

Definitions for Norris. And for the rest of the starters. Houston tries to stabilize a situation which, even with Ortiz departing, still looks quite complicated.

Days like this

bud-norris.jpgSome days are good, others are not that good. That’s how things are for your Houston Astros. On one hand, they stil have a shot on the NL Central pennant race. The Stros have won 5 of their last 10 contests, and now they are three and a half games behind the Cardinals. Sadly, there are situations like yesterday’s 12-0 blowout courtesy of their closest rival, the Chicao Cubs. With a result such as this one, any symptom of optimism might go down the drain.

It’s true that it’s a bit hard to figure out how the Good Guys can pull it off with performances such as that of Russ Ortiz and Mike Hampton. Now, to top it all off, Lance Berkman is on the DL and we don’t know for certain if Roy Oswalt will join those ranks as well. He is waiting to see how he reacts to an injection for his back injection. He still doesn’t even know whether he’ll pitch or not this Sunday.

Key moments, no doubt. They are in the midst of series against their closest divisional rivals up to August 9. Of course that, if we look a bit closer, there are still reasons for excitement. Since May 29, the Astros have surpassed their Divisional opponents 12-6.

Some might even call it “Second-half syndrome”. It has hit Houston for as long as I can remember. From May 30, the Astros have a 32-21 record, jumping from being 9-1/2 games out to the current 3-1/2 game distance.

Can they keep on climbing? That’s the question.

Despite injuries, many key stars producing offensively are still there. That’s the case with Miguel Tejada. But, even with people such as Carlos Lee cranking up the heat (.323 BA in July), this game is still about Pitching.

That’s where doubts abound. Ortiz and Hampton show  us, that they seem not to have what it takes for the time being.

The Astros are forced to play a major card, due to Oswalt’s back issue. The organization’s second best prospect has appeared for the first time in the Major Leagues.

Bud Norris left everyone with a good taste, proving that he might be as good as advertised. His smoking fastball (93-95 MPH), and despite some moments in which he let nerves take over him (as it should be. He’s human after all), he kept his poise during practically his whole outing.

So what will happen next with this pitching staff with their good and bad days? Can Ortiz and Hampton justify themselves? Will Norris stay and live up to the hype? Will this be the end of injuries and pain for Oswalt?

After all, it isn’t the end of the world. Look toward Queens and then we’ll talk.

Complete control

Welcapt.95c28c52bb164490a55ffa735840ccba.pirates_astros_baseball_hta114.jpgl, well. After last night’s bitter time, Wandy Rodriguez comes up and pitches like never before.

A complete game shutuout nonetheless. 11 strikeouts, tying his season record, five singles and his first shutout since 2007. Only fitting considering that Wandy has become (for some people’s amazement) one of the most reliable pitchers for Houston in 2009.

It’s true the Astros have a negative record when it comes to shutouts (3-7). However, Wandy has started in each of those shutout games in which Houston has won.

That should tell you a lot about Rodriguez. It’s true he’s had his share of bad times. But this year he has been so much better than we all thought at first. It was a matter of time, wasn’t it?

We have to thank Wandy Rodriguez because he helped the ‘Stros to get something they have not achieved very often this year: Keeping a game under its control from start to finish.

Totally forgettable

capt.c7cfcc24e4a64b94bdab148770d5cb8f.pirates_astros_baseball_hta106.jpgToday was one of those days. One of those in which the Astros make the Pittsburgh Pirates (yes, the Pirates. Have we seen this movie before, right?) look like the New York Yankees. I still don’t know why this is a team which costs so much to beat.

If you know, please drop me a line.

Brian Moehler pitched a good ballgame tonight. He was fairly acceptable for 6.1 innings, except for that Jack Wilson homer. A dinger which didn’t represent too much of a problem, but Houston wasn’t able to capitalize. Pat Maholm got their number tonight.

So many promises of reactions which were left cold (Houston left 8 men on base). And how about that seventh inning: Right after Moehler left with men on, Tim Byrdak and Chris Sampson combined to let them all in, and also helped on that dubious feat by costly defensive miscues. The Astros melted faster on that seventh than an ice cream cone on a Texas summer.

The ‘Stros are near .500, but with displays like tonight’s remain on a mode of “one step forward, two steps back”. I wish I can forget this one pretty soon.

House of cards

capt.1f2da73c6ac84036ab6ec27848015afa.astros_padres_baseball_cali101.jpgWhen we started to realize the Astros possibilities on this West Coast roadtrip, we saw they weren’t so bad. But this start has been good enough, all the better to forget the frustrating Sunday loss against Detroit. Many agree with us that it was the saddest lost this year (which is a lot to say if you ask me).

Well, the best thing Houston could do was giving the ball to Roy Oswalt, the reliable one. It’s true this hasn’t been Roy-O’s best year so far, but he’s always a man who inspires respect around him. He dominated the Padres tonight, pitching a complete game (nothing amazing, he’s an innings-eating hurler), fanning eight and taking his fourth win this year, leveling his record.

An Ivan Rodriguez homer, a Sac-fly by Geoff Blum and a Carlos Lee single drove in the Astros runs, for a team who could beat a weak opponent, offensively speaking. A team which wasn’t able to decipher Oswalt’s delivery.

All of this happened in a day in which the Astros are starting to formalize the end of their relations with Brandon Backe. The Galveston-born pitcher didn’t accept his demotion to the Minor Leagues, so he becomes an unrestricted Free Agent. We hope, and we are sure, he will find a new team very soon. He has the heart for it. He proved it several times here with us.

Mike Hampton is back, so the front office sends Wesley Wright to the Minors, while Cecil Cooper will use a six-man rotation. This is a quite delicate balance, because he now has many pitchers who are doing well. But they also look like a frail house of cards. You don’t dare to take any piece off because it might tumble down.

