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Accolades pouring in for hitting king Altuve

Astros second baseman's record-setting season recognized by club, CITGO

Accolades pouring in for hitting king Altuve

HOUSTON -- Jose Altuve, two days removed from being crowned the first batting champion in Astros history, worked out Tuesday and said he wished he could have played another game. Even though the season is over, Altuve isn't slowing down.

The All-Star second baseman was the guest of honor at a private reception Tuesday night at Union Station, where he was presented with an award by CITGO in recognition for his 2014 season. In addition to leading the Majors in batting average (.341), Altuve led the Majors and set a team record with 225 hits and led the American League in stolen bases (56).

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"I feel really happy for what the organization and CITGO are doing for me today, and people from my country and people from the States," he said. "I appreciate everything they're doing for me. I'm going to have another good season to have this again."

Congratulations began rolling in Monday for Altuve, who said he's been getting a flood of love on social media. He also fielded phone calls from Tigers sluggers Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, whom he edged for the batting title. He returned a call from all-world defensive tackle J.J. Watt of the NFL's Houston Texans, but hearing from his fellow Venezuelans was the highlight.

"Those two guys made my day yesterday when they called me," Altuve said.

Earlier Tuesday, Altuve was able to meet new manager A.J. Hinch, who was hired Monday. Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow introduced the two in the clubhouse at Minute Maid Park, and they talked for 15-20 minutes.

"There's such an energy about him and it looks like it's infectious," Hinch said. "Watching him play, getting the chance to meet him, they match. What he does on the field and how he plays on the field, it's exactly what I expected in his personality.

"He's a player that wants to win, he definitely feels like an Astro. It's exciting to have him as a league-leading hitter, but also just the style and the makeup of the type of player that's fun to be around and fun to have on the team."

Altuve was named the Astros' nominee for the Hank Aaron Award, which has recognized the most outstanding offensive performer in each league since it was established in 1999. For the fifth consecutive year, a special panel of Hall of Fame players led by Aaron will join fans in voting for the award.

"He had one of the most impressive seasons in the history of the Houston Astros, and quite frankly in recent baseball history," Luhnow said said. "He deserves all the accolades and all the recognition for it -- 24-year-old old guy who's been able to accomplish this in his career. For us, for the Astros, we're excited what the future holds, and he means everything to this franchise right now."

When asked about his favorite Altuve memory from the season, Luhnow didn't have to reach too far back in his memory bank.

"I would say when he came back into the manager's office on Sunday and said, 'I really want to play this game,'" Luhnow said. "That was a representation of his character. We were thinking of letting him off the hook and winning [the batting title] in the dugout, and he wanted to win it on the field, and to me that speaks volumes about his character."

And Altuve's favorite moment?

"There was a lot of good moments this year, but I think when I hit the 210 hits [to tie Craig Biggio's club record] and Biggio shook my hand and said congratulations," he said. "That was the best moment in my season."

Altuve will leave Friday and head to Venezuela to spend a few weeks with his family before reporting to Arizona in early November to begin working out with the MLB All-Stars who are traveling to Japan this to play a five-game series against Japan's national team.

"It's a great recognition," Luhnow said. "When MLB asked for our permission, it was without hesitation. It's going to be a great trip for those guys. I've talked to some people who have been on that trip before, and it's a way to be an ambassador for the sport to a country that really cares about the sport."

With the season in the rearview mirror, Altuve said he already missed the fans, who have developed a love affair with the 5-foot-6 dynamo.

"I'm going to miss the season," he said. "I'm going to come back with the same attitude and try to make it happen again."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Hinch hits ground running in first day on job

Manager gets to know club staff, inspired by meeting with Altuve

Hinch hits ground running in first day on job

HOUSTON -- A.J. Hinch went right to work in his first day as manager of the Astros on Tuesday, a day that included a series of meetings, a tour of Minute Maid Park and a get-to-know-you session with All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve.

The work's only beginning for Hinch, who was hired Monday as the Astros' 18th manager. General manager Jeff Luhnow, speaking Tuesday night at a reception for Altuve at Union Station, said the 40-year-old Hinch certainly isn't without stamina.

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"He wore me out," he said. "We talked about a lot of things. He met a lot of people, and he's coming back tomorrow morning early and he'll be here all day. I think one of the best meetings we had was when I took him down, and he spent about 15-20 minutes with Jose in the clubhouse and there was an instant connection there."

Altuve, who is coming off a season in which he won the Major League batting title by hitting .341 and set a club record with 225 hits, made a solid first impression on Hinch.

"There's such an energy about him and it looks like it's infectious," he said. "Watching him play, getting the chance to meet him, they match. What he does on the field and how he plays on the field, it's exactly what I expected in his personality.

"He's a player that wants to win, he definitely feels like an Astro. It's exciting to have him as a league-leading hitter, but also just the style and the makeup of the type of player that's fun to be around and fun to have on the team."

Hinch spent some time bouncing around the office with the baseball operations group and going through the typical first-day routine with human resources. He's going to return to his home in San Diego on Thursday before returning next week.

"I had some long meetings talking about staff, talking about the first 40 to 50 days, what we're going to try to accomplish, what I'm going to try to accomplish," Hinch said. "I met with the entire company in an all-employee meeting and just chipping away at returning texts and phone calls and getting my feet back on the ground after a great day."

