Notes: Munson near making team
Infielder set to return to former spot behind the plate
HOUSTON -- It may or may not be a coincidence, but the day Phil Garner told Eric Munson he had a legitimate shot to make the Astros out of Spring Training as a backup catcher, Munson went 4-for-5 and drove in two runs.
That was March 21 in Lakeland, during a night game with the Tigers. That game, along with a slew of others, led to his sparkling .380 Grapefruit League average that finally landed him at Minute Maid Park on Friday.
When Munson heard the Orioles claimed Raul Chavez on outright waivers earlier in the day, the 28-year-old non-roster invitee realized his stop in Houston may last longer than just the two exhibition games with the Royals this weekend.
"Obviously, you come in with a mind-set of making the team," Munson said. "I didn't know it was going to be as a backup catcher. Whatever way it is, I'm really excited about it."
To say Munson has limited big-league experience at catcher would be a gross understatement. Although he was a catcher through high school and college, the Tigers converted him to an infielder after drafting him as their first pick (third overall) in the 1999 First-Year Player Draft.
Munson has played exactly one-half inning as a catcher in the big leagues: June 24, 2004 in Kansas City, when he entered the game as a pinch-hitter in the ninth and remained in the game behind the plate.
So it's not a stretch to assume the Astros' decision to name him as the backup catcher is a bit risky. Nineteen hits in 50 at-bats over 25 Spring Training games, however, was enough to prompt the Astros to give him a shot.
"Spring means something," Garner said. "And you've got give him a chance."
Astros general manager Tim Purpura signed Munson as a non-roster invitee largely on the recommendation of Garner and assistant GM Ricky Bennett, who were with the Tigers when Munson was drafted.
"They said really good things about what kind of guy he would be in the clubhouse," Purpura said. "Here's a guy who's really motivated and wants to get his career back on track. This may be a great opportunity.
"These are the kinds of things that you have to do to get better. You have to take some risks, you have to break outside of your comfort level, like a Chavez, and you have to try some things that might help you out."
Said Munson: "[Catching is] something I did my whole life, so I didn't forget how to do it. But at the same time, there's a lot of work that you have to put in. I know that, and I'm looking forward to putting the work in."
Munson likely will benefit from spending ample time with frontline catcher Brad Ausmus, known for his exceptional knowledge of the league's hitters and considered one of the best defensive catchers in the game.
Munson has the added duty of learning the Houston pitchers. He'll probably be assigned to one specific starting pitcher, while Ausmus will catch the other four. Munson also welcomes the chance to catch hard-throwing Dan Wheeler and Brad Lidge, among others.
"It's going to be fun," Munson said. "These guys are good pitchers. Their track record speaks for itself. Their ball does move a lot, but I'll just try to catch as many bullpens and try to get used to them. The time during Spring Training, I thought it went OK."
Down to 26: The Astros have one more cut to make, and it likely will be infielder Kevin Orie. Houston is certain to carry 12 pitchers, which means both Taylor Buchholz and Fernando Nieve will make the team. Buchholz likely will be announced as the fifth starter prior to Opening Day, and Nieve will join the bullpen as a long reliever.
"We've got 12 pitchers, and I imagine we'll go with 12 pitchers," Purpura said. "The only issue is amongst Nieve, Buchholz and [Carlos] Hernandez -- who we have not forgotten about -- who is the fifth starter? That's a decision that will have to be made soon."
Last spring start: Brandon Backe showed improvement over his previous two outings when he faced the Royals on Friday, but really, anything would have been better than the eight home runs he gave up in his last two Florida starts.
On Friday, he yielded four runs -- three earned -- on six hits over four frames in the Astros' 6-5 loss to the Royals. He gave up a home run to the first batter he faced, but the rest of the hits he allowed stayed in the ballpark.
"I left some balls in the middle of the plate," Backe said. "I was trying to find it again today. For the most part, I felt pretty good. I got some ground balls when I needed to. I definitely wouldn't say it was a great outing."
"I thought tonight was the best he'd thrown during the spring," Garner said. "I thought he threw some pretty good curveballs. I thought he threw his fastball on balance where he wanted to. He did make a couple mistakes, and they hurt him with it, but I thought tonight he really did a better job of getting the ball down and using his breaking ball."
Good cause: Garner and his wife, Carol, will host the second annual "Kick-Start the Cure!" Charity Motorcycle Ride benefiting Mothers Against Cancer on Saturday.
This rain-or-shine event, which is open to all bikers on all types of motorcycles in the greater Houston area, begins at noon CT at the Mancuso Harley-Davidson/Buell Crossroads Dealership on Highway 290 at FM 1960. Pre-registration is going on now, or riders can register on the day of the event from noon-1:30 p.m. For more information, log on to www.kickstartthecure.com.
One lucky biker will win a once-in-a-lifetime chance to ride their bike, along with Phil and Carol Garner on their bikes, onto the field at Minute Maid Park prior to the Astros' 6:05 p.m. game with the Royals and throw out a ceremonial first pitch.
In addition, the first 500 registrants for Kick-Start the Cure! will receive a free ticket to the Astros-Royals game. All riders will be able to take part in a police-escorted motorcycle ride from the finishing point at Stubbs Cycles to Minute Maid Park following the event. Special bike parking and security will be provided at Minute Maid Park.
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.