HOUSTON -- With only days remaining until the season starts, Astros pitchers vying for jobs are ramping up their innings and pitch counts, with hopes of landing a spot when rosters are set next week.
Each pitcher absorbed most of the mound time during the 4 1/2-inning scrimmage between Team Bagwell and Team Biggio at Minute Maid Park on Saturday. Valdez allowed a three-run homer to Michael Brantley in the first inning but lasted all five innings, walking one and striking out six in a 74-pitch outing. Bielak threw 73 pitches over four innings, allowing four runs on six hits with a walk and three strikeouts. He yielded two doubles to Alex Bregman.
With so much uncertainty surrounding the status of the bullpen, and with the Astros carrying as many as 16 relievers when the season starts, it's likely some lesser-known pitchers may get a shot. Bielak has a chance to be one of them. He's been used mostly as a starter in the Minor Leagues, but he also has relief experience, including as part of a "piggyback" tandem.
"I think I’ve done it the three years I've been in the Minor Leagues," Bielak said. "I'd start one game and then come out and piggyback the next outing. I'd be pretty comfortable with that.”
Valdez's scope is a little narrower. His goal is the same as it was when he reported to Spring Training in February -- earn his way onto the team as a starting pitcher.
With Jose Urquidy sidelined, there's more room in the rotation.
"I feel this is a big opportunity to establish myself as a starter on this team, and I've done everything I can to really prepare myself for that opportunity," Valdez said, speaking through interpreter Andrew Dunn-Bauman. "This is a huge opportunity. I don't wish anything bad on any of my teammates. All I've done is just focus on myself and what I can do, to make sure that I'm in the best position possible to establish myself this year."
Valdez has some things to prove, however, including his ability to focus and not let innings get away from him. This has been an issue in prior seasons.
"He still has some things to learn, but he's a whole lot better than I heard he was in the past, as far as his concentration, as far as his tempo in the game," manager Dusty Baker said.
Baker noted that Valdez missed "three or four signs" during his outing on Saturday and said he'll be addressing that with the pitcher. Baker also lauded Valdez for throwing "some quality, quality pitches to some guys."
"I hope the young pitchers don't feel badly, because the guys they were facing are among the best hitters in this league," Baker said. "For Michael Brantley to hit you out of the ballpark, to [George] Springer and [José] Altuve, you're not going to face many lineups like this. I was very pleased in how the guys threw today."
In Alvarez's absence...
With the regular season less than a week away, it's becoming apparent that slugger Yordan Alvarez, who has missed all of Summer Camp while on the injured list for undisclosed reasons, is unlikely to be ready for Friday's opener vs. the Mariners.
That means the designated-hitter at-bats will be dispersed elsewhere. Kyle Tucker is one candidate who could absorb some of the playing time in that spot.
Normally, the DH position would not go to a young, defensively sound player still in the process of establishing himself in the big leagues. But these are not normal times, and Tucker, considered a future cornerstone of the Astros' outfield, is ready for anything.
"I don't mind DH-ing," he said. "I'm OK with that. Any way I can get into the lineup is fine, and I'll prepare the same."
Baker did not have any updates on the status of Alvarez, or Urquidy, who is also sidelined for undisclosed reasons. Aledmys Díaz, who played on Saturday after working his way back from a shoulder ailment, said he has exchanged text messages with Alvarez and that "he's doing good."
Asked if he thought Alvarez could return this season, the infielder sounded optimistic.
"Yes, I think that he'll be ready," Díaz said.
Kansas City, here we come
Referencing, in a humorous manner, the famous Fats Domino song "Kansas City," Baker said he was looking forward to the Astros' trip there next week, when they'll play a two-game exhibition set with the Royals as a final primer before the truncated regular season begins.
This won't be like any other road trip, however. Strict protocols regarding everything from limiting movement on airplanes to navigating into and out of hotels have been spelled out in full detail by Major League Baseball. Now it's up to the teams to implement them, safely and properly.
Baker views the trip to Kansas City on Monday and Tuesday as a practice run of sorts before Houston begins regular-season travel. The Astros' first trip will take place the weekend of July 31, when they play a series in Anaheim against the Angels.
"Our director of travel, Derek [Vigoa], has really done a lot of work," Baker said. "Our training staff has done a lot of prep work. There's a lot of things you have to do. You can't sit together [on the plane], you can't go visit somebody in another seat, you have to wipe the bags down. ... I think it's a good idea for us to test this before we have to go to Anaheim. Hopefully, the guys will be a little more accustomed to it and not be perturbed by what we have to do to fit the protocols."