Much of Hinch's focus in the coming days will be about the coaching staff, which Hinch and Luhnow will assemble. The Astros have said pitching coach Brent Strom is returning, but no other decisions have been made.

Hinch would like to announce a coaching staff sooner than later, and one of the priorities will be having a former manager on his staff. The Astros have an opening for bench coach.

"Tomorrow I'm going to start to reach out to all of the coaches and the players and say hello and have those conversations with them, and I'm going to spend next week doing that," Hinch said. "But I'm going to come back to Houston next week and try to set up some meetings."

Luhnow said he and Hinch went over some information about other teams and started talking about the current roster.

"We don't know when the staffing is going to come together because there may be people we want to speak to that are on playoff teams," Luhnow said. "The work all happens simultaneously, but having A.J. on board for less than 48 hours, the guy works really hard and he's going to, maybe not burning it too much at both ends, but he's obviously going to put a lot of time and effort into this."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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McHugh named AL Rookie of the Month

McHugh named AL Rookie of the Month

HOUSTON -- Astros pitcher Collin McHugh has been named American League Rookie of the Month for September.

McHugh is just the fifth Astros player ever to win a Rookie of the Month Award, and the second this season, joining outfielder George Springer (May 2014), outfielder Hunter Pence (May 2007), right-hander Kirk Saarloos (July 2002) and right-hander Roy Oswalt (August 2001). Pence, Saarloos and Oswalt all won NL Rookie of the Month awards.

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McHugh went 4-0 in four September starts with a 1.59 ERA, 25 strikeouts and one walk. He led all Major League rookies in ERA, opponents' average (.150), WHIP (0.56) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (25), while ranking tied for first in wins.

McHugh's ERA in September marked the third-lowest in Astros history for a rookie during the month, behind Mark Lemongello (1.29 ERA in 1977) and Ken Forsch (1.24 ERA in 1971). His strikeout-to-walk ratio of 25 was the highest produced by any Astros pitcher during a single month in club history (minimum 28 innings).

This season, McHugh made led all Major League rookies with a 2.73 ERA while ranking second among MLB rookies in wins above replacement (4.2), behind only Jose Abreu (5.5). McHugh's ERA was the second-lowest recorded by an Astros rookie in club history (Forsch, 2.53 ERA in 1971).

McHugh also led all Major League rookies in opponents' batting average (.208), while ranking second among AL rookies in strikeouts-per-nine innings (9.14), third in strikeouts (157) and tied for fourth in wins (11). He closed out the year on a seven-game winning streak, becoming the first Houston pitcher to do so in a single season since Andy Pettitte in 2005.

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Biggio hosts Sunshine Kids party at Minute Maid Park

Astros legend a spokesman for non-profit organizaiton

Biggio hosts Sunshine Kids party at Minute Maid Park

HOUSTON -- The roof at Minute Maid Park was partially open Tuesday morning, protecting the kids from the sun but not from the overwhelming humidity that offered no reminder the calendar had flipped to October. That still wasn't enough to stop the fun.

Astros legend Craig Biggio and his wife, Patty, played host to dozens of kids at their annual Sunshine Kids party on the ballpark's playing surface. Children of all ages got the chance to bat against Biggio and run the bases and outfield before being treated to lunch, an autograph session and an Astros goodie bag.

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Biggio is the national spokesman for the non-profit Sunshine Kids, an organization that assists kids with cancer and their families. He wore the organization's sunshine pin on his cap during Spring Training games and regular season batting practice throughout his career, and has been treating the kids to a party for 24 years.

"Today's great," Biggio said. "It's a lot of fun for these kids to come out here and get on a big league baseball field and forget about some of the worries they have going on in their lives and just go out here and have some fun. That's what it's all about."

Biggio threw batting practice to waves of kids swinging plastic bats, some swinging from their heels, some not knowing which side of the plate to stand on. It didn't matter to Biggio, who took time with each kid to make sure they had a good time.

"This is something we've been doing over 20-something years now and it's been a lot of fun," he said. "It started off in some high school field somewhere, then we brought it in the Astrodome and we brought it in here to Minute Maid now. It's been a lot of fun. I love these kids. I don't leave home without my [Sunshine Kids] bracelets, and they've been family to me for a long time."

Several of the kids have been coming to the party for years, and Biggio has built some special relationships along the way. He's come to learn about their struggles and hardships and is glad he's able to provide them with a morning of fun.

"There's quite a few kids that come back and continue to come back," he said. "This is one of the events, that when they sign up for [Sunshine Kids], this is one of the first ones. We have the Christmas party at the Children's Museum, which has been a huge success also. But this is one of the favorite ones. You're on a big league baseball field and it doesn't get much better than this."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Astros hand managerial reins to Hinch

Astros hand managerial reins to Hinch

HOUSTON -- When it came to checking the boxes of what the Astros wanted from their next manager, A.J. Hinch filled many of them. He has a vast tool set as a former big league player and former Major League manager, and he even spent time as a club's vice president and assistant general manager.

The 40-year-old Hinch on Monday was given perhaps the most important challenge yet of his career when the Astros -- in a news conference at Minute Maid Park the day after the season ended -- tabbed him to be the 18th manager in their history.

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"The goal is to win championships," Hinch said after slipping on a No. 14 jersey. "The arrow is turning toward success in talking about winning a little bit and talking about the ultimate goal. I'm proud to be here. To wear this orange and blue is something I cherish, and to put this uniform on and be called the 'Skipper' is something I'm very privileged to be."

