"If practice will help, then Lord knows we have to be better," said arm-weary Coach Clint Courtney. Clint came to Houston's training camp expecting to be a supervisor in spotless white flannels but discovered instead that one of his many duties was to be stand-in for Iron Mike, the pitching machine. It was that kind of spring for everybody. New Manager Lum Harris kept the five diamonds at Cocoa Beach in action constantly. With 14 coaches on hand, players took cram courses in pickoffs, cutoffs, base running and hitting. Mostly it was hitting, and never has a team needed it more. An intriguing statistic reveals that the 1964 Colts left fewer men on base than any other team in the majors—but, of course, the Colts had fewer men on base to begin with. They were dead last among the 20 major league clubs in team batting average, hits, runs, runs batted in, total bases and home runs (as a team, Houston hit 70 homers, just nine more than Roger Maris hit all by himself in 1961). Over the winter the team nickname was changed to Astros, but the offense still looks like the Colts—the 1965 lineup is pretty much the same as last year's. Two exceptions are rookies Joe Morgan, Texas League All-Star second baseman (.323, 47 stolen bases), and Ron Brand, a .273-hitting catcher at Columbus. Neither has a great deal of power, but both could help. "I'll hit up here," says Morgan, "but first I've got to learn the pitchers and figure out the strike zone." Lum Harris can wait, because there's no one else to play second.
Houston has two solid hitters in Third Baseman Bob Aspromonte (.280, 12 HRs, 69 RBIs) and Outfielder-First Baseman Walter Bond (.254, but 20 HRs and 85 RBIs). After that there are people like Eddie Kasko (.243), Bob Lillis (.268) and Mike White (.271), none of whom hit as much as one home run last year, and Al Spangler (.245) and Jimmy Wynn (.224), who together hit nine. Of course, Rusty Staub hit 20 homers in half a season at Oklahoma City, and Jim Beauchamp had 34 homers and 83 runs batted in there; if they can power the ball like that with the Astros, the situation will brighten rapidly.
Ever since Houston entered the National League three years ago, the team's strong pitchers have carried the team's weak hitters, and they will have to do it again in 1965. Curiously, the staff, for all its collective success (only three teams in the league last season had pitching staffs that yielded fewer runs than Houston's did), is relatively undistinguished individually. It is comprised principally of castoffs and discards—like Bob Bruce, Ken Johnson, Dick Farrell, Hal Woodeshick, Don Nottebart, Don Larsen and Jim Owens. Bruce, after 15 quiet years in pro ball, made some noise last season (15-9, 2.76 ERA) and took over the No. 1 spot in the pitching order. Johnson, Farrell and Nottebart are the other most frequent starters. Johnson (11-16) seems to have recovered from the shock of pitching and losing a no-hit game (1-0 to the Reds), and Farrell (11-10) showed no sign this spring of the injuries that cut short his bid for a 20-win season. Before getting hurt in June, Farrell had won 10 games, most in the majors at the time. Nottebart (6-11) had a no-hit game in 1963, which he won, fortunately. Larsen (4-8 with Houston last year), used mainly in relief the past four seasons, started 10 games and had a fine 2.27 ERA. Owens (8-7) was both a starter and a reliever last year, though Houston's key bullpen man is Woodeshick (2-9 but 22 saves and a 2.77 ERA). This season the Astros will carry two hard-throwing first-year players: 22-year-old Danny Coombs and 18-year-old Larry Dierker. "They'll stick, and they'll pitch their turns," says Harris. It will be a novelty to see a pitcher under 30 in a Houston lineup.
General Manager Paul Richards believes that the new domed stadium will be "a laboratory test of defensive skills." This is his way of saying that there will be no fly balls lost in the sun, no muddy infield skin, no bunts rolling foul or fair on a tilted baseline, no wind-blown hits. It will take fast legs to cover the vast outfield, and synchromesh hands to field the grounders that will rocket across baseball's only flat infield (since there is no drainage problem under the dome, there is no need for the standard turtleback infield). Last year's fielding weaknesses in center, at second base and behind the plate cost the Colts an estimated 25 of their 35 one-run losses. For this reason Morgan and Brand, good fielders both, will stay in the lineup if they can hit even a little bit. At shortstop, Kasko's hands are sure and his arm is strong but his range is limited. Third base is no problem—Aspromonte is one of the best in the league. Bond, speaking of first base, says, "Last year I was just trying not to look bad, but now I can make all the plays." Staub is still learning to play right field, and Spangler, the left fielder, runs in and out better than he goes left and right—which leaves Wynn in center field with everything from El Paso to Texarkana to call his own. All in all, the Astro defense is not the kind that pitchers dream of.
The old Colts were no bargains, and the new Astros don't seem a great deal different. Still, a few base hits added to that good pitching could keep the Astros ahead of the last-place Mets.