HOUSTON -- The dominance of reliever Ryan Pressly in the first half of the 2019 season became a footnote to his second-half struggles, which began with a knee injury that eventually required surgery. He returned for the postseason but wasn’t nearly the dominant pitcher we saw in that first half and who had earned an All-Star nod on the heels of a contract extension.
Now Pressly, 31, is back in his groove only days before the start of the regular season, and he looked sharp while throwing one scoreless inning (with two strikeouts) in Tuesday’s 15-6 exhibition win over the Royals in Kansas City. Pressly said that he feels he's regained his All-Star form.
“It felt good to be back on the mound,” Pressly said. “Everything was in sync.”
Pressly posted a 2.32 ERA in 55 games and was nearly unhittable in the first half of last season (1.42 ERA, 0.79 WHIP in his first 44 games) before the injury derailed him. He has a 6.75 ERA in 15 career postseason games, giving up three earned runs in three World Series innings.
Pressly, who battled a blister for three days last week, is expected to be the closer when the season starts while Roberto Osuna works his way back into game action. When Osuna is ready, Pressly will slide back into the setup role.
“I’ve done it before, so it’s not really out of the ordinary for me,” Pressly said of closing. “You have to minimize mistakes when you’re in that ninth-inning role. Osuna does that probably better than anybody. It will be nice to get him back, but until he gets back, I’ll do what the team needs me to do.”
Jones eyeing roster spot
One of the young players who could benefit from the expanded rosters to start the season is infielder Taylor Jones, who impressed in spring camp before the coronavirus shut things down. Jones was one of five Astros to homer in Tuesday’s win, and he said he’s starting to get back into a rhythm.
“With only the handful of at-bats we’ve gotten, you’re trying to get back into regular-season shape as quickly as possible,” Jones said. “I’m starting to get there. I’m starting to feel a little bit better at the plate. As far as breaking with the team or making the team, I’m going to prepare and do what I’ve got to do and then lay it all in their hands. I’m slowly starting to feel I’m back to regular-season mode, and we’ll see what that does for me.”
Jones, 26, spent all of last season at Triple-A Round Rock and hit .291 with 28 doubles, 22 homers, 84 RBIs and an .889 OPS in 125 games. The power is a later development for Jones, who stands 6-foot-7 and can generate a lot of leverage from the right side.
“I’m always trying to be clean with the swing, getting that swing plane dialed in and getting my connection a little bit back on track,” he said. “I fell off a little bit. Even in Spring Training, I wasn’t quite as clean as I wanted to be, even though I felt like I hit the ball pretty decently. And then just continue to hammer plate discipline. Obviously, in the few at-bats I’ve had so far in Summer Camp, I’m starting to build and get momentum as far as feeling better at the plate with plate discipline, but that’s always one of the things I’m trying to focus on.”
If Jones does make the Opening Day roster, he’ll make his Major League debut against the Mariners, the team he grew up cheering for in Kent, Wash. He played at Gonzaga with Marco Gonzales, who’s scheduled to start Friday’s season opener for the Mariners.
“That would be awesome, especially for my family,” Jones said of facing Seattle. “I know that would be unbelievable for them, just to know all the years we’ve been watching them, following them since the '90s, I think would be extra meaningful if that was the case.”
Astros diligent following Dozier's positive test
After learning that Royals outfielder Hunter Dozier had tested positive for the coronavirus after playing the Astros in an exhibition on Monday in Kansas City, Astros trainers reviewed the game to try to determine which players had close contact with Dozier during the game or had talked to him prior.
“Nobody had,” manager Dusty Baker said. “We feel very confident that nobody came in close enough contact to him. The person that [had] the closest contact to him was probably the catcher [Martín Maldonado]. We tested again this morning, and those results will be back in a couple of days.”
Baker said that when Dozier tested positive, the Royals immediately notified the Astros. Dozier went 0-for-3 and didn't reach base during the game.
“Baseball is doing a great job and doing all they can do with testing and who’s coming in contact with whom and how they all have come back and tested,” Baker said.
Baker shares his thoughts on society
Baker, who grew up active in the civil rights movement and served in the Marine Corps Reserves before a long and distinguished career as a baseball player and manager, explained on Wednesday how he’s mellowed over the years and that he is more open to hearing all sorts of viewpoints and opinions on social issues.
“I got some feelings in my heart,” he said. “I was one of the protesters back in the '60s, and so were my parents. I would have probably been out there with peaceful protests this time, except being a high-risk potential coronavirus person, I wasn’t. My sentiments were there, I mean, big-time.”
Baker, 71, said he has at least “50 stories” during his life of moments when he was approached and stopped because of his color, and even some in the last few years.
“I have to suppress and squash my feelings of the past,” he said. “I was walking around angry. I’ve changed my mind and heart on certain things. I was in the Marines. Back in the day, I’d have my hand not over my heart. ... I was angry. My dad reminded me how the country was ours and how many of our family members have been in the military. I recalled that last night while I was in bed.”
Baker, who comes from a large military family, said that everybody has different backgrounds and all views should be respected. He said his parents had different political views from each other, and now he’s a combination of both.
“Every man has a different story, and you can demonstrate however you want, but I know where my heart and where my mind is,” he said.
James gets stretched out to 82 pitches
Right-hander Josh James, who was supposed to start Tuesday’s exhibition game in Kansas City before weather concerns forced the Astros to scratch him, got in his final tuneup before the start of the regular season on Wednesday at Minute Maid Park by throwing 82 pitches (42 for strikes) in four-plus innings.
“I totally understand the move that was made yesterday,” James said. “I really wanted to pitch yesterday in a game feel against a different uniform, but it makes more sense to pitch today and get my work in and get my 82 pitches and look forward to my first start.”
James said that he’s in a good place with his delivery, which has been a work in progress. He said the slider, curveball and changeup all felt good along with his high-90s fastball. He said he didn’t throw his curveball much last year while he was a reliever because he only needed three pitches coming out of the bullpen.
James reported late to camp following the birth of his daughter and was able to build his arm strength by facing Major Leaguers near his home in Florida, including D-backs slugger Paul Goldschmidt. James didn’t face another uniform but threw twice in instrasquad games. He will next take the ball on Monday against the Mariners at Minute Maid Park.
“I’m excited,” he said. “Every day I get to put on that uniform, I’m excited. I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but everybody else is feeling the same way. With all the pandemic stuff going on, it makes it tough, and I think we all have a clear goal in mind, and that’s to win. I’m getting the opportunity to start on a World Series-caliber team. I can’t ask for much more.”
• Baker said that left-hander Framber Valdez will likely start the fifth game of the season, on Tuesday against the Dodgers. Valdez is scheduled to throw a live bullpen on Thursday at Minute Maid Park.
• Second baseman Jose Altuve, who left Tuesday’s game in Kansas City with a leg contusion, played in the team’s instrasquad game and singled in his first at-bat. Altuve said he’s fine. “I feel really good today, just a little sore from yesterday, but nothing to worry for Opening Day,” he said.