Hinch managed the Arizona Diamondbacks from May 2009 until July 2010, compiling an 89-123 record, and he was the vice president of professional scouting and assistant GM of the Padres (2011-14), a run that ended in August. He came highly recommended to Astros GM Jeff Luhnow.

"I've known A.J. for a long time -- he's got a lot of passion for this game and he's got a passion for winning," Luhnow said. "He very well understands what it is we're doing here, and I couldn't be happier with our choice. I think A.J. is going to be the manager who's here when we win the World Series."

Astros owner Jim Crane sat among the media at the news conference, along with several members of his ownership group, who clapped in approval of Hinch's message.

"We're very excited about A.J.," Crane said. "He really touches all the bases, has had all of the jobs. ... He's got a great resume, he's a smart guy and we felt he understands what Jeff's trying to do and the communication between them will be very good."

A breakdown in communication between Luhnow and former manager Bo Porter led to Porter's dismissal on Sept. 1 after less than two years on the job. Hinch was one of 10 candidates the Astros considered, and in an effort to get the hire right, Luhnow spoke to as many people as he could about Hinch.

"Communication is critical in any department, for any business," Luhnow said. "There's no doubt that A.J. and I are off to a good start communicating, and we're going to continue that. It's also communication with the rest of the organization, communication with the players and a lot of the research that I did about A.J.'s communication skills with players, his ability to connect with players and staff, and I felt very good about what I was hearing. So I think that, combined with our communication, is going to put him in a position to be very successful."

Hinch graduated from Stanford, where he was a third-round Draft pick after his junior year. He won a bronze medal with the United States at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. In his Major League career as a catcher, Hinch hit .219 with 32 homers and 112 RBIs in 350 games.

Hinch, who lives in San Diego with his wife, Erin, and daughters Haley (12) and Kaitlin (9), will spend the next few days in Houston working with Luhnow. One of their first tasks will be putting together a Major League coaching staff.

Pitching coach Brent Strom is under contract and expected to return, and hitting coach John Mallee appears on solid footing. Third-base coach Pat Listach is as respected as anyone in baseball and interviewed for the manager's job. The status of first-base coach Tarrick Brock is up in the air.

"We're going to start to talk about assembling the big league staff," Luhnow said.

The fact that Hinch has such a dynamic background in the game made him very appealing to the Astros, who interviewed him for the job two years ago. In addition to playing parts of seven seasons in the Major Leagues with Oakland (1998-2000), Kansas City (2001-02), Detroit (2003) and Philadelphia (2004), Hinch was director of player development for the D-backs before being hired as their manager in 2009 at age 34.

Hinch managed Arizona for parts of the 2009 and '10 seasons before moving on to San Diego, where he oversaw all aspects of the club's professional scouting and medical departments, while assisting with roster composition, player acquisition, talent evaluation and contract negotiations.

"He's had all of those experiences," Luhnow said. "I think that's helped. I like the well-roundedness of A.J., the fact he has worked in a front office in various capacities. He understands my perspective, because he's done my job. He understands the perspective of [farm director] Quentin [McCracken] because he's been a farm director. He knows what it takes to go out and find a player, to scout a player, to get a player into the system and move him through and get him to the big leagues.

"He's been there when a lot of the Arizona Diamondbacks' young prospects got there and helped shepherd them through the system, and he knows our system pretty well. ... He comes in with this breadth of experience that just very few candidates have. We have a lot of guys out there who have had the experience or have played, but the whole combination, the whole package for us was really good."

Hinch inherits an Astros team coming off a 70-92 season that saw them post their best record in four seasons. While the arrival of George Springer, the emergence of pitchers Collin McHugh and Dallas Keuchel and having a batting champion in second baseman Jose Altuve give Hinch reason for optimism, he knows there's plenty of work ahead.

"This is about players, this is about front office, this is about the coaching staff all playing their part in this big puzzle in getting more wins than your opponent," Hinch said. "It takes close to 90 wins to get to where you're trying to get to, and to watch these teams celebrate last week, if that doesn't get you burning a little bit to taste that champagne a little bit, that, to me, is the essence of why we do this.

"We do this to win. I believe we can do it. I trust the people bringing the talent in to the organization, and we've got a chance to do something with the hard work and dedication that I feel with the Houston Astros."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Altuve to play for MLB All-Stars in Japan games

MLB All-Stars to participate in five games against national team in November

Two of baseball's top hitters and one of its brightest young stars have been added to the roster of Major Leaguers that will represent Major League Baseball in the Japan All-Star Series in November.

The league announced on Tuesday that American League batting champion Jose Altuve, National League batting champion Justin Morneau and Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper were added to the roster, which already includes Robinson Cano, Adam Jones, Yasiel Puig and Albert Pujols.

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Red Sox manager John Farrell will manage the club, which will play a five-game series against "Samurai Japan," Japan's national team. Games will take place in Osaka, Tokyo and Sapporo, and two exhibition games will complement the five-game set.

The first exhibition game is scheduled to be played on Nov. 11, and the series is scheduled to run through Nov. 20.

