HOUSTON -- Recognizing the need to play the game smarter to avoid the soft-tissue injuries that have plagued him the past few years, an eager Alex Bregman returned to the Astros’ starting lineup Wednesday for the first time in more than two months. And it wasn't surprising that he was bursting with optimism and confidence.
“I can’t wait to put the uniform on again and play,” said Bregman, who was hitting .275/.359/.428 with seven homers and 34 RBIs before he suffered a left quad strain while running the bases June 16. “I’ve been waiting to do this for a long time the last two months. I’m going to definitely cherish every pitch and every second of it.”
Bregman contributed immediately in Houston's 6-5, 10-inning win over the Royals on Wednesday afternoon at Minute Maid Park, going 2-for-5 with an RBI double and scoring the winning run. He also made a fine defensive stop on Nicky Lopez's hard shot to third in the first inning.
Bregman missed 59 games during a start-and-stop rehab process that forced him to learn about his body and how his muscles work in-depth. The quad injury was the latest in a line of soft-tissue injuries the two-time All-Star third baseman has dealt with the last few years.
Last year, he missed 17 games after straining his right hamstring while running the bases Aug. 19 in Colorado. He strained his right hamstring in April 2019 and missed two games. In September '16 -- at the end of his rookie year -- he missed two weeks after straining his right hamstring while running the bases.
With that in mind, Bregman said he is going to run the bases smarter so he can stay on the field longer. If that means not going 100 percent down the line on a ground ball or a pop fly to the outfield, that’s a tradeoff Bregman will have to make. The goal is to stay healthy.
“When you roll over a ball to shortstop, don’t high-step it down the line like I did that day,” said Bregman, referring to June 16.
Bregman admitted that won’t be easy, considering he has always played all out no matter the situation or the score.
"Yeah, but it’s something that’s necessary,” he said. “I need to make it to the batter’s box as many times as possible every year. I’m not a burner by any means. So if I’m out by two steps instead of four … but at the same time, there’s something inside you that when I’m growing up, I was taught to play with your hair on fire. It’s been an adjustment, but I feel healthy. I feel ready, and I can’t wait. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Even Astros manager Dusty Baker, who was never on the injured list during his 19-year playing career, said he understands the need for players to be mindful about when to hustle and when to take it easier.
“We’ve all had to do that to find a way to stay in the lineup,” he said. “If the fans get on you for not hustling, then they don’t understand the need for you to stay in the lineup. You’ve got to play another day. And another day and another day, hopefully. There is a need to play smart.”
Bregman has been put on an individualized preparation routine that he’ll use daily. During his two rehab stints at Triple-A Sugar Land, he increased his strength in his hips, along with his hamstrings, quads and calves -- the big muscle groups most susceptible to injuries during running. He even looked into changing his running mechanics.
“That’s the game plan -- back to the basics, working extremely hard to do the basics day in and day out and keep me on the field,” he said. “I feel like I’m in peak form right now. The last three games down there [at Triple-A], I feel the best I've felt on the field in two years, not only physically but swing mechanics-wise. The last few games, I’m back-spinning the ball to the pull side in the air. I know if I’m doing that, I know that’s where I want to be. The swing feels good, and the body feels even better. Now it’s just time to shut up and go do it.”
The time on the IL reminded Bregman how much he loves the game. Even before he was rehabbing in games, he went to Sugar Land to watch former LSU teammate Michael Papierski, a catcher in Houston's system, play for the Skeeters. The view from the stands rekindled a desire for being on the field.
“I want to be playing,” he said. “I miss it so bad. I miss baseball and just the competitiveness of it. That kind of stuck with me through the whole rehab process. I wanted to be around the ballclub here, and also around those guys there as much as possible to just stay close and stay ready.”