4/1/2014 8:45 P.M. ET
Astros hope grueling stretch serves as springboard
By Brian McTaggart / MLB.com
HOUSTON -- The Astros' schedule coming out of the gate isn't easy, starting with a homestand against the high-payroll Yankees and Angels. From there, they'll make road trips to Toronto and Arlington, which means the Astros could be challenged to get off to a good start.
"I think it would be extremely important for us to get off to a good start," manager Bo Porter said. "You look at the way Spring Training went and the energy we played with, I believe if we bring that same energy into the season, we'll do well."
The Astros won their season opener a year ago before losing six in a row and finishing April with an 8-19 record. They started surprisingly well in 2012, going 22-23, but saw their season come undone when they won just eight games in July and August combined. They started 0-5 in '11 and 0-8 in '10.
"We're healthy, which is key," general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "We had a good spring and we're coming off a nice run at the end of spring, and hopefully we carry that into the season. Obviously, the Yankees and Angels are two high-payroll teams and good teams with a lot of experienced players we're facing right out of the gate.
"We're as ready as we'll be. We have something to prove. If we can get out there in April and have a good month, it will calm a lot of fears."
First opener a thrill for least experienced Astros
HOUSTON -- For the eight Astros players who were appearing on an Opening Day roster for the first time, Tuesday's game against the Yankees at Minute Maid Park was nothing short of a special day that won't be forgotten any time soon.
"I get to wear an Astros uniform today," said outfielder Robbie Grossman, who grew up in Houston. "That's special. I'm just excited for the games to start and for the season."
Astros manager Bo Porter said he met with the team on Sunday, and the players gave each of the first-time Opening Day players a round of applause.
Not only was it the first Opening Day in a Major League uniform for Grossman, but it was his first Major League Opening Day of any kind. He said he never came to the Astrodome or Minute Maid Park to watch the Astros while growing up, and he wasn't alone; teammate Marc Krauss was in the same boat.
"I guess we never could get out of school or could convince my parents," said Krauss, who grew up in northern Ohio. "Just to be part of this for the first time is very special."
Krauss nailed down an Opening Day slot with a terrific spring at the plate, and it doesn't hurt that he can play right field, left field, first base and designated hitter. His wife and baby were among his family contingent in the stands.
"It's what I worked for my whole career, especially this offseason," Krauss said. "I worked extra hard knowing I had a chance. This is why you do all that stuff, to get to this point. It's exciting. I finally got to this point, and I'm just excited to enjoy the day. It's going to be great."
Outfielder L.J. Hoes, who was acquired in a trade from the Orioles last year, was in the starting lineup, playing right field. Hoes said he slept for only about three hours on Monday night because he was excited and spent time talking to his parents about Opening Day.
"It's something they're all excited for and something I'm excited for," Hoes said.
Joining Grossman, Hoes and Krauss on their first Opening Day roster were Kevin Chapman, Jarred Cosart, Dallas Keuchel, Brett Oberholtzer and Jonathan Villar.
Potential earns Grossman a start in two-hole
HOUSTON -- Robbie Grossman set out this spring to work his way to the top of order, which seemed pretty much impossible after manager Bo Porter proclaimed several times this winter that Dexter Fowler would hit first, Jose Altuve would hit second and Jason Castro would hit third.
Because of the way Grossman swung the bat this spring, Porter changed his mind by late March and said Grossman would be penciled into the lineup in the second spot to start the season. He hit second on Tuesday, ahead of Fowler and before Altuve and Castro.
"It's a good accomplishment for me," said Grossman, a switch-hitter with high on-base percentage potential. "It was a personal goal this offseason to hit at the top of the order at some point this season. It's an exciting day."
Altuve, who will hit third or fourth most days, depending on matchups, said he told Grossman he was perfect for the second spot in the order.
"You can go ask him," Altuve said. "I told him a couple of weeks ago that I wanted him hitting second, no matter if I was going to be hitting ninth or eighth. I think he's going to one of the best second hitters in baseball."
Altuve was asked to elaborate: "Dexter is a guy that can run, can get on base a lot. Robbie is a guy who can hit the ball in the hole, hit some balls in the gap, hit with some power. Those guys, they're going to be really good no matter who is going to be hitting behind them."
Fowler undaunted by challenges of Tal's Hill
HOUSTON -- After playing center field for several years in the spacious outfield of Denver's Coors Field, Astros newcomer Dexter Fowler shrugged off the challenges that could come with playing Tal's Hill in center at Minute Maid Park.
"I guess if it gets hit up there, I'll go up there," Fowler said. "I won't go up there just for nothing."
Fowler says he usually plays shallow, so don't expect there to be many opportunities for Fowler to run up the incline. The hill comes into play maybe only a couple of times a month, and some memorable catches -- including one by Lance Berkman -- have been made there.
"Like anything, there's a warning track, and you get a little bit of warning and you embrace that," Fowler said.
The Astros have toyed with the idea of removing Tal's Hill for the last few years, but it's back for its 15th season. Fortunately, no players have been injured running up the hill.