Joey Nowak is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joeynowak. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Hinch eager to start getting to know players

New manager has strong handle on talent pool, now wants to connect personally

Hinch eager to start getting to know players

HOUSTON -- A.J. Hinch said all the right things when he was introduced to the media at a press conference Monday at Minute Maid Park as the Astros' new manager, which wasn't easy considering how many questions he was peppered with throughout the day.

Hinch spoke about his family, his passion for baseball and what he plans to do to turn the Astros into a winner. He was even asked about his relationship with former manager Bo Porter, who is a former teammate and was on his staff in Arizona.

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The 40-year-old with a degree in psychology from Stanford was ready for any question. Much of his thoughts were covered in Monday's coverage at MLB.com, but here's Hinch on a few other issues that came up:

Hinch began reading up on the Astros when general manager Jeff Luhnow called him a few weeks ago, and it's clear he already has a good handle on the talent: "The arrows point in the right direction. From the outside looking in, without this position either being available or Jeff calling me about it, the talent's real here. You see some of the breakthrough performances, whether it's Collin McHugh, whether it's [Jose] Altuve, whether it's seeing guys come in -- [Jake] Marisnick's September, watching him a little bit closer this September after being contacted by Jeff. … But getting guys their first taste of the big leagues is important, even if it comes in a little bit of a rocky, steady climb to the big leagues.

"So that talent pool is very important, and the hard work of the coaches and seeing guys start to rise up to the occasion means there's some pretty good coaching going on here, which is exciting to see and good continuity to have. … I think the tide's turned. I think there's talent in the Minor Leagues coming."

Hinch probably wouldn't be in Houston had he not embraced analytics: "I do embrace it. I think shifting has definitely impacted the offense part of the game. It's taken away a lot of singles. I think it messes with the hitters' psyche. I need to learn a little bit more about it, but it's part of our game and the analytics and information is golden. You've got to figure out how to use it, when to use it, how much to expose it to the players. All the stuff is factored into putting them in position of how to succeed."

Even though Hinch praised the team repeatedly Monday, he knows there are areas for improvement: "I think we've got to play better defense, first and foremost. Run prevention is going to be very important. You give too many outs to your opponent, you're asking for trouble. I want every area of the game to take at least an incremental step forward and not be satisfied with, 'Well, we were pretty good with our starting rotation.' Can we be a little bit better? Can we turn it just a touch?

"Brent Strom, one of the best pitching coaches around, has really made advances with these guys. Can we get it a little bit better? We have high standards, and want to see teams continually strive and get better. You never have this game perfected ... no matter how well you hit, no matter how well you defend. It's a 162-game grind to tell you how you match up against the other teams and where your organization is."

Every manager has a style, and Hinch offered a hint at what kind of baseball the Astros might play under him: "It's not a one-size-fits-all to win games. You've got to do a little bit of everything well to beat different styles of teams. Run prevention is at a premium right now. Offense is down around the league. Keeping those guys down is very important, it's very difficult in this division that we play 19 times a year each. That makes runs scored very important.

"I like runs that score on three-run homers. I like runs that are created, runs that are put together with back-to-back hits. If you have your preference, you want to put as much pressure on your opponent as you can. If that means starting runners, great. If that means letting Chris Carter hit a three-run homer, that's OK by me, too. It's certainly a strategy. You've got to take advantage of an opponent's weakness and score at least one more run than your opponent."

Hinch is remaining in Houston to this week to get his staff up and running, and soon he'll begin to reach out to the players: "I want to get to know as many people as I can. I'd like to reach out to the players, reach out to the coaches and start to develop a game plan for Jeff on what's next for the next 30, 60 days. I plan on meeting with a lot of players the next couple of months.

"We've got time, because the season ended, but prior to the holidays, I'd like to have a pretty good beginning of relationships with players I don't know or never been around. Guys like [Chad] Qualls, [Gregorio] Petit, [Jesus] Guzman, I've had guys in some way. [Jason] Castro, I'd like to meet and sit with him, talk pitching and things like that. It's not easy now, because they're not in one place."

Hinch wore No. 7 while managing in Arizona and wore several numbers as a player, including No. 7. That number, of course, is retired in Houston because of Craig Biggio, so Hinch slipped on No. 14 on Monday: "One of the best Astros ever is No. 7, and I was going to joke, saying I trust catchers the most, so Alan Ashby wore this number, so it must be OK. And Guzman [who wore 14 for the last season], I had in San Diego. I signed him as a Minor League free agent and he made his way, and he's probably the guy I could talk to the most and say, 'Hey, don't be offended, I'm going to kind of steal your number.'"

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Fans can vote for Aaron Award nominee Altuve

Help decide this season's top offensive performer in each league

Fans can vote for Aaron Award nominee Altuve

Voting is underway through Sunday exclusively at MLB.com to help decide the 16th annual winners of the Hank Aaron Award, given by "The Hammer" himself during the upcoming 110th World Series to the outstanding offensive performer in each league.

American League nominees include Nelson Cruz of Baltimore, David Ortiz of Boston, Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox, Michael Brantley of Cleveland, Victor Martinez of Detroit, Jose Altuve of Houston, Alex Gordon of Kansas City, Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, Trevor Plouffe of Minnesota, Brett Gardner of the New York Yankees, Josh Donaldson of Oakland, Robinson Cano of Seattle, Evan Longoria of Tampa Bay, Adrian Beltre of Texas and Jose Bautista of Toronto.

