3/29/2014 10:43 P.M. ET
Astros embrace unique schedule, opponents
By Alyson Footer and Chris Abshire / MLB.com
HOUSTON -- For their final tuneup before the Yankees come to town for Tuesday's season opener, the Astros looked south of the border.
While teams routinely play Minor League clubs and college teams during Spring Training, the Rojos del Aguila de Veracruz (Veracruz Red Eagles) of the Mexican League are still an exotic foe, though the Rangers also faced the Diablos Rojos del Mexico last year.
The Astros faced the Red Eagles on Saturday night and will again Sunday with a split-squad roster, while the rest of the squad faced the Rangers in San Antonio's Alamodome on Friday and Saturday.
The Red Eagles have many big league connections despite the Mexican League's Triple-A affiliation.
Two-time MLB All-Star Jose Offerman manages the club, which won the league title in 2012 and had three Mexican League All-Stars in 2013. Former Major Leaguers Jesus Feliciano and Lorenzo Barcelo are also on the roster.
But the Astros have been preoccupied with trimming down their roster before Opening Day and wrapping up Spring Training. So despite that relative prestige, they knew little about the visitors to Minute Maid Park.
"We don't know too much about them," said manager Bo Porter. "But [Minor League infielder and Mexico native] Japhet Amador was giving us the scouting report before we came out. I think I'll keep him next to me during these games. He should know these guys pretty well."
Porter said the split-squad setup and unfamiliar opposition is good for the club after the routine of the past six weeks.
"When you're at Spring Training for [six or seven] weeks, whenever you can break and go play a couple more games someplace else -- whether that's going to San Antonio last night or a couple unique games like this -- that's always good."
Keuchel feels good about his final tuneup
SAN ANTONIO -- In his final tuneup before the regular season begins, left-hander Dallas Keuchel was pleased with how he felt after pitching 4 1/3 innings against the Texas Rangers on Saturday.
Keuchel, slated as the Astros' fifth starter, threw 68 pitches, allowed five runs (four earned) and struck out five. He was hoping to finish the fifth, but understood why he was pulled after reaching a pitch count he was loosely slated for prior to the game.
"After that long [fifth] inning, they didn't want me to pitch too much because I had thrown 85 pitches [in my last start]," he said. "They didn't want to tax me."
Keuchel was encouraged by his ability to work out of an early jam due to errors by third baseman Jonathan Meyer and right fielder George Springer. Keuchel struck out Prince Fielder and Adrian Beltre before coaxing a ground ball from Alex Rios.
"Springer wanted to show off his arm and he has a tremendous arm, so I'm all for that," Keuchel said of Springer's throwing error that allowed Elvis Andrus to score. "For me to be able to get Prince out and Beltre out on consecutive strikeouts was pretty big for me, just because Beltre had some success against me in the past. Going forward it's kind of a confidence booster for me."
Oberholtzer, Astros top Mexico's Veracruz
HOUSTON -- Two wins in a day? That's as good as it gets for baseball teams in March, and the Astros pulled that off on Saturday.
A pair of fourth-inning runs and Brett Oberholtzer's dominant six innings on the mound propelled Houston's split-squad past the Rojos del Aguila de Veracruz (Veracruz Red Eagles), 2-0, in Saturday night's exhibition at Minute Maid Park.
The other Astros squad routed the Rangers, 13-6, on Saturday afternoon in San Antonio.
The Red Eagles gave the home team a stiffer challenge. The Mexican League squad turned three double plays and didn't commit an error under the bright lights of a Major League park.
Veracruz starter Tomas Solis no-hit the Astros starters through three innings. But once he was yanked for Oscar Verdugo, Houston pounced.
Dexter Fowler launched a towering solo homer to right-center field to put the Astros up to start the bottom of the fourth.
Astros manager Bo Porter said Fowler unleashed his inner Babe Ruth by calling his shot.
"I told him, 'You got one more [at-bat] this spring. Whatever you need to do, make sure you're ready,'" Porter said. "He said he was going to hit a home run. And he actually did it."
"I'm guilty, it's true," Fowler said. "I just knew I'd find a pitch to hit."
The inning was just getting started.
The Astros eventually loaded the bases with no outs, but they only managed one more run on Matt Dominguez's sacrifice fly.
That was all Oberholtzer needed. In his final tuneup before facing the Yankees on Thursday, he was as efficient as could be.
The lefty only allowed two bloop hits and struck out a pair while allowing no runs in 58 pitches and six innings.
"Definitely a foot forward, definitely a step in the right direction," Oberholtzer said. " I threw some good pitches early in the count to keep them off my fastball, and they really got themselves out. My pitch count was down and I could have gone deeper in the game, which is always positive."
Dominguez also made the lefty's night easier, snaring several difficult balls at the hot corner to showcase his Gold Glove Award potential.
There was still cause for concern for the Astros despite the split-squad status. Houston struggled to touch Solis even with a lineup that could very well double as its Opening Day club. Fowler, Jose Altuve and Jonathan Villar were the only starters to record hits.
But the bullpen couldn't have been better, as Matt Albers, Anthony Bass and Josh Fields combined to toss three scoreless innings and preserve Oberholtzer's gem.
