KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- This spring marks a fresh start for Jack Armstrong Jr., who was a hard-throwing pitcher drafted in the third round (No. 99 overall) by the Astros in 2011 following a solid career at Vanderbilt University and signed with the club for $750,000.
Injuries to his elbow and later his shoulder kept Armstrong off the mound for three years and ultimately forced him to decide to make the switch to first base, which he began at spring camp this year in an attempt to resurrect his career.
"It's been a lot of work," he said. "The moment I got cleared in September, I started swinging immediately. It's been a good five or six months of hard work. It's good I was a two-way guy in college so I was always swinging. ... It's something I always wanted to do since I loved it so much, and I was pretty good at it, and based on the circumstances because the arm has been through a lot, it's nice to have something to fall back on and to keep playing this game as long as you can."
Armstrong, whose father played seven years in the Majors with the Reds, Marlins and Rangers, never pitched in a game after being drafted by the Astros. A pre-Draft MRI showed a damaged ulnar collateral ligament, and when he couldn't rehab it naturally, he underwent Tommy John surgery.
"We found out it was 80-percent torn and that's what I was pitching through in college," he said. "I went through the surgery, rehabbed it and worked my tail off, and it was feeling really, really good. I started throwing and my shoulder was bothering me."
Believing he had biceps tendinitis, Armstrong backed off throwing for a few months, but the pain was excruciating. An MRI late in 2012 didn't show much, but a trip to noted orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews diagnosed a complete labrum tear six months later. Another surgery followed, and Armstrong's pitching days were done.
"It was unfortunate I wasted that much time, so here I am now trying to give it another shot," he said.
Armstrong, 24, still has a long road ahead of him to try to prove himself as a first baseman, and the early returns in batting practice have been good.
"It's like riding a bike, a really tough bike," he said. "The first couple of times, it was really difficult. Seeing 92 [mph] was like seeing 98. Once I started seeing a lot of pitches, I came here two weeks early and started seeing live pitching and did really well. The power is really there. I'm hitting the ball a long way. Now we have to get consistent with my swing and hit the breaking pitch."
Cosart works on curveball in start vs. Yankees
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- For Jarred Cosart, Saturday's outing was more about working in more curveballs than it was anything else. That's why he wasn't too worried about the results, giving up two hits and two runs (one earned) in 1 2/3 innings of work.
Cosart said he's been working with pitching coach Brent Strom on establishing his curveball the last few days, because he thinks it could get hitters off his fastball if he can throw more strikes. He threw 75 percent strikes with his curveball in the first inning and 65 percent in the second inning.
"Brent told me if I can do that throughout the year, I'm going to have a lot of success," Cosart said. "They're really not worried about the fastball as much right now, because they think it's going to be there, and I do, too. But at the same time, I've still got to throw more strikes.
"I obviously threw too many pitches today, which is something I'm going to work on in my next start. I threw a couple of good changeups and [Brett Gardner's second-inning double] I kind of just cut it and it ran right into his bat."
After the game, Cosart leaned on veterans Jerome Williams and Scott Feldman for more advice.
"In the first, I got ahead of every batter with two strikes, so they said maybe my mindset going forward, instead of trying to embarrass the hitter, should be just to throw a quality pitch the next time," he said.
Porter challenges, but out call at first upheld
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Manager Bo Porter said prior to Saturday's game against the Yankees, which was the first of five scheduled Astros home games this spring to have instant replay available, that he couldn't wait to try to challenge a call. He wasn't joking.
With the game tied at 2, Porter challenged a call at first base in the second inning, claiming Yankees second baseman Eduardo Nunez hadn't touched first base before Jonathan Villar stepped on the bag. Villar was called out after putting down a sacrifice bunt. Porter almost immediately dashed onto the field after the play, and an umpire put on a headset and communicated with a person stationed in a production truck who was viewing the replay. The call was quickly upheld.
"We decided that this being the first game in which we actually had replay, it's a close call and you want to go out there and test the system," Porter said. "You look at the situation. It's bang-bang. It's either a man on second or one out or first and second and nobody out, which is a big difference."
The Astros have prepared all spring for the moment, treating every game as if replay reviews had been invoked even if they hadn't. That being said, Porter said you can't predetermine when you're going to challenge and when you're not going to challenge.
"I think it's all going to be situation-based, the inning, the score, who's at bat, the impact of whether or not it's something that will get overturned," he said prior to the game. "You spin yourself into the ground trying to go over the many scenarios that could take place and the impact of that particular play. This here is something we've never had before, so I think as we go throughout the progression of it, it's something you'll learn as you go along and not just from your challenges."
During each game in the regular season, the Astros will have a person monitoring a panel of HD video monitors in a room with the capability to see the plays from multiple angles and communicate with the bench coach. Video coordinator Jim Summers will handle the duties for most road games, and coordinator of baseball operations Pete Putila will handle most road games in the regular season.
"The fact that you have video footage, it would behoove you to allow your video people to look at it and give you their decision rather than you basing it on your two eyes at game speed," Porter said. "They're sitting there in front of the video, they can stop it and pause it and it takes a matter of seconds."
Meanwhile, Porter said the team plans to keep a "reel" of every play that was challenged in Major League Baseball this year.
The Astros will throw starting pitchers Scott Feldman and Brad Peacock for four or five innings each in a Minor League game Tuesday, which is a scheduled off-day for the Major League club. Brett Oberholtzer will pitch in a Minor League game on Wednesday.
"When you have a limited number of innings as far as the main game, you have to make sure you find a way from a competitive standpoint to keep all your guys sharp, and make sure the guys that are in competition have enough information to be able to base your information on when it gets to decision-making time," manager Bo Porter said.