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National League candidates include Paul Goldschmidt of Arizona, Justin Upton of Atlanta, Anthony Rizzo of the Chicago Cubs, Devin Mesoraco of Cincinnati, Justin Morneau of Colorado, Adrian Gonzalez of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Giancarlo Stanton of Miami, Jonathan Lucroy of Milwaukee, Daniel Murphy of the New York Mets, Andrew McCutchen of Pittsburgh, Matt Carpenter of St. Louis, Seth Smith of San Diego, Hunter Pence of San Francisco and Anthony Rendon of Washington.

Goldschmidt is going after his second straight Hank Aaron Award, having been the NL choice last year for the first time. Miguel Cabrera was the AL recipient each of the past two years, but V-Mart's nomination by Detroit means an end to that streak.

"As one of the game's most talented and respected players ever, it is appropriate that Major League Baseball recognizes the top offensive performers in each league with an award named in honor of Hank Aaron," Commissioner Bud Selig said. "Each of the nominees should be applauded for their outstanding seasons, which will make selecting just one winner in each league a difficult task for Hank, our Hall of Fame panel and our participating fans."

"I am honored to have my name on the award given by Major League Baseball to the top offensive performers in the game," Aaron said. "Each of the nominees is talented and deserving, which makes me grateful to have the assistance of my fellow Hall of Famers and the fans to help select the winners."

For the fifth consecutive year, a special panel of Hall of Fame players led by Aaron will join fans in voting for the award, which is officially sanctioned by MLB and has recognized the top offensive threat in each league since it was established in 1999.

The panel includes some of the greatest offensive players of all-time -- Roberto Alomar, Johnny Bench, Paul Molitor, Eddie Murray, Frank Thomas and Robin Yount. These Hall of Famers -- who combined for 16,956 hits, 8,844 RBIs and 2,109 home runs -- have been personally selected by Aaron to lend their expertise to select the best offensive performer in each league.

Do you go with a masher, like Stanton or Cruz? Or do you recognize a guy like Altuve, who led the Majors in batting average and led the AL in stolen bases? Home run kings often fare well in this process, but Chris Davis (53 homers) was trumped last year by Cabrera. And what about Trout, often referred to as the game's best player?

Past winners of the Hank Aaron Award include Cabrera and Goldschmidt (2013); Cabrera and Buster Posey (2012); Bautista and Matt Kemp (2011); Bautista and Joey Votto (2010); Derek Jeter and Albert Pujols (2009); Aramis Ramirez and Kevin Youkilis (2008); Rodriguez and Prince Fielder (2007); Jeter and Ryan Howard (2006); Ortiz and Andruw Jones (2005); Manny Ramirez and Barry Bonds (2004); Alex Rodriguez and Pujols (2003); Rodriguez and Bonds (2001-02); Carlos Delgado and Todd Helton (2000) and Manny Ramirez and Sammy Sosa (1999).

The award was introduced in 1999 to honor the 25th anniversary of Aaron breaking Babe Ruth's all-time home run record. At that time, it was the first major award introduced by MLB in more than 25 years.

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. Read and join other baseball fans on his MLB.com community blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Hinch hiring a bold move by Astros

Hinch hiring a bold move by Astros

Baseball's most interesting front office made another gutsy, fascinating hire on Monday by naming A.J. Hinch the new manager. Not the first for Houston, probably not the last. Onward. Here's to years of success and a long, happy marriage.

"From afar, it feels like the right guy at the right time," Josh Byrnes said.

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Once upon a time, Byrnes had the same one himself. That's the irony in all of this. Sometimes, a guy is so far ahead of his time that he ends up paying a ridiculously high price.

Five years ago, as general manager of the D-backs, Byrnes attempted to light a fire under his struggling team by dismissing a popular, respected manager in Bob Melvin. Rather than making a traditional hire -- promoting a coach or recycling a guy with managerial experience -- Byrnes had a different idea.

What if he gave the job to someone who was bright and ambitious, someone who knew the game inside and out, someone who would learn everything else on the fly? What would be wrong with that?

Hinch was 34 at the time and had been working as the club's farm director. He'd never coached or managed at any level. These days, that's no big deal as the hiring of Mike Matheny, Brad Ausmus, Walt Weiss, Mike Redmond and Robin Ventura have forced fans, executives and the media to see the job differently.

"Perceptions have changed about what it takes to lead a group of men," Byrnes said. "That being said, A.J. has a lot of respect for the things that aren't going to change in the game -- and shouldn't change. That's fundamentals, hard work, the environment of a winning team."

Back in 2009, Hinch's hiring caused a firestorm. Fans hated it immediately. Columnists didn't get it. Players, loyal to Melvin and uncertain about the new guy, never bought in, either. At some point, ownership agreed.

Hinch and Byrnes lasted just 212 games together, and ultimately both paid for the experiment by losing their jobs. Looking back on it, Byrnes apologizes only for the fact that, partly because of injuries, he was unable to give Hinch a better team.

He still thinks it was a move that could have worked and sees a bunch of baseball's recent hires -- and those in other sports, such as Derek Fisher coaching the Knicks -- as reinforcement that his original idea was sound.

And it was the thinking behind that original idea that went a long way toward convincing Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow that Hinch deserved another chance.

As Luhnow evaluated candidate after candidate, he kept coming back to Hinch, whose background and experience are unlike few others. Hinch is only 40 years old, but he has spent 20 years in the game. He's bright and ambitious, with a psychology degree from Stanford.

