JUPITER, Fla. -- The late signing of veteran right-hander Jake Odorizzi on March 8 and the injury to lefty Framber Valdez on March 2 have created an open spot in the Astros’ rotation to start the season. Brandon Bielak helped his case to grab that spot by allowing two runs in five innings in Saturday’s 5-2 loss to the Cardinals at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium.
“He’s made the most of it,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “Last year, he would run out of gas in 4 2/3 or five innings. He has a lot left. I like the way he’s conditioned himself in the offseason. He’s trained for it, and he wants to make the club. He’s positioned himself pretty good, but we’ve still got a way to go.”
Zack Greinke will start Opening Day for the Astros on April 1 at Oakland, and Lance McCullers Jr. and Jose Urquidy will be in the rotation. Cristian Javier has been limited to three innings because of his quarantine under COVID-19 protocols earlier this month and may not be built up enough to start the year in the rotation. Odorizzi said Friday he expects to be ready to start the second week of the season.
That means Bielak will likely get his shot to at least begin the year in the rotation. The only damage he allowed Saturday came on a second-inning homer by Dylan Carlson. Bielak struck out six batters and walked two while throwing 70 pitches (44 strikes), lowering his spring ERA to 6.00. He allowed the first four batters he faced this spring to score but has given up four runs in 12 innings since.
“I think I was a little juiced up there, getting the start the first day of Spring Training,” Bielak said. “I calmed down my nerves and talked to the other guys on the team to understand what I’m here to do and what I need to focus on in Spring Training. That’s been the mindset I've had the past few outings.”
What Bielak has been focused on is improving his slider. He threw 26 sliders (37 percent) and 28 four-seam fastballs (40 percent) against the Cardinals. Last year, Bielak threw nearly 50 percent fastballs and only 10.9 percent sliders. He hopes the slider becomes a better option against right-handers, who had a 1.349 OPS against him in 2020. St. Louis has seven right-handed hitters in its lineup.
“I needed a weapon to get righties out,” Bielak said. “They were a pretty heavy right-handed-hitting team today, and I was able to get pretty good use out of it.”
Tucker gets a look in center field
Baker experimented with his outfield alignment for Saturday’s game against the Cardinals, with Myles Straw in left field, Kyle Tucker in center and Michael Brantley in right. In a normal alignment, Brantley starts in left field, Straw in center and Tucker in right, but Baker said he wants all his outfielders to be proficient at other outfield spots.
Tucker has played only one game in center field in his brief Major League career but played 127 career games in center field in the Minor Leagues.
“You try to play as many different scenarios as they come up during the season,” Baker said. “You hate to just throw them out there during the season and all of a sudden, without notice or warning, before having any time out there. … I played all of them out there. If you’re not familiar with them, it’s really foreign -- your responsibilities, backup responsibilities, everything.”
Utility player Aledmys Díaz will play some left field occasionally, which will push one of the three starters to the bench. If Díaz is in left and Baker wants to keep Brantley in the lineup, he can put Brantley in right and play Tucker in center. It’s about versatility.
“You just try to do as many scenarios as they might come up during the season,” Baker said. “It’s not a big deal.”
Altuve settling into leadoff role
Saturday marked the fifth consecutive game in which Jose Altuve batted leadoff for the Astros -- a sign Baker is leaning towards Altuve to be his leadoff hitter on Opening Day. That job, of course, was held down by George Springer the previous five seasons under Baker and his predecessor A.J. Hinch.
Baker, though, said he hasn’t settled on having Altuve bat leadoff, though he said he’d like to have some stability at the top of the order like he had with Springer last year. The speedy Straw has also been tried out at leadoff this spring, and Baker said shortstop Carlos Correa would be given a look at the top.
“I’m just hoping that it doesn’t become some revolving thing,” Baker said. “Like I said, it’s not easy to replace George, but you want [Altuve] to get to a certain comfort level. The team feels and he feels that we have a better lineup with Altuve batting first, especially if he returns to the form of getting 200-something hits and stealing some bases. We’ve got to put him on the move here soon.”
Altuve has the most experience batting leadoff of any player on the Astros roster, with 380 career starts in the leadoff spot, which is his most outside of batting second (530 times).