LAKELAND, Fla. -- If Luke Gregerson was looking to strengthen his case to be the Astros' closer when the regular season opens in a week, his outing against the Tigers on Sunday provided a good springboard.
Gregerson made a strong statement in his first Major League spring appearance, needing the minimum number of pitches to strike out three batters in his lone inning of work on Easter Sunday at Joker Marchant Stadium. The Astros went on to win, 8-3.
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Facing James McCann, Anthony Gose and Ian Kinsler in the fifth inning, Gregerson delivered a nine-pitch outing that lasted about seven minutes and accomplished two things -- it preserved a healthy Astros lead, and, more important, hinted that he will be ready when the Astros open the season in New York on April 4.
"It went a lot better than I would have anticipated," Gregerson said. "But physically, I felt great and the ball, I felt, was coming out of my hand really nice. Pitches were moving, which is all you can ask for at this point."
The one-inning appearance versus the Tigers was Gregerson's first Grapefruit League outing. He pitched in Minor League games on March 16 and 23 as he worked through issues stemming from a sore left oblique that has hampered him most of the spring season.
Despite the lessened workload this month, Gregerson doesn't feel he's behind in terms of being ready for Opening Day.
"I understand the caution," he said. "It's Spring Training. We're trying to get ready, get healthy. Physically, my arm was all ready to go when I got here. This [sore oblique] kind of put a little stop on it. Other than that, I was physically ready to play and throw. My arm feels great. I haven't had any issues with that."
Before the game, manager A.J. Hinch, speaking from Mexico City, where the Astros were wrapping up a two-game exhibition set with the Padres, indicated he was confident Gregerson would be ready for the opener at Yankee Stadium.
"This [outing Sunday] will be the next hurdle for him to clear for his readiness," Hinch said. "We're obviously pushing it about as far as you can possibly push it and feel comfortable about it, but there's still time for him to get three or four outings in before Opening Day."
Gregerson's strong outing seemingly clouds the closer competition, if there is indeed one, heading into the final stages of Spring Training. The Astros have yet to declare who will close games this season, but it's largely understood that Ken Giles is earmarked for that job. Gregerson, the Astros' closer last year, would then slide into the eighth-inning role.
Without official word from Hinch, however, the final week of spring games could be crucial for the back end of the bullpen.
"It's something that's out of my hands," Gregerson said. "I just want to go out there and get guys out. It's what we get paid to do. We get paid to go out there and get guys out, have quick innings and keep it moving down the line. However that pans out is the way it's going to be. I'm just trying to go out there, make sure I stay healthy and get ready for the season."