But there's more. Hinch was drafted three times and played parts of seven seasons in the big leagues. He has worked as a farm director, instructor and front-office executive.

And he has been a big league manager for 212 games. He was 89-123. Luhnow was unbothered by the record, and at a time when the Astros hope Luhnow's nice work acquiring young talent is on the verge of paying off, Hinch separated himself from the pack.

When those young players go through tough times, Hinch can tell 'em, "Been there, done that." He had a .219 batting average in 350 games.

Another thing Luhnow wanted was someone comfortable with the advanced analytics that have become the backdrop for everything the Astros do. Almost every team uses advanced analytics. The Astros are all in, hiring law-school graduates and rocket scientists and even some traditional baseball people.

Luhnow became convinced that Hinch understands managing a baseball team in 2015 isn't like managing one in 1985. The Astros can furnish him with reams of data regarding lineups, defensive alignments and pitching matchups.

Hinch's job is to deal with players on a more personal level and to understand their insecurities and to get a consistently hard effort on the field. Upstairs, there will be cold, hard numbers driving decisions. Hinch's job will be to get players to believe that all of them are what's best for the Astros.

To some of the people who know Hinch best, they're convinced these last 20 years, including those 212 games in Arizona, have prepared him to flourish in this second chance.

"He's a great human being," Byrnes said. "He loves the game. He loves the competition. When things haven't gone well, he evaluates and tries to get better."

There's one other reason he believes Hinch will succeed. That's the man himself.

"I hate to be corny, but it's his character," Byrnes said. "People who know him well trust his judgement, character, intentions. Those are important things in a job like that."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Astros hope to boost offense, look to youth next season

Young core of Altuve, Springer and Keuchel will lead club going forward

Astros hope to boost offense, look to youth next season

HOUSTON -- When asked what his top priority will be this offseason in terms of improving the Astros, general manager Jeff Luhnow didn't hesitate in saying offense.

The Astros were an improved offensive team from a year ago, thanks to Jose Altuve's remarkable season, the arrival of George Springer, the acquisition of Dexter Fowler and the second-half resurgence of Chris Carter. Still, the Astros relied too much on the home run and had the lowest production at the corner infield spots with third baseman Matt Dominguez regressing and rookie first baseman Jon Singleton struggling in his debut.

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"That needs to be addressed, whether it's a combination of those guys coming back after disappointing years and really performing the way we know they're able to next year, or us addressing the needs in free agency," Luhnow said. "We're going to look long and hard on that."

The Astros' $45 million payroll figures to jump because of the additions they'll have to make to keep some of their nine arbitration-eligible players, including Fowler ($7.85 million in '14), Carter ($510,000) and catcher Jason Castro ($2.45 million). All will get significant raises.

Having Springer in the lineup daily will be a huge boost to the offense, but they'll be looking to add some power in the outfield, which becomes a must when the corner infielders aren't producing it.

"We feel good about the starting pitching, but we need to improve our offense," Luhnow said. "We cut down on the strikeouts and I think our guys are getting better with their approach."

Another area the club will address in free agency or trades is the bullpen. Houston tried to shore up its bullpen a year ago by signing Chad Qualls, Matt Albers, Jesse Crain and Jerome Williams, but Albers pitched in only eight games and Crain never got on the mound. Williams was cut loose in June.

With club on the cusp of finally sorting out its television stalemate, Luhnow said there's "going to be substantial resources" to keep the arbitration-eligible players, as well as having some money to spend in free agency.

Arbitration-eligible: RHP Anthony Bass, DH Chris Carter, C Jason Castro, C Carlos Corporan, CF Dexter Fowler, IF Marwin Gonzalez, OF/IF Jesus Guzman, OF Alex Presley, LHP Tony Sipp.

Free agents: RHP Matt Albers ($3 million club option for 2015), RHP Jesse Crain, RHP Jose Veras.

Rotation: The top three in the rotation are set with veteran Scott Feldman, left-hander Dallas Keuchel and rookie revelation Collin McHugh all coming off solid seasons, with Keuchel emerging as an ace. Lefty Brett Oberholtzer did an admirable job as the fourth starter and figures to remain in the mix for the final two spots entering 2015 with Brad Peacock, who was inconsistent this year, and youngsters Jake Buchanan, Mike Foltynewicz and Nick Tropeano

Bullpen: This will be near the top of Luhnow's offseason to-do list. Last winter's signings of veterans Albers and Crain were a whiff as both were injured all season. Qualls did a nice job at closer (with the exception of facing the A's), but the Astros could use another proven arm or two to lock down more games. Lefty Tony Sipp was a solid pickup and should return. Josh Fields emerged as a solid option, while fellow youngsters Josh Zeid and Kevin Chapman were a mixed bag. Luhnow hinted he wants Veras to return as well.

Catcher: Castro slumped offensively this year following his All-Star season of a year ago, and he's arbitration eligible for the second time, so the Astros are going to have to decide whether to try to lock him up. Corporan did a nice job as a backup, and prospect Max Stassi didn't make many strides offensively all season at Triple-A, though he should be in the mix for significant playing time next year.

First base: The Astros have a lot invested in highly touted rookie Singleton, who made his Major League debut in June after signing a five-year extension worth $10 million. Though he flashed some power, he struggled mightily at the plate and racked up the strikeouts and the frustration. He'll undoubtedly open the season as the starter, but the pressure will be on to produce, especially if the Astros add some corner infield help.

