Notes: Astros welcome fans; Straw's start

February 28th, 2021

For the first time in nearly a year, the Astros played a game in front of fans in Sunday’s Grapefruit League opener, a 6-1 loss to the Marlins at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches in West Palm Beach, Fla. All of the 1,569 tickets made available were sold for the game, with fans spread out and wearing masks.

Players weren’t allowed to sign autographs or otherwise get close to any spectators, but the cheers from the crowd provided a reminder that some normalcy may perhaps be on the horizon. The Astros played without fans in the stands all last season after baseball was shut down because of the coronavirus last March.

“It was good to have them,” manager Dusty Baker said. “Last year, we missed them, and then you get used to the surroundings and not having them, but you always wish they were here. There was more electricity in the stands. It was great having them.”

Astros outfielder , a Florida native, was able to have his family in the stands.

“I think that’s going to be the best part about this season,” he said. “Houston brings, I personally think, the best fans in baseball. To have some support for the team and something to play for is going to be really fun this season. It was crazy to see just human life on the baseball field. It was a good feeling. I got to see my family up there which is a good feeling. I think that’s going to bring some good life to baseball this year.”

Straw gets off to quick start

Straw’s audition to take over as George Springer’s replacement in center field got off to a good start on Sunday when the speedster went 2-for-2 with two singles as Houston’s starting center fielder. Straw has been working on refining his swing plane with hitting coaches Alex Cintrón and Troy Snitker.

“That’s one of the biggest things for me,” Straw said. “We talked about it a good amount through the offseason and through the spring, and I totally agree with [Snitker]. He definitely knows what he’s talking about. Even in practice, whether in the cage or live BPs, it’s starting to feel a lot better.”

Straw, who posted a .394 on-base percentage in 469 career Minor League games, will have to find a way to get on base consistently to be a viable option. He slashed .269/.378/.343 with eight steals in 56 games for the Astros in 2019, but he regressed in limited action last year. Straw hit .207/.244/.256 in 33 games.

“After putting the work in his first week or week and a half, however long it’s been, just seeing a couple of early results from what I’ve been working on swing-wise and whatnot with Snit and A.C., it just feels good to see positive results out of things early in the spring,” he said.

Veteran catcher Jason Castro, in his return to the team that drafted him, also had a multi-hit game.

“It’s always nice to get hits no matter what the situation or circumstance,” he said. “I saw a good number of pitches, seeing a righty and lefty today. Pretty much all I could ask for looking for some reps in Game 1.”

Depth arms show their stuff

It was the long ball that did the Astros in on Sunday. The Marlins hit two homers off starter Brandon Bielak in the first inning and added another off Bryan Abreu in the fifth. Bielak allowed the first four batters he faced in the game to score before recovering to record six consecutive outs.

“I calmed myself down for the first inning, and being able to bounce back and get the next six guys out, I’ll chalk that up as a win,” said Bielak, who’s competing for a spot in the Astros’ rotation.

Abreu, who turned heads with a strong debut in 2019 before showing up out of shape last year, threw two innings and allowed a walk and a homer. Still, Baker said Abreu had better command of his breaking ball. Castro, who caught him for the first time, was impressed. Abreu is competing for a spot in the bullpen.

“Talking with someone on the bench prior to his outing, they gave me some things to kind of keep an eye on,” Castro said. “To his credit, he came out and looked like his composure was there. His effort level seemed like it was a little bit lower, which I think in a guy like him is probably beneficial. Obviously, the stuff is still going to be there, but when he doesn’t try to do anything, he can be more consistent. That’s exactly what we saw today.”