Astros' Norris edges toward season-opening start

The SportsXchange

Bud Norris entered spring training as the Houston Astros' No. 1 pitcher. The 28-year-old right-hander hasn't done anything during his initial five-week run in Kissimmee, Fla., to deter the team from making him the opening-night starter March 31 against the Texas Rangers at Minute Maid Park.

Neither has righty Lucas Harrell, though. That leaves the Astros with two relatively equal opening-night candidates less than two weeks before the start of the season.

In four spring training starts through March 18, Norris was 2-0 with a 5.52 ERA. While his ERA was high, Norris significantly improved with each start. He threw six innings of three-hit ball March 17 during the Astros' 11-2 victory against the Blue Jays, striking out five and walking two while allowing two earned runs.

Norris is the highest-paid player ($3 million) on the rebuilding Astros and has become a clubhouse leader. While Harrell, 27, has had a better spring statistically (2.08 ERA, eight strikeouts in 13 innings through March 18), Norris is expected to receive the opening-night nod due to everything from his service time with the Astros (four seasons) to his 2012 strength at Minute Maid Park (4-1, 1.71 ERA).

Forty-six of the 68 pitches Norris threw against the Blue Jays were strikes, and he's gradually worked in all of his pitches during spring training.

While Norris and Harrell vie for the No. 1 spot, veteran Philip Humber has exceeded initial expectations. Humber, 30, had a rough first exhibition start, but the righty lowered his ERA to 1.29 through four games while allowing just five hits in 14 innings.

Humber's March 12 appearance against Miami was his best of the spring. Throwing five relief innings, Humber struck out three while giving up just one hit.

The 2012 perfect-game hurler threw a simulated game March 18, recording 53 strikes on 73 pitches, and Humber said he's on target for the start of the regular season.

If 22-year-old Jordan Lyles continues to struggle (0-3, 19.13 ERA through March 18), Humber could jump into the No. 3 spot in the rotation, with Lyles and veteran left-hander Erik Bedard (0.00 ERA in six innings through March 18) holding down the back end.

All five Astros pitchers have worked closely with pitching coach Doug Brocail during spring training while receiving help from bullpen coach Dennis Martinez and special instructor Roger Clemens.
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