Rodgers healthy, ready for first spring test

February 22nd, 2019

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Astros right-hander  is one of seven pitchers who will appear in Saturday's Grapefruit League opener, and the hype of this game, obviously, will pale in comparison to anything that will be played March 28 -- Opening Day -- and beyond.

But when Houston takes the field against its FITTEAM Park neighbors, the Nationals, this will be anything but another ho-hum Spring Training game in the life of one pitcher -- Rodgers.

"The chains are off," Rodgers said. "It's nice to be a normal pitcher again."

Rodgers wears No. 52, which symbolizes two monumental days in his life, both occurring on May 2. He had Tommy John surgery on May 2, 2017. Exactly a year later, again on May 2, his son was born.

"It kind of hit me during the offseason," Rodgers said. "I've always wanted my number to mean something. To have that May 2 -- five-two -- what a better way to acknowledge not only my surgery, but to acknowledge my son."

Rodgers, whom manager AJ Hinch announced as the starter a couple of days ago as a nod to the pitcher's hard work during his recovery, is slated to throw two innings in his spring debut. Rodgers is competing for a relatively undefined role right now -- in five weeks, he could be part of Houston's bullpen, a starter at Triple-A Round Rock or, less likely, the fifth starter in the Astros' rotation.

The focus for now is on transitioning from a recovering pitcher to an active one. Twenty-two months have passed between Rodgers feeling that dreaded tightness in the elbow to now, and after throwing around 50 innings in 2018 during his extended rehab, mostly for Class A Buies Creek, he's equal parts eager and grateful to be taking the ball in a live game.

"Ten years ago, guys who had TJ was flip of a coin -- they didn't know if they would step on a mound again," said Rodgers, who was part of president and general manager Jeff Luhnow's first MLB Draft in 2012 that also netted Lance McCullers Jr. and Carlos Correa. "I definitely take pride in my job being able to go out there every single time I can throw a pitch now. I may have taken for granted being healthy. This is my job. I'm a baseball player. I'm a pitcher."

Hinch said where Rodgers lands at the end of Spring Training will be based on how quickly he progresses toward showing he's Major League-ready.

"If he has the success he's had before in the Minor Leagues, he can factor in quickly," Hinch said. "If he has to develop his pitches, then we have a lot of depth around him.

"As much as it's competitive to make the team now, it's really competitive within the depth group to get their opportunity when one opens up."

Opener notes

Most of the Astros' regulars will not play on Saturday, but with a pair of split-squad contests on the docket for Sunday, the light lineup is expected to be temporary.

Saturday's opener will feature Aledmys Diaz at shortstop, and Derek Fisher, Myles Straw and Kyle Tucker in the outfield. Jake Marisnick will DH.

As far as Sunday goes, only Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman will not be playing. Hinch anticipates Altuve making his spring debut sometime next week.

From a pitching standpoint, the six pitchers slated to pitch on Saturday after Rodgers are Ryan Hartman, Bryan Abreu, Jose Hernandez, Cy Sneed, Akeem Bostick and Brendan McCurry.

Monday attraction

Fans who attend the Astros' home game on Monday against the Mets will witness the spring debuts of two of the team's more intriguing pitchers: veteran Justin Verlander, the runner-up to Blake Snell in the American League Cy Young Award voting in 2018, and Forrest Whitley, the flame-throwing presumed future of the rotation.

Whitley is slated to follow Verlander in the pitching order for that game, which begins at 1:05 p.m. ET.

Nighttime is the right time

Saturday's opener will begin at 6:35 p.m. ET, marking the first of seven night games the Astros will play over their 31-game Grapefruit League schedule, including split-squad contests.

The Astros will be the home team every Friday in March, and all of those games will be played at 6:05 p.m. ET.

Attendance for night games during Spring Training is traditionally strong, and even though it's more customary to bunch those games toward the end of the schedule, when teams are attempting to adjust themselves for the night-game heavy regular-season schedule, in recent times, it's common to see teams schedule games in the evening throughout the month.