You can also follow us on the Astros official Spanish-Language site, astrosdehouston.com, in our Spanish blog at lacarreraespacial.mlblogs.com and in our Twitter @rafaelrojasc

A last call to the mound

nick-adenhart.jpg

“Baseball America’s Youth Player of the Year in 2003, Adenhart rivaled Homer Bailey as the top high school pitching prospect in the 2004 draft until he blew out his elbow that May and needed Tommy John surgery. Undaunted, the Angels drafted Adenhart in the 14th round and signed him for $710,000. Adenhart began 2008 by going 4-0, 0.87 in his first five starts at Triple-A Salt Lake before Los Angeles whisked him to the big leagues and asked him to pitch on three days’ rest against the Athletics. The experiment bombed, as he lasted just two innings and gave up five earned runs on three hits and five walks. After he continued to struggle with his control in subsequent starts against the Royals and White Sox, the Angels returned him to Triple-A and he never found his April groove again. Adenhart won just one of his next 10 starts and went 5-13, 7.08 the rest of the way.”

That was how Baseball America described their No. 1 prospect for the LA Angels, Nick Adenhart. Last night, he pitched six innings against Oakland in a solid manner.

Now, he’s gone, killed in a car crash with three others.

This goes to show you how unimportant baseball is in the scheme of things. Adenhart was on his way, he really went and fulfilled his dream, surely without knowing he was living the final night of his life.

A guy who struggled with injuries, Tommy John surgery, trying to find his way back into the game’s prospect elite, even trying to please his coaches too much and getting lost in the way. Now we are only left to wonder what would happen if he could just keep on pitching.

Keep on living.

A really tragic story which saddens us and I think I speak for us all at the Houston Astros in paying our respects and condolences to his family and our fellow colleagues at the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

MLB.TV, now even on Linux

I have a confession to make. I’m a Linux geek.

For the past two years, I’ve been using the Ubuntu Linux distribution. It’s a free operating system which has a lot of quality, and has supressed a lot of my frustrations with Windows (I could have gotten a Mac, but hey, I wanted something I could use in my existing computers and besides, the Apple Store is located at the Galleria in Houston. That should tell you how pricey it is).

And, during the past five seasons or so, I’ve also been a subscriber to MLB.TV. The ability of watching every game live in my computer no matter where I am has been quite useful to my work of writing for the Astros and baseball in general. Last year, I did a radio show with highlights and live commentary and analysis, so it was an useful tool.

The issue was trying to make MLB.TV work in Linux. So many workarounds, plugin installations, you name it. It was a lot of hard work. So hard, in fact, I ended up carrying a laptop with a dual-boot install of Windows and Linux, so I could get my MLB.TV most of the time. I’ll tell ya, I did MLB.TV run in Linux almost 90% of the times. I even demonstrated it to my friends at the Astros Spanish Radio Network last year and they were very impressed, both with the Operating System and MLB.TV itself. Alex Trevino, my colleague and friend at the booth, is also a technology follower and he saw the potential instantaneously.

But I have to say, I’m part of a minority yet. That’s why I was so excited when I saw that MLB.TV was ditching other technologies which limitated its growth outside the Windows OS. And they chose to go with Adobe which, despite the fact not being 100% free software, it has chosen to be available in every platform in the Sun, be Windows, Mac or Linux.

Installing Flash in Ubuntu is a breeze. You can even go to Adobe’s website directly and get a .deb file for installation. And the new media player is a breeze to play with, going from a single game view to picture-in-picture, being able to watch up to four games at the same time. That’s worth the price of subscription in itself. And the Flash technology makes it workable, light and fast, unlike the past Mosaic version which was good, but not good enough.

So I have to congratulate my BAM friends in making MLB.TV finally truly multi-platform. I had to write this since I had to tell you how wonderful it is, and you tend to appreciate it even more when you’re in this business. Go ahead, give it a try, and tell me what you think. And now you know: if you use Linux and love baseball, now you don’t have to be afraid of your MLB.TV not working.

It does. Beautifully.

A springtime full of questions

jDbGX8bS.jpgWelcome once again to a new season with your Houston Astros. As always, we’ll try to give you information and notes in a different way. There’s one thing which I’m really glad about, and is that I won’t be holding the fort all by myself this time: Besides good friends such as Thomas, Bernardo and other bloggers, we are joined by people who are known by all of you: Alyson Footer, someone who really knows her Astros, and the voice of the Houston Astros in Spanish himself, my good friend Francisco Romero.

So there’ll be a little bit something for everyone this time around.

We saw Roy Oswalt last night in a game which became so painful for us, in which Venezuela was mercilessly pounded by the US offense. Roy O proved himself why he is one of the premiere starters in baseball, and that’s what matters most. He won’t return to Kissimmee just yet; in the meantime Carlos Lee is taking the plane back to Florida after his team Panama’s elimination from the World Baseball Classic.

This is been a Spring Training quite interesting to see. And a hard one as well. We know there isn’t anything more worthless than Grapefruit League scores, but it’s true that it would be so much nicer to see a win every now and then at Osceola County Stadium.

I’m sure Cecil Cooper will try to energize the troops back again to see if bats start swinging the right way and things change a bit. But we know that’s not the main goal.

It’s all about breaking down performances and seeing which players will survive all cuts and stay in the 40-man roster. It’s time to see if prospects (which there are plenty to see) can stay or they could be well-kept in the Minors for a September callup. That’s a positive effect of Tejada, Lee and Oswalt being absent for the WBC if you ask me.

Are there reasons to panic yet? Not quite. Most especially if your main players are somewhere else. But it’s true that, despite we know that is not what it’s all about, a win every now and then would make this spring a bit more joyful.

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