James' tweaks paying off in bid for 5th spot

Kessinger getting familiar with big leagues; Alvarez progressing

March 5th, 2020

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Josh James plowed forward in his bid to win the No. 5 starting pitcher slot on Thursday, throwing three scoreless innings, while facing the minimum of nine batters in that stretch, to stay unscored upon in Grapefruit League action this year.

James, who’s competing with Austin Pruitt and lefty Framber Valdez for the fifth spot in the rotation, allowed one baserunner on a one-out double by Michael Chavis in the second inning, and the righty watched catcher Garrett Stubbs promptly throw him out trying to steal third. Valdez (two innings), Bryan Abreu (two innings), Cy Sneed (one inning) and Blake Taylor (one inning) polished off the five-hit shutout, a 5-0 win over Boston.

“I’m telling you, he’s focused,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said of James. “He wants to take a job. We’re giving him every opportunity. He’s looking good, he’s looking real good.”

James worked on changes to his delivery in the offseason to be more “linear” to the plate, and he’s been able to carry it with success into the spring. In five innings, he’s allowed one hit and no runs while striking out five batters. James said it’s very encouraging.

“I’ve put a lot of work on the field and in the bullpens and watching some film,” James said. “I put a lot of work into it, so to see it kind of pay off, it feels good. Continue at it.”

James touched 98 mph when he got J.D. Martinez to fly out in the second, but pitching deeper into games -- and not the scoreboard radar readings -- is his focus. He was facing a Red Sox lineup that featured most of their regulars, including Martinez, Andrew Benintendi, Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts.

“I was just trying to be in the zone with my heater early and get strike one and try to induce soft contact,” James said. “I don’t want to be a guy that comes in and tries to let it eat for however many innings. I want to be able to pitch and go deep into games.”

Kessinger soaking up big league experience
Having a grandfather who was a longtime Major League player has certainly been a help to Astros infield prospect Grae Kessinger in terms of knowing what to expect, and this spring he’s made several appearances in Major League camp during Grapefruit League games.

Kessinger, the Astros’ No. 15 prospect per MLB Pipeline, who was a second-round Draft pick last year out of Mississippi, was in uniform again Thursday for the game against the Red Sox, going 0-for-1. Kessinger has appeared in five games for the Astros this spring.

“It’s a great group of guys and I like to be around them and learn from them,” Kessinger said. “I’m enjoying all the chances I get and learn what I can when I’m up here.”

In his first season in pro ball in 2019, Kessinger hit .232/.333/.308 with 20 RBIs in 62 games combined between Class A Short-Season Tri-City and Class A Quad Cities. Kessinger said he’s more prepared to play an everyday schedule this year.

“It’s a way different experience than college baseball and I learned a lot,” Kessinger said. “I’m excited for my first full year and [to] really hit the ground running this year.”

Kessinger’s grandfather, Don, played for the Cubs, Cardinals and White Sox from 1964-79 and was a six-time All-Star.

“[Grae] came over to me and said, 'My grandpa told me to tell you hello,'” Baker said. “I was a rookie then when he was [with the Cubs]. Don Kessinger, he was one of the first real tall shortstops.”

Alvarez’s knees improving
While admitting he was concerned about designated hitter Yordan Alvarez not getting as many at-bats in Grapefruit League play as the Astros would have liked, Baker doesn’t want to push the young slugger before he’s ready. Alvarez was scratched from Tuesday’s game with sore knees and was expected to be held out of any baseball action for at least three days.

Baker said Alvarez, the 2019 American League Rookie of the Year who slugged 27 homers and drove in 78 runs in 87 games last year, said he felt better Thursday morning.

“I’m a little bit nervous about that, he needs some reps,” Baker said. “When you lose reps early, when you’re just starting to get them, it’s different than May or June or something and then you miss a week or so. A week now is a quarter of the time that you’ve been here or less. That opens the opportunity for somebody else.”

Baker said that while Alvarez needs reps, there’s no reason to push him if his knees are ailing. Alvarez has played in five games and is 2-for-12 at the plate.

“This isn’t hero time right now,” Baker said. “If it was like August or September, that’s hero time. This ain’t hero time.”

Odds and ends
• Baker left all his regulars home in West Palm Beach on Thursday instead of having them make a lengthy trip across Florida to play the Red Sox. MLB prefers teams to have four regulars in the starting lineup for all Spring Training games, but illnesses to José Altuve and Alex Bregman earlier in the week and Alvarez’s knee problem made that impossible. Michael Brantley and George Springer played deep into Wednesday’s game as well.

• Baker was encouraged to see veteran right-hander Brad Peacock get on the mound for the first time this spring when he threw 15 pitches in the bullpen Wednesday in West Palm Beach. Baker still thinks Peacock, who was slowed by a neck/shoulder issue, will have enough time to get enough reps to be ready for the start of the regular season.

• The Astros will meet with their team doctors Friday to discuss precautions to avoid the coronavirus, which is slowly spreading worldwide. Baker said baseball has already warned players about taking precautions when they sign autographs with fans, such as carrying their own pen. Baker, who is credited with inventing the high five, says it’s more “sanitary” to do fist bumps.

Up next
Lance McCullers Jr. will make his second start of the spring when the Astros return to Ballpark of the Palm Beaches to face the Mets at 5:05 p.m. CT Friday. In his first game action since undergoing Tommy John surgery after the 2018 season, McCullers allowed a hit and struck out one batter in two-thirds of an inning Sunday against the Cardinals.