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Rodgers, Gustave on track in return from TJ

Hinch: No. 2 spot in batting order will be fluid; Astros open to using 4-man outfield
MLB.com @basebollie

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Astros right-handed relievers Brady Rodgers and Jandel Gustave are both making progress as they work their way back from Tommy John surgery. Rodgers, who had his operation a month earlier than his bullpen mate, naturally, is slightly ahead in his recovery.

Speaking before Wednesday's 3-1 loss to the Cardinals, Astros manager A.J. Hinch said Rodgers is closer to a return, but only because he had his surgery in May 2017 while Gustave had his in June.

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Astros right-handed relievers Brady Rodgers and Jandel Gustave are both making progress as they work their way back from Tommy John surgery. Rodgers, who had his operation a month earlier than his bullpen mate, naturally, is slightly ahead in his recovery.

Speaking before Wednesday's 3-1 loss to the Cardinals, Astros manager A.J. Hinch said Rodgers is closer to a return, but only because he had his surgery in May 2017 while Gustave had his in June.

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"[Gustave is] a little bit behind; he's behind surgically. He's also just behind -- his timeline is different than [Rodgers']," Hinch said. "They get linked together because they both had similar surgeries, but they're not on the same surgery date."

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The Astros' skipper said the 27-year-old Rodgers could possibly complete a full bullpen session before Houston breaks camp on March 27.

"There's a chance," Hinch said. "We're walking into this portion of his rehab rather than sprinting into it, so if things progress, we'll progress as fast as he's medically allowed to."

Hinch added he expects the 25-year-old Gustave to graduate from throwing off flat ground and transition to a mound before the end of spring.

"He should be able to throw a bullpen or at least get off a mound with a slope by the time we leave camp," Hinch said of Gustave. "But he's a touch behind Rodgers, which is not to say that he's behind. He had surgery after."

Verlander shakes off homers
Justin Verlander had allowed one run all spring before surrendering three runs -- including two homers on 3-2 counts -- in five innings Wednesday.

The 35-year-old right-hander threw a fastball up and in to Matt Carpenter, who "put a good swing on it," and a curveball to Luke Voit that caught a bit too much of the plate. Other than those two pitches, Verlander said he felt good.

Video: STL@HOU: Verlander, Hinch on his outing vs. the Cards

"In these situations I'm thinking a little differently because I'm trying to work on some stuff so I threw some different pitches up there," Verlander said, "but overall, another step in the right direction."

Hernandez hurt
Minor League right-hander Nick Hernandez threw one-third of an inning in relief on Wednesday, allowing one hit and one walk, before exiting in the ninth inning with an injury to his throwing arm. Following the game, Hinch said he is unsure of the initial diagnoses for the 23-year-old hurler.

"He just looked a little uncomfortable," Hinch said. "He started shaking his arm a little bit. A kid like him is going to try and exceed expectations, so when I saw a little bit of uncomfortable body language I took him out."

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Drafted in the eighth round in 2016 by Houston, Hernandez is 2-5 with a 2.87 ERA in 84 2/3 career innings in the Minor Leagues.

Who hits No. 2?
The Astros know George Springer will bat leadoff in 2018, but no one batter will hold down the next spot in the order. Hinch said he is not losing sleep over it.

"I'm not really married to any one idea," Hinch said. "I think [Alex] Bregman, [Josh] Reddick, Marwin [Gonzalez], occasionally [Jose] Altuve, I think are the guys that will get most of the at-bats, if not all the at-bats in the two-hole. I guess I just don't stay up at night worrying about that part of the lineup. We'll see depending on the pitcher, who's healthy, who's the best fit for that spot."

Potential four-man outfield
Houston has experimented with the idea of playing four men in the outfield. The shift, Hinch says, could be used at times during the regular season in certain situations.

With analytics and data translating to more shifts across baseball, the Astros are testing out how it could help them defensively in 2018.

"We're always looking for a better way of doing something, and if it lines up that that's the right place to play, then we'll do it." Hinch said. "It's easier to try it here than break it out during the season, but if it warrants it, we'll do it."

Up next
Left-hander Dallas Keuchel squares off against the Nationals and lefty Tommy Milone in a 12:05 p.m. CT game at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches on Thursday. Listen to the game on Gameday Audio.

Oliver Macklin is a reporter for MLB.com based in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter at @basebollie.

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