WEST PALM BEACH, Fla — (By Dale King, Realty News Report) – The cry of “Play Ball” will cut though the 80-degree-plus South Florida air at 1:05 p.m. Eastern Time Friday, heralding the official opening of Major League Baseball’s Spring Training season 2018.
The Houston Astros – defending 2017 World Series Championships who haven’t faced a foe in an MLB game since polishing off the L.A. Dodgers, 5-1, on Nov. 1, 2017, to grab the World Series pennant for the first time in its 56-year franchise history – will take on cross-field rivals, the Washington Nationals, in a contest at the newly named FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. FITTEAM, a Palm Beach County heart and wellness brand, bought stadium naming rights the next 12 years.
The Astros officially arrived Feb. 14 at the massive northern West Palm Beach training center they share with the Nationals to work out pre-season kinks. That day already mixed the solemnity of Ash Wednesday with the happiness of Valentine’s Day when the horror of a bloody shooting at a high school in Parkland, some 40 miles south of the field, sucked the oxygen out of the day.
All 30 MLB teams will honor the 17 young people killed in the horrific shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School this weekend by Douglas High caps before the games this weekend to show support for the community and the student body and to raise money through a raffle.
Coincidentally, Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, an alumnus of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, spoke at a prayer vigil the day after the shooting. In 2017, Rizzo donated $150,000 to the school to purchase lights for the ballfield where he learned his craft a decade ago. Douglas High held a fundraiser Jan. 25 to collect additional money needed to put up the lighting facilities so the baseball team can schedule night games.
Comments around the Astros clubhouse this past week have largely touched on the team’s capability of defending its World Champion title as it begins the 2018 season. They already have a solid lineup that includes three All-Star Game starters – infielder Jose Altuve, who accumulated considerable accolades this past season for his outstanding stats; outfielder George Springer and infielder Carlos Correa. All three produced big-time results during the regular season and in the sizzling postseason.
Infielders Alex Bregman and Marwin Gonzalez have also made major strides toward stardom.
The squad of starting pitchers was bolstered significantly when an Aug. 31 trade brought Justin Verlander to the Astros. Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers and Charlie Morton also enjoyed big postseason moments.
Manager A.J. Hinch hasn’t tipped his cap yet about a strategy for the coming season. He has talked about making changes here and there, but nothing that would divulge an overall strategy for tweaking the team.
Some indications from the boss: He will make Yuli Gurriel more versatile at all four infield positions. The manager will also play third baseman J.D. Davis in the outfield.
He commented on a couple of new pitchers, Joe Smith and Hector Rondon. “Joe is tough on right handers and can hold his own against left handers.” Rondon, a reliever, “has the velocity at the end of the game and the experience. They can fill in for some of the guys we lost and give us as many personal opportunities as possible. They are pro’s pros; they know themselves and know what the bullpen needs.”
Faced with a pitching roster heavy with right handers, he’s still pondering how to use southpaw Tony Sipp on the mound, along with other lefties such as Buddy Boshers, Anthony Gose, Reymin Guduan, Cionel Perez and ace Dallas Keuchel.
During a recent luncheon in Houston, Hinch got a touch of ribbing from New York Yankees fans, who indicated the New Yorkers would be back to yank away the World Series Trophy this coming year. Hinch responded with a noncommittal, “We’ll see.”
The joshing bugged shortstop Carlos Correa a bit. “We are the reigning champions. They [Yankees] will have to go through us.”
Outfielder Springer was a bit more philosophical: “Just because you accomplished something doesn’t mean it’s over,” he said during a clubhouse interview. “Every guy here has gotten a taste of what it’s like to win, to be the last man standing.”
“We got a lot of guys back from last year’s team,” said pitcher Collin McHugh. Among them is Jake Marisnick, a centerfielder whose fractured thumb kept him from seeing action during the 2017 World Series.
The thumb “is 100 percent healed,” reports the man who banged out 16 homers in 106 games last year. He came in 12th in the American League for at-bat to home run ratio, 14.38%
“We’re all just anxious to get back together and start having fun again,” he said.
The Astros wrapped up practice early today, heading for the clubhouse as temperatures hit the unseasonable 80-degree mark around noon. The crowd of autograph-seekers was present, but less intense than before. One youngster holding a baseball and wearing a Jose Altuve shirt waited anxiously for players to stop and accommodate him.
A couple visiting for eight days from Houston said they planned to catch a few games. They are also season ticket holders at the Astros’ home field, Minute Maid Park.
Altuve, the 5-foot-6 Venezuelan, is one Astro to watch this year. In 2017, he racked up more than 200 hits for the fourth season in a row. He hit 24 home runs, scored 81 RBIs and won the American League’s Most Valuable Player award in addition to the Hank Aaron Award last year.
Outfielder George Springer won the World Series MVP Award. He hit five home runs in the seven-game run to tie Reggie Jackson’s 1977 record.
The Astros will work in a couple of road trips even before the regular season begins. Tonight, the team is scheduled to be honored at the weekly “Clematis by Night” street festival in downtown West Palm Beach, where they will display their World Series trophy.
Team members are also slated to visit the White House to meet President Donald Trump on March 12.