WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Houston Astros players trust that manager Dusty Baker’s sometimes unorthodox approach to the lockout-shortened spring training has them better prepared for the rigors of the 2022 season.
“He’s been through it a few times,” pitcher Justin Verlander said. “That’s wonderful insight, and maybe gives us a leg up because a lot of these other managers weren’t around when Dusty was and went through these processes. And he was playing through them, so he knows what it takes to get ready. I think guys have a lot of faith in his opinion on this.”
No manager has more experience dealing with labor stoppages than Baker. He’s been around for all of them.
Baker played in 127 games for Atlanta in 1972 following a player strike. Players either went on strike or were locked out five more times during his playing career.
In 1990, Baker was San Francisco’s hitting coach when a lockout delayed the start of the regular season by a week. He’d been elevated to manager by the time a players' strike ended the 1994 season prematurely, and was still at the helm when baseball returned in 1995.
“How many people have even been in this situation?” Baker said. “I’ve been in every situation of this type, but they’ve all been different. Even though I think I have really good experience, you don’t know, man, until you get into it.”
Baker applied lessons learned during those work stoppages to this year’s condensed spring.
Notably, when some teams deployed potential opening day lineups in their first spring games, Baker held nearly all major league position players out of the Astros' first four Grapefruit League games.
While the Astros’ core group of hitters exit camp healthy, it remains to be seen whether their bats are ready for the season. Only three regulars — Yuli Gurriel, Jose Altuve and Jeremy Pena — will head west from Florida with a batting average above .300. Most have fewer than 25 plate appearances.
“We always trust his experience,” said third baseman Alex Bregman, who went 6 for 24 this spring.
Baker also slow-played his pitching staff.
Entering spring already on a throwing program as he worked his way back from Tommy John surgery in 2020, Verlander made four starts. The remaining four pitchers in Houston’s rotation combined to make six starts.
“I think you have to have faith in Dusty on this one,” Verlander said. “It’s something that none of us have been through.”
On Monday, in Houston’s final spring training game, José Urquidy made only his second start on a main ballpark mound, tossing five shutout innings at the New York Mets.
Baker intends to continue his conservative approach when the Astros open the regular season on Thursday at the Los Angeles Angels.
“Early in the season I’m going to have to give guys a rest when I wouldn’t normally give them a rest,” Baker said. “They haven’t played three or four games in a row or nine innings yet.”
Baker now turns his attention to the first weeks of the regular season. He'll be looking for a better result than in that 1995 season, when his Giants finished in the NL West cellar.
He expects young fastball hitters and experienced pitchers with a feel for their off-speed pitches to start fast, taking advantage of pitchers who haven't locked in their breaking balls and hitters who need more plate appearances to time their swings. Baker also is concerned about the potential for early injuries, the likelihood of which could increase because of the shortened spring training.
“This is a very volatile situation that we’re about to enter into because if you get hurt early in April, you’ll never get into shape, or you’ll be playing catch-up the whole time,” Baker said.
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