Astros Invade the Dell Diamond Next Thursday

Now that SXSW is over and UT is out of the NCAA tournament, the distractions are gone and only 10 tantalizing days remain until life begins anew and all is again right with the world. Opening Day, proof that God is a lot more benevolent and merciful than we give Him credit for. He's even bringing His favorite team, the Houston Astros, to Central Texas for one of their final spring tune-ups against AAA affiliate, the Round Rock Express. It's been a typical spring in Kissimmee, with Phil Garner's club edging the Yankees one day and getting tagged for 12 runs by Washington the next. Of this year's main storylines, Garner admitted this week Houston is no closer to finding a No. 5 starter from a pool of perennial prospects Matt Albers, Chris Sampson, Fernando Nieve, and veteran Brian Moehler. Garner has tapped "Wild" Wandy Rodriguez for the No. 4 spot, most likely to give their revamped outfield plenty of practice shagging fly balls. On that note, the great Richard Hidalgo Experiment, though noble, seems doomed for failure as Doggie was hitting .139 with no home runs and six RBI through Tuesday's games. Better news is that Jason "Turnin'" Lane appears to have found his stroke, with five dingers and 12 RBI and a .714 slugging mark. He still may not beat out Luke Scott (.286, 2 HR, 5 RBI) for the starting job in right, but if he keeps those numbers up he'll be a valuable bat off the bench.

In center, Chris Burke (.174, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 8 H) is likely to keep his job even though Astros fans are already salivating at the idea of Hunter Pence patrolling Tal's Hill after this spring line: .571 average, 1.071 slugging, 2 HR, 9 RBI, 10 R, 16 H, 4 2B, 2 3B, 30 total bases. Bear in mind it is spring training, though even Brad Ausmus is hitting .333. Barring injury or an even worse slump, Burke's job should be his until at least the summer, giving Express fans plenty of chances to catch Pence at the Double D. Joining him will be infielder Brooks Conrad, pitchers Miguel Ascencio (part of the Willy Taveras/Jason Jennings trade) and Paul Estrada, and outfielders Mike Rodriguez, and Josh Anderson. Congratulations to the Express for making Playboy's Top 10 list of minor-league ballparks, which you can see for yourself when they take on the parent club at 7:05pm next Thursday, March 29. Tickets still available at Keep in mind it's a split-squad game for the Stros, who also face the defending AL champion Detroit Tigers earlier in the afternoon.

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houston astros, jason lane, phil garner, hunter pence

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