"The good thing is he's played in the [National League] his entire career and he's played here several times, so it's not like this is the first time he's come in here to the ballpark," manager Bo Porter said. "I don't think he's going to have trouble out there."
Fowler's gift to 'mates fosters camaraderie
HOUSTON -- Astros center fielder Dexter Fowler, who was acquired in a winter trade with the Rockies, bought each of his teammates and members of the team's staff a bottle of Johnnie Walker Double Black scotch whiskey to toast Opening Day on Tuesday.
Fowler placed a note along with each of the bottles in his teammates' lockers that read: "The future of the team is up to us. Thank you for welcoming me to Houston. Cheers to our next steps together. Keep walking."
"Opening Day presents not only a new start for me, but a fresh slate for my teammates and the entire Houston Astro organization," Fowler said. "At this moment, the past is the past. It's the next practice, the next swing, the next run that matters. I gifted my new teammates a bottle of Johnnie Walker Double Black to celebrate this moment, the opportunity to define ourselves by where we are headed, not where we stand."
Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said it was a classy touch.
"He's been in the game for a few years, and it's a good bottle of Johnnie Walker," Luhnow said. "And I'm sure at some point I'll enjoy it a little bit. This is such an important time as a community and [for] the fans and organization to rally together and hope for a great season, and it starts today."
Astros' brass appreciates club's hard work
HOUSTON -- Astros owner Jim Crane and general manager Jeff Luhnow each took time prior to Tuesday's season-opening game against the Yankees to address the team and wish them good luck this year. Manager Bo Porter talked to the club as a whole on Sunday.
"We have a lot of new guys, and we told them all,' Congratulations' and 'We appreciate the hard work, including the staff,'" Crane said. "They really worked hard this spring. We want them to play hard and keep their heads down and wished them good luck."
The Astros have only nine players who were on their Opening Day roster last year, and 14 players on their current 25-man roster were acquired via trades. Only four players were on the club's Opening Day roster in 2012.
"We told the guys we think the organization is on the way up," Crane said.
Luhnow added that he could sense more excitement surrounding the team this year. The Astros have the youngest roster in the Major Leagues with an average age of 26.9 years.
"This group should be around for a while," Luhnow said. "I think that's the difference between this group and the one from last year and the year before: Everybody sort of knew there was going to be players coming and going, but this group has a chance to be around for a while."
Astros plan to be wise when weighing extensions
HOUSTON -- Considering the number of young players the Astros have on their roster whom they believe will be a part of their future, general manager Jeff Luhnow said the club has to be careful when it ponders offering contract extensions.
Among those who have reportedly been offered extensions are outfielder Robbie Grossman, third baseman Matt Dominguez and No. 3 prospect George Springer.
The Angels recently signed superstar outfielder Mike Trout to a six-year, $144.5 million extension to buy out three arbitration years as well as three years of free agency, and while the Astros aren't quite ready to offer that kind of money, locking up young players to team-friendly contracts is a priority.
"I think it's up to the players to hit the number they're comfortable with and we're comfortable with," owner Jim Crane said. "I asked Jeff yesterday, and I said I thought the Trout deal was a pretty good deal, locking the kid up for six, seven years.
"Although it's significant years, it appears to be a team-friendly deal and gives him a lot of security. I think it works on both sides, and I think you'll see us do some of those down the road."
Last year, the Astros signed second baseman Jose Altuve to a $12.5 million contract extension for four years, with two club options worth $6 million and $6.5 million, respectively. Luhnow has said he would like to extend All-Star catcher Jason Castro at some point.
"We're going to have to be really smart about who we decide to lock up long term and whether or not we decide to buy out their arbitration years," Luhnow said. "The reality is we have that conversation on every player we think is going to be here for more than a few years.
"Whether or not it turns into a deal, there's a lot that has to fall into place. We did it last year with Altuve, and maybe there will be someone else we do it with this year. We'll certainly do our part to make sure we're prepared."
• Porter said that veterans Chad Qualls and Matt Albers and hard-throwing right-hander Josh Fields will all be considered for closing duties, beginning on Tuesday. Porter said he would open the season with a closer by committee after the team blew an American League-high 29 saves last year.
• Porter woke up at 4:30 a.m. CT on Tuesday to attend the second of his Opening Day Breakfasts for his S.E.L.F. Foundation and found his 6-year-old son, Bryce, sitting at his door.
"I said, 'Bryce, what at you doing?'" Porter said. "He said, 'Daddy, it's Opening Day.' I said, 'Son, get back in bed. You have to get ready for school.' He said, 'Why do you have to go to school on Opening Day?'"
• PGA golfer Matt Kuchar visited some Astros and Yankees players during batting practice on Tuesday, spending time with Mark Teixeira and Cosart. The PGA Tour is in town this week with the Shell Houston Open.
• Crane said Yankees legend Reggie Jackson would be sitting with him during Tuesday's game. Jackson, of course, is known as "Mr. October," something that's not lost on Crane.
"We hope we can get into October at some point; I'll ask him about that," Crane joked.
• Former President George H.W. Bush, who lives part of the year in Houston, attended Tuesday's game and sat in the front row, near the Astros' dugout, with former First Lady Barbara Bush.