Porter said the likely starters and Major League regulars will mostly have Sunday's game off, meaning this was their last appearance this spring.
"They'll have a complete day off tomorrow and Monday," he said. "Obviously, they'll hit in the cage, get their normal work in. But this was a good end to their spring."
Porter to host pair of Opening Day breakfasts
SAN ANTONIO -- Astros manager Bo Porter will host two Opening Day breakfasts at Vic and Anthony's across the street from Minute Maid Park, both of which will benefit his SELF Foundation.
The events will take place Monday and Tuesday from 7 to 8:30 a.m. CT. According to the skipper, both breakfasts have sold out.
On Monday, the keynote speaker will be former Astros outfielder and GM Bob Watson and bench coach Dave Trembley. On Tuesday, the keynote speaker will be Charlie Ward, former NBA player and college football Heisman Trophy winner.
Trembley enjoys chance to manage against Rangers
SAN ANTONIO -- Bench coach Dave Trembley, who managed the Astros for the second game in San Antonio while skipper Bo Porter traveled with the rest of the club to Houston, was looking forward to the young prospects having the opportunity to face Rangers veteran lefty Joe Saunders. He also thought it would be good exposure to have some of the top talent coming through the Astros system play against stars such as Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus and Alex Rios.
Teaching is one thing, Trembley said, but nothing beats hands-on experience.
"We saw a lot of these guys last year coming to Spring Training for the first time," Trembley said. "This year, they came back again and they're all getting close to being able to help us [in the big leagues]. I think we can teach these guys how to play but we can't show them how to play. You watch Beltre and you watch the good guys that are on their club over there ... that's how these guys learn, by watching the good ones."
Situations like the one that presented itself in San Antonio -- playing a pair of games in front of a Major League-size crowd, against a reputable Major League team, is all part of the development process. The Astros' roster consisted mostly of players ticketed for the Minor Leagues, but several names are expected to pop up in Houston in the not-so-distant future -- Delino DeShields, George Springer and Mike Foltynewicz, to name a few.
"We're not developing guys to be successful at A ball or Double-A," Trembley said. "We're trying to get guys to be successful in the big leagues. There's a big difference. You have to look like you know what you're doing. You may not be able to do it yet, but you have to look like you know what you're doing. We have a lot of guys that fit that category."
Appel looking forward to pitching in Houston
HOUSTON -- Houston native Mark Appel always imagined his first Major League start coming in Minute Maid Park.
While he is making his Minute Maid Park debut Sunday, it's not quite the full picture yet, as he's still a Minor Leaguer. Last year's No. 1 overall pick in the First-Year Player Draft will take it anyway.
The touted righty will get the ball in the Astros' Sunday exhibition game against the Rojos del Aguilla de Veracruz of the Mexican League.
"I've dreamed about it a lot, just pitching in the Majors, and especially here," said Appel. "Being able to go out on a big league mound and put on an Astros uniform will really be a dream come true, and I'll cherish it forever."
Appel hasn't pitched in many games this spring while recovering from a January appendectomy. He made his big league Spring Training debut in Wednesday's win over the Mets and is still working to be at full strength for Opening Day at his Minor League destination.
"Strength is the biggest thing, just getting that back," Appel said. "It all works together -- leg strength, core strength and back strength. From there, it's about establishing timing and pitch location, refining my offspeed pitches."
Due to his limited work, the staff will have a close eye on Appel in his homecoming start. The Stanford product said the goal is to pitch three innings.
"I'll take it as it goes in the first, and see how it progresses from there," he said. "They don't want to put me in a taxing situation at all. Hopefully, I can make it easy for them and compete and get guys out."
Appel hopes he can toss a few frames for the sake of his cheering section, which he said will number between 15 and 20.
"It'll be friends and parents, aunts and uncles, and people I knew here," he said. "It's definitely a big moment for me."
• The Astros and Rangers exhibition series has naturally sparked a lot of Texas chatter, and where there's Texas chatter, there's usually a Lance Berkman mention. Speaking of the Big Puma, he sits atop the Astros all-time leaderboard in games played by a Texas native with 1,592. But did you know that catcher/first baseman Cliff Johnson, who played for Houston from 1972-77, has more games played (376) for the Astros franchise than any other player born in San Antonio?
• For the first game of the exhibition series with the Rangers at the Alamodome, the Astros carried 30 position players on the roster. On Saturday, they had only 21 players total -- position players and pitchers -- for the series conclusion. The rest of the roster traveled to Houston to prepare for the first game of a two-game set with El Aguila de Veracruz of the Mexican League.
• The Astros sent left-hander Eric Berger to the Oakland A's for a player to be named later, general manager Jeff Luhnow announced on Saturday. Berger wasn't a factor in Houston's long-term plans after spending the spring in Minor League camp. He started three games for the Triple-A Oklahoma City Redhawks last season but was mostly a long reliever, going 6-3 with a 3.06 ERA in 44 appearances. Berger also struck out 55 batters and walked 32 in just over 70 innings pitched. The southpaw didn't even spend a year in the organization after arriving from the Indians' system in a trade for catcher Chris Wallace last April.
Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter. Chris Abshire is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.