Astros take flyer on Hampton, Ortiz

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

KISSIMMEE, Fla. – Then there are the Houston Astros.

Bad? Good?

Bad, then good?

Beats me.

“You and me both,” Lance Berkman was saying Sunday afternoon. “But, it's baseball. You play the season out, see what happens.”

They've spent all of Berkman's decade-long career, and then some, using strong late summers to make up for flaccid springs and early summers, a recurring personality flaw/asset typically reflective of the club's pitching, and starting pitching at that.

So here they are again, the season shaping up as Roy Oswalt followed by whatever they can pull together over the next four days, then Oswalt again. It seems reasonable to assume the Astros will score their runs, because Carlos Lee is back in the lineup, and make their plays, because they committed only 67 errors last season.

If they are to have any shot at the Chicago Cubs in the Central Division or the second-place team in the East, however, it'll be about the men who come after Oswalt. As general manager Ed Wade mentioned to the first full-squad gathering of the year, they need to quit sacrificing Aprils because of their great trust in Augusts, and as he mentioned a couple days later, they need to establish their starters and then have them pitch deep into ballgames in order to do that.

On a good-sized list of locks and possibilities and long shots, manager Cecil Cooper will carry around in his back pocket for the next six weeks, two names qualify as great reaches and potential hits.

Remember Mike Hampton? Better yet, remember Russ Ortiz?

“You know these guys instinctively know how to do some things,” Wade said. “The question, will they be physically capable?”

It's just those sorts of imperfections that brought them here, of course. They came for opportunity. Following years of injuries that came in avalanches, they came for one of those places behind Oswalt. They came for the ball.

After more than four seasons of falling apart and putting himself back together again, Hampton, 36, made 13 starts in 2008 for the Braves, the last of them in Houston. The Astros signed him for $2 million. Ortiz, 34, hasn't thrown a competitive pitch since the summer of 2007, and he's been through Tommy John surgery and its recovery since. Astros scout Jack Lind liked the way Ortiz threw during a fall workout, and now Ortiz is on a minor-league contract.

It's tenuous, sure. Neither has made as many as 25 starts in a season since 2004. But, now they're lockered a few feet from each other, after working out at the same facility this winter in Phoenix, and maybe they're both due for a break.

Ortiz, who once won 21 games, said he views this camp as both a new beginning and a last shot. He threw to hitters Sunday, and afterward Berkman said that Ortiz's old low fastball, the one that looked like it would drop out of the bottom of the strike zone but didn't, was back. Berkman knows better than to lean into a few early spring pitches, but a little late life in February beats the alternative.

“I'm confident in myself,” Ortiz said. “But I've learned it's another thing to go out and produce. I feel like I've got a chance here. I have someone looking at me. It's weird, after spending that much time out of the game. I'll just try to be the same.”

His expression said he didn't know what to make of this, that he wasn't entirely sure his body was trustworthy anymore. It'll take time, and innings, you'd guess. It'll take a big spring and a place in the rotation, somewhere after Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez and, if the Astros are lucky twice, Hampton.

“He's throwing the ball as good, if not a little better, than I've ever seen him,” Hampton said of Ortiz.

As for himself, he swears he knows his body now, swears he knows what it will endure and what will strain, sprain, tear, dislocate and/or bruise it. He ought to. The 14-year list of wounded parts goes: elbow tear, shoulder tendinitis, groin strain, oblique strain, rib fracture, groin surgery, foot strain, calf strain, knee surgery, forearm strain, herniated disc, elbow ligament replacement surgery, oblique strain, elbow strain, groin strain, pectoral strain and irregular heartbeat.

That's through Sunday.

“My body feels good,” Hampton said after an incident-free workout. “I'm applying it in a smarter way, seeing how things happen. I know I'm 36, not 26.”

It was suggested on his way out of the clubhouse that maybe all the down time will be tacked on to the end of his career, whenever that may come. Maybe, he said, his arm is fresher as a result.

“That would be great,” he said, laughing. “You give me those three years back, I'll take them.”

The Astros would take one. Start there. It's worth the shot.

“Why not?” Wade said. “Why not?”

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