'The swing was there': Alvarez (hand) smooth in 1st spring game

March 24th, 2023

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve will miss at least the first two months of the season after having surgery to repair a fractured right thumb. The steady Michael Brantley is going to join him on the injured list to start the season.

The last thing the Astros can afford is not to have , one of the most feared sluggers in the league, ready to go to start the regular season in a week. That’s what made the Astros’ 5-4 win over the Nationals on Thursday at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches such an important night for Houston. And it had nothing to do with the result.

Alvarez, who reported to camp in mid-February with a sore left hand and was eased into swinging the bat, made his Grapefruit League debut and went 0-for-3 against Nationals pitcher Trevor Williams. The results didn’t matter as much as the swings. Alvarez hit a pair of fly balls to center field in his first two at-bats -- the second finding the warning track -- before striking out looking.

“It felt good to make contact early in the at-bats, and I felt like the swing was there,” he said. “I felt good. Obviously, I think when I first got in there, I thought I was going to be a little more lost at the plate [after] not seeing pitchers for a couple of months, but [the swings] both felt pretty [good], and I know the season is approaching."

Alvarez hit the third pitch of each of his first two at-bats on the screws, much to the delight of manager Dusty Baker.

“I was telling somebody on the bench, I said, ‘Man, if he hits this first ball out of here, I’m going to throw something,’” Baker said. “If it wasn’t for the wind, it would have probably gone out. That was a pleasant surprise.”

Alvarez was on the injured list last July with right hand inflammation and wound up hitting .306 with 37 homers and 97 RBIs in the regular season, finishing third in American League MVP voting. In the playoffs, he hit three go-ahead homers, including a momentous three-run shot in Game 6 of the World Series that sent the Astros to victory.

Although he missed most of the Astros’ Grapefruit League games, he began swinging the bat a couple of weeks ago in a build up to Thursday. There doesn’t appear to be a remedy for Alvarez’s hand issues, other than rest.

“I’ve been working very hard in the cage and in practice,” he said. “Obviously, I’m not going to get the amount of at-bats to be fully ready for the season, but it’s a very long season."

Alvarez also played six innings in left field and made a few plays, including going back to the wall to catch a Luis García fly ball in the fourth. Alvarez could see more time in left to start the season with Brantley headed to the IL while he finishes his recovery from shoulder surgery.

“Since the first day I’ve arrived here, I’ve been working on outfield defense, and I’m ready to play as many games as needed,” Alvarez said.

Alvarez was originally going to get some at-bats in a Minor League game on the back fields on Friday but felt so good at the plate Thursday, he’ll simply have a normal workout day instead. He’ll be back in Houston’s lineup Saturday against the Nationals in the penultimate game of Grapefruit League play.

The Astros will leave for Houston after Sunday’s game and will play Triple-A Sugar Land on Monday and Tuesday, so there’s still time for Alvarez to get a few more at-bats.

“A lot of it depends on how he can handle missing pitches or fouling off pitches you would ordinarily hit hard someplace,” Baker said. “Like I said, I’ll have to see and analyze and assess his progress and how it looks."