Second base: The Astros are set here for the next few years with Altuve, who set the franchise record for hits in a season, multi-hit games and three-hit games and wound up with more hits in a season than any Venezuelan-born player. He was also the first player in Astros history to win the batting title. He's under contract at a bargain through 2017, so this is one area Luhnow doesn't have to worry about.

Shortstop: While the Astros continue the wait for 2012 No. 1 overall pick Carlos Correa to arrive (Correa missed the second half of the season at Class A after breaking his leg), the club could choose to give the inconsistent Jonathan Villar one more chance to prove his worth. Marwin Gonzalez did a nice job for much of season, but he's probably more valuable as a backup. Correa appears to be the real deal and could arrive in 2015.

Third base: Dominguez, who did a nice job in 2013 in his first full season in the Majors, was a disappointment at the plate and saw his numbers slump across the board. The Astros traded for former No. 6 overall draft pick Colin Moran at the Trade Deadline, and he figures to be coming to big league camp and perhaps push Dominguez for playing time. The Astros will be in the market for a veteran corner infielder, where Houston's production was the worst in the Majors.

Outfield: A healthy Springer will lock down one of the three outfield starting spots in 2015, and whether he's in center field or right field will depend on Dexter Fowler, who's eligible for arbitration and could make close to $10 million. Could the Astros try to trade him this winter? Don't be surprised to see the Astros try to find a power corner outfield bat via free agency or trade, though this year's outfield free-agent crop isn't great. Beyond that, Jake Marisnick, Robbie Grossman, L.J. Hoes and Alex Presley all figure to be in the mix somehow.

Designated hitter: Carter's second-half power surge likely secured a spot for him in the lineup next year, though he is arbitration eligible for the first time and figures to get a nice raise. He pushed 40 homers and turned into a more disciplined hitter in the second half of the season, while cutting down on his strikeouts.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Astros take leap forward in eventful 2014 season

Altuve makes history while Springer, Keuchel and McHugh emerge

Astros take leap forward in eventful 2014 season

HOUSTON -- Yes, the Astros had nowhere to go but up after winning only 51 games in 2013, and their performance this year certainly brings reasons for optimism when you consider they finished with one of the biggest turnarounds in the Major Leagues.

More important to general manager Jeff Luhnow than wins and losses, however, are the reasons why the Astros showed so much improvement on the field. Several players emerged, some surprisingly so, to make the kinds of contributions that could set the club up nicely in the near future if they can add the right pieces.

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The Astros pitched better, struck out fewer times and showed more power. And even though manager Bo Porter didn't make it through the season -- he was dismissed Sept. 1 after clashing with Luhnow -- there was tangible evidence at the Major League level the Astros are on the right path.

"At the beginning of the year, I was asked about what we were trying to achieve win-loss-wise, and I said we're looking for a bit step in the right direction," Luhnow said. "I didn't know what that meant in terms of wins and losses, but I thought we would know. And I do feel we know.

"We've made a substantial improvement, whether we went up with 70 or 71 wins is really irrelevant. More important, we feel we've got a foundation in place to build on to get the team to the next level, and the next level really is a .500 team or better. I think we're in position with a good offseason to get there."

The Astros avoided 100 losses for the first time since 2010 and climbed out of last place in the rugged American League West by winning the season series from their in-state rival Texas Rangers, who had dominated them in recent years.

The bright spots were many: All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve set a team record, led the Major Leagues in hits and won the first batting title in Astros history, the starting rotation -- led by Scott Feldman, Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh -- was much improved, designated hitter Chris Carter came into his own in the second half of the season and rookie outfielder George Springer showed exciting promise, when healthy. Veteran outfielder Dexter Fowler was a nice addition as well.

"I think it's been a pretty strong improvement," veteran catcher Jason Castro said. "It's definitely what we were looking for in Spring Training this year. To see a lot of the pitching staff really step up and grow as pitchers has been kind of one of the biggest bright spots for this organization moving forward."

The Astros started poorly out of the gate once again and were 17-32 in late May when they came together and played close to .500 ball the rest of the year. In May, they posted their first winning month in three years, thanks in part to Springer's stellar performance that earned him Rookie of the Month honors.

"Having Springer in the lineup every day makes a huge difference for us," Luhnow said.

Even though Springer didn't play after July 19 because of a strained quad, the Astros rode the hot bat of Altuve and Carter, who led the Majors in homers after July 1, to post a second winning month in August, going 15-14. Keuchel, Feldman, McHugh and Brett Oberholtzer all pitched well down the stretch and gave the Astros a solid foundation in the rotation.

"It all starts with the starting pitching, and we made some giant strides," Luhnow said.

Record: 70-92, fourth in the American League West

Defining moment: The Astros were 12-27 with the worst record in the Major Leagues after being shut out on May 12 by the Rangers, who had dominated them the year before. Left-hander Dallas Keuchel took the ball the next day at Minute Maid Park and threw his first career shutout, sparking the Astros to 12 wins over a span of 17 games to get back to respectability. It also was the Astros' first of seven consecutive victories against the Rangers en route to winning the season series against them for the first time since 2006 -- a big reason why Houston finally escaped last place in the division.

