ARLINGTON -- J.R. Towles is nearly ready to return to his role as the Astros' starting catcher after a catching a bullpen session on Wednesday.

Manager Brad Mills said Towles should be ready to return on Friday when the Astros host the Rays.

"He can go if he has to," Mills said before Wednesday's finale with the Rangers. "That's been the same way the last four or five days."

Towles entered Wednesday to catch in the top of the ninth inning after Angel Sanchez pinch-hit for Carlos Corporan in the bottom of the eighth. Towles' leg soreness had kept him out since June 15.

Corporan had caught the last six games while Towles has been out. The Astros haven't had the benefit of an off-day since losing Towles, and that six-day span included Tuesday night's 11-inning loss against the Rangers.

"[Corporan] got a little worn down, 11 innings on that heat," Mills said on Wednesday. "He came in today and was feeling really good."

Mills said it eases his mind to know Towles is ready if Corporan needs a breather. For now, he's making sure Corporan is as fresh as possible.

"We're going to have him not really do anything on the field pregame, trying to keep him out of the heat as much as possible and go from there," Mills said before Wednesday's series finale with the Rangers.

Pence held out of Arlington homecoming

ARLINGTON -- Astros outfielder Hunter Pence's homecoming really wasn't much of a feel-good story.

Pence, the Arlington native who gets a chance to play three games in his hometown each year, missed his fifth consecutive game on Wednesday because of a sprained left elbow. Pence lobbied manager Brad Mills and head athletic trainer Nate Lucero to get into the lineup, but with an off-day on Thursday, the Astros are playing it safe.

"I know they're looking out for my best interests and sometimes it's smart to be patient in these circumstances," said Pence, who leads the Astros in batting average, home runs and RBIs.

Pence injured his elbow sliding into first base on Friday in Los Angeles and hasn't played since. All signs point toward him returning to the lineup for Friday's game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Minute Maid Park, especially after Pence took batting practice on the field Wednesday.

"He really lobbied hard, and to his credit, he ran himself through the rigors of swinging and he felt like he could go," Mills said. "Nate talked to the doctors about it, and they still felt that these three days would really help him an awful lot, and he said he felt the same way.

"You know what? I'd love to have Hunter in there. There's no doubt I'm trying to get him back in the lineup, but at the same time, putting him in there with an off-day tomorrow, really probably wouldn't make the most sense."

Bourgeois plays through leg pain

ARLINGTON -- Astros outfielder Jason Bourgeois realizes he needs to make the most of his opportunities.

Bourgeois, who was suffering from leg cramps at the end of Tuesday's game, did some sprints on the outfield grass prior to Wednesday game to make sure he was good to go. Bourgeois wasn't quite 100 percent, but with Carlos Lee in the lineup at designated hitter instead of left field and starting right fielder Hunter Pence missing another game with a sprained elbow, he proclaimed himself ready to play.

"After a while you just have to say forget it and get out there and play," he said. "I can't say that I can go a full 100 percent, but I have no choice."

Bourgeois, who had three hits in Tuesday's game to raise his batting average to .359, has already missed about a month earlier this season with a strained oblique and later was slowed by a sore ankle.