HOUSTON -- The players who took the field for Saturday's White Sox-Astros game may be baseball's present, but baseball's future was on display Saturday morning at Minute Maid Park, as 22 boys and girls between the ages of 7-14 participated in the Astros' championship of Major League Baseball's Pinch, Hit & Run competition.
On a balmy morning with the Minute Maid roof open, the kids showed their stuff, albeit to a slightly smaller audience than the park's 40,950 capacity.
Parents, friends, supporters and teammates cheered the competitors from the dugout and the stands. Several fathers even got to witness their children play baseball on a Major League diamond.
"It's a real family atmosphere," said event organizer Matt Perez. "A lot of dads got a great little Father's Day weekend treat and watched their kids actually compete where the pros do. That's always nice to see."
As for the wide-eyed ballplayers, they went through three rounds of events -- throwing pitches at a strike zone, hitting off a tee and running the bases -- before the sectional winner was crowned in each group.
The Houston region is unique, because it involves a huge swath of south Texas, most of Louisiana and some of Mississippi.
"You've got kids from three states here, and they were all excited to be on that stage," Perez said. "It's always fun to see the looks they have and just how big of a moment it is for everyone involved."
The 22 participants on Saturday were winners in the local and regional rounds before they took the Minute Maid field. Each team across the Major Leagues holds a Pitch, Hit & Run event, then the top three qualifiers from each age group around the country will receive an all-expenses paid trip to New York to compete at Citi Field on All-Star Weekend.
The Houston region first-place winners were: Brooklyn Jaegar (Fayetteveille, Texas) and Ryne Farber (San Antonio, Texas) among the 7-8 year olds; Abbey Smith (Austin, Texas) and Parker Lee (Friendswood, Texas) in the 9-10 year-old division; Avery Dowling (Spring, Texas) and Mitch Murrell (Ocean Springs, Miss.) for the 11-12 age group; Morgan Dowling (Spring, Texas) and Roy Quiantanilla (McAllen, Texas) in the 13-14 age group.
The winners were announced in a trophy presentation following the event and were then featured in an on-field ceremony before Saturday night's game. Other teams' regional competitions for the event, which is in its 17th year, will continue throughout June.
Astros reach deals with four '13 Draft picks
HOUSTON -- The Astros signed four of their selections from the 2013 First-Year Player Draft, Houston director of amateur scouting Mike Elias announced Saturday.
Included among that quartet is first basemen Conrad Gregor, the team's fourth-round choice, who becomes the highest-drafted player to officially sign with the organization so far.
The former Vanderbilt star didn't hit for as much power as some expected during his junior season, dropping his stock slightly, and the Astros snapped him up quickly.
"He was viewed as a top two or three round pick after last summer, but the scouts didn't see the homers this spring, and it hurt his stock," Elias said. "We saw his power in the Cape [Cod League] and in BP. Maybe it was just bad luck."
Gregor still hit .308 with 48 RBIs and a .440 on-base mark this season. He's also been praised for his eye, and he drew 54 walks this spring, good enough for sixth in the country.
Catcher Jacob Nottingham, a sixth-round California high-school product, will join the club's Gulf Coast League rookie team.
Nottingham hit .543 as a senior for Redlands High School, earning Citrus Belt League MVP honors in the process. Catcher is also one of the organization's weakest Minor League positions, but Nottingham isn't quite Major League ready behind the dish just yet.
"He's not a polished catcher, but there's a big arm and we hope player development can take care of the rest with those tools," Elias said.
Joining Gregor at short-season A ball in Tri-City are a pair of outfielders in 21st-round pick Jon Kemmer and 38th-round selection Ronnie Mitchell.
Houston has signed 17 of its 40 Draft choices, not including No. 1 overall pick Mark Appel and second-round choice Andrew Thurman, both of whom have reportedly agreed to deals.
Blackley shares special moment with son
HOUSTON -- Father's Day came early this weekend for one Astros pitcher.
Reliever Travis Blackley got to pitch in front of his son, Tristan, in a Major League game for the first time. Well, technically, that is.
"He actually was at the park one time when he was about 2 years old and I was with the Giants," Blackley said. "But he was out of it and just a baby, really, so he doesn't remember."
Tristan was also in attendance in Kansas City twice last season when Blackley was pitching for the A's, but he never got into the game.
Friday night, Blackley entered the game with a runner on first and one out in the eight inning, with the Astros holding a tenuous 2-1 advantage.
Blackley promptly induced a double play to end the threat and let loose a vigorous fist pump and shout on his way back to the dugout.
"I honestly didn't think about [my son watching] while I was actually on the mound," Blackley said. "It was just a big time in the game. Every chance we get to get a win like that, you have to seize that."
Astros manager Bo Porter said the escape marked "the biggest outs of the game." As Blackley returned to the dugout, Tristan, 8, frantically waved down his father and Dad shot him a smile.
"It's a feeling of joy to have him there," Blackley said. "First thing I heard when I came out of the locker room after the game was him telling me, 'Good job, Dad!' That's so cool."
"He's an aspiring little baseball player," Blackley said. "To perform like that in front of him, it might give him the drive to do this, too. I mean, whatever he chooses to do in life, I'll support him no matter what. But if he chooses baseball, he's got to see me in person now and see me succeed. Best feeling in the world."
Chris Abshire is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.