Notes: Cruz looking to follow father
Non-roster invitee impressive in bid for fourth outfield spot
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You can go home again, as Jose Cruz Jr. is proving this spring with the Astros.
Cruz, a 33-year-old non-roster invitee, is trying to claim the team's fourth outfielder job. The Astros are the team he watched his father, Jose Cruz Sr., play for while he was growing up in Houston.
Jose Jr.'s 11-year career in the Majors has had stops in Seattle, Toronto, San Francisco, Tampa Bay, Arizona, Boston, Los Angeles and San Diego. But if Cruz's hitting prowess continues, he may soon follow in his father's footsteps in Houston's outfield.
"All he's got to do is keep doing what he's doing," Astros manager Cecil Cooper said. "I thought he had real good at-bats today, and the other one [in which he didn't get a hit], he ended up driving in a run in a key situation and that's what he needs to do."
Counting his 3-for-4, two-RBI effort against the Rays on Wednesday afternoon at Progress Energy Field, Cruz is batting .421 (8-for-19) with two doubles and five RBIs.
"I wanted, before I retired, to come back home and play," Cruz said. "I played for Bellaire High and I played for Rice University, and I'm proud of it. Just to be part of a team with my father is huge for me. I think [making the team] would be something very special for my family, especially my kids, for them to be able to see their dad and their granddad. Not too often you get a chance to do that."
Cruz is a .248 career hitter with 204 home runs and 623 RBIs in a Major League career that began in 1997. The Astros are hoping his power would return to the levels it was at previous years before he spent time in pitcher-friendly parks like Dodger Stadium and San Diego's Petco Park.
Cooper told Cruz before camp that he wanted to see more consistency from his offense.
"He's been able to do that, we know he's a good defensive player. He can play anywhere in the outfield," Cooper said. "I just want to see him swing the bat, particularly left-handed. So far he's been pretty good."
The Astros brought him to camp to compete with Reggie Abercrombie and Yordany Ramirez for the fourth outfield spot behind starters Carlos Lee, Michael Bourn and Hunter Pence.
Cruz hasn't won anything yet, however.
"Right now I'm just trying to do whatever I can to maintain consistency," he said. "[It's a] good start. [I] want to keep it going."
Mixed results: Runelvys Hernandez gave up a run and allowed seven baserunners in 2 1/3 innings of work in Wednesday's start against the Rays, but the right-hander was encouraged.
"I feel really good, I feel ready to go," said Hernandez, who hasn't pitched in the Majors since 2006. "I've been losing a lot of weight, so I feel happy about that."
The slimmer Hernandez still has a decent fastball, and is hoping he can finally put it all together after what has been a disappointing string of seasons since he first arrived in the Major Leagues six years ago.
"Today I tried to pound the [strike] zone," Hernandez said. "Tried to get good command on [my] fastball [and] tried to get better with my slider. My slider was looking better today."
He struck out Tampa Bay's Carl Crawford with a fastball in the second with two on, and then fanned B.J. Upton with a slider to end the inning. But he also gave up four hard-hit balls that led to a Rays run in the first.
"[Hernandez] kind of struggled a little bit," Cooper said. "He continued to challenge hitters, and that's what you want him to do. He was down in the zone pretty good."
Familiar faces: There were hugs and handshakes everywhere you turned during batting practice on Wednesday, as members of the Astros and Rays mingled near the batting cage.
Current Astros players Ty Wigginton, Geoff Blum, Cruz Jr. and Brandon Backe are all former Rays. Rays players Dan Wheeler and Ben Zobrist, as well as coaches Steve Henderson, Gary Gaetti and Jim Hickey used to be with the Houston organization.
Rays senior vice president of baseball operations Gerry Hunsicker was Houston's general manager for nine years. Hunsicker stopped by to say hello to many of the players he remembered from his days with the Astros.
"What are you doing here? I thought I got rid of you," Hunsicker jokingly told Blum.
The Astros made the playoffs three years in a row under Hunsicker (1997-99), and again in 2001 and 2004. In 1998, Hunsicker was named The Sporting News' Executive of the Year after assembling an Astros team that won a franchise-best 102 regular-season games.
Hunsicker left the Astros following the 2004 season, and watched as the team he helped build won the National League pennant in 2005. Now in his third year with Tampa Bay, Hunsicker is happy with the Rays, and sees many similarities between the two organizations.
"The biggest thing for me when I came over here was the absence of a [Craig] Biggio or a [Jeff] Bagwell," Hunsicker said. "There were no veterans around here that really helped these young players grow up. We have some talented young players, but without leadership or direction that makes it tough.
"Two years later our farm system is better, we're up in running in Venezuela, [and] we have great communication between the Major League and Minor League people, which is critical for success."
It is only natural that Hunsicker should still be interested, though on a different level, in the Astros' fortunes. Many of the players in the organization were added during his tenure.
"I certainly follow the club. Part of me will always be there, but it's obviously a total revamping, if you will," Hunsicker said. "For a decade we rode the coattails of Bagwell and Biggio. Their presence was the cornerstone of this franchise. As they've moved into retirement, it's really a total change for [the organization]."
Foot bruise kicks Niekro: Lance Niekro left Wednesday's game in the third inning, after bruising his left foot. Niekro, a non-roster invitee, is day-to-day.
He flied out to center field in his only at-bat and is hitless (0-for-12) thus far in Grapefruit League play.
"I fouled it off my instep and it started swelling," Niekro said. "It's just a bruise, hopefully nothing more than that. I should be all right in a day or so."
Niekro said if the foot is still sore on Wednesday, he will likely have it X-rayed. The 28-year-old is competing for a backup spot.
Quotable: "Today [our] pitching was a little bit better. I feel a little bit of concern about all of the walks." -- Cooper, after the Astros staff issued seven more walks Tuesday.
Up next: Woody Williams will make his second start of the spring when the Astros host Cleveland in a 1:05 p.m. ET game Thursday at Osceola County Stadium. Another right-hander the Astros are counting on to hold a rotation spot, Brandon Backe, is also scheduled to pitch. American League Cy Young Award winner C.C. Sabathia goes to the mound for the Indians.
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This report was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.