What went right: All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve put himself on the national stage by breaking Craig Biggio's franchise record for hits in a season and leading the Majors in hits on his way to the Astros' first batting title. … Rookie outfielder George Springer made his much-anticipated debut and showed his potential by hitting 20 home runs in 78 games before missing the final 2 1/2 months with a strained quad. … Left-hander Dallas Keuchel established himself as the ace of the staff by reaching career highs in nearly every category, including five complete games. … McHugh, a waiver claim, came out of nowhere to emerge as one of the AL's top rookie starting pitchers. He was nearly unbeatable the final six weeks. … Despite a three-week stint on the disabled list early in the year, veteran pitcher Scott Feldman delivered one of his best seasons of his career. … Designated hitter Chris Carter went on a second-half tear and emerged as one of the biggest power threats in the AL.

What went wrong: A growing discord between general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager Bo Porter came to a head Sept. 1 when the second-year skipper was dismissed and replaced on an interim basis by Tom Lawless. … The signings of veteran pitchers Matt Albers and Jesse Crain to shore up the bullpen proved to be busts after injuries kept them off the field. Albers, signed for $2.25 million, pitched in eight games, and Crain, signed for $3.25 million, didn't get on the field. … Prospect Jon Singleton made his debut in June and struggled mightily for much of the season with many strikeouts. … Shortstop Jonathan Villar got off to a quick start, but didn't pan out and spent much of the season in the Minor Leagues. … Third baseman Matt Dominguez and catcher Jason Castro both took steps backwards offensively after promising seasons a year earlier.

Biggest surprise: McHugh, called up when Scott Feldman went on the disabled list early in the season, struck out 12 batters in 6 2/3 scoreless innings in his Astros debut April 22 in Seattle. It wasn't a fluke. McHugh blossomed into one of the top young starters in the AL by piling up the quality starts and eventually the wins. Had he pitched enough innings, McHugh would have finished among AL leaders in ERA this year. Not bad for a pitcher claimed off waivers from the Rockies last winter.

Hitter of the Year: Who else? Jose Altuve. He set the franchise record for hits in a season, multi-hit games and three-hit games and wound up with more hits in a season than any Venezuelan-born player. Winning the first batting title in Astros history, Altuve joined Ty Cobb as the only players to have at least 220 hits, 45 doubles and 54 steals since 1917. He had the most hits by a second baseman since Charlie Gehringer (227) in 1936.

Pitcher of the Year: Keuchel. The lefty didn't even make the starting rotation until the final days of Spring Training, but he quickly emerged as the Astros' ace. Keuchel set career highs in almost every category, including wins, innings pitched, ERA and complete games, where he was among the leaders in the Major Leagues. When he was on the mound, the Astros won more often than not.

Rookie of the Year: McHugh. Springer, who was named AL Rookie of the Month for May, would have earned this honor had he not missed the final three months of the season. McHugh would have made a run at AL Rookie of the Year had it not been for Jose Abreu of the White Sox.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Astros players back Hinch managerial hiring

Astros players back Hinch managerial hiring

HOUSTON -- New Astros manager A.J. Hinch might not be a name many of the players he'll inherit next year know much about, but relief pitcher Chad Qualls knows the new skipper well, having played for Hinch during his managerial stint with the D-backs.

Hinch, introduced Monday at Minute Maid Park as the Astros' 18th manager, spent parts of the 2009 and '10 seasons managing in Arizona, where Qualls was the team's closer.

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"I think it's a good fit for Houston," Qualls said. "Obviously, he's managed in the past and was doing a good job over there in Arizona, and he's gotten a lot more experience in the front office. I think this is something he'll embrace. He's got some guys here that have already been in the big leagues for a little bit and we've got the younger guys that gained some maturity to deal with, but it's a good, fresh start for him."

Astros infielder Gregorio Petit also knows Hinch, though not as well as Qualls. He was playing in the Padres organization when Hinch was the vice president and assistant general manager from 2011 through August of this year, when he resigned.

"I didn't get to know him that much, but from what I saw, he was a real honest guy when I talked to him, which tells you a lot about a man," Petit said. "He knows the game. When you know the guy, it makes it a little easier."

Qualls said Hinch stood by his players in Arizona.

"He'll side with [the players] at all times," Qualls said. "I have nothing but good things to say about him. When he was managing the Diamondbacks, I was closing over there, I ended up hurting my knee and was having a rough season, and he was sticking with me and trying to let me pull through the rough season. He really gave the players the benefit of the doubt and gave them all the opportunities to do what they can. He'll back you 100 percent."

Astros pitcher Dallas Keuchel didn't know Hinch prior to Monday, but he said communication will be important with the new manager. A communication breakdown between general manager Jeff Luhnow and former manager Bo Porter led to Porter's dismissal on Sept. 1, and there were communication lapses between Porter and the players as well.

"I think we need to have better communication than we've had in the past couple of years," Keuchel said. "That being said, our job is to go out and play. I think we did that a lot better this year. I just think he needs to come in and deal with everybody, but let everybody play and have a relaxed environment."

The thought of having a new manager does bring excitement, Keuchel said.

"We're all excited," he said. "With the way season ended, we're all ready to play again."

Like Hinch, Jason Castro played catcher at Stanford under legendary coach Mark Marquess, though he's never met Hinch.

"We came through the same organization so I know probably a lot of the same values and things were instilled in us going through coach Marquess' program at Stanford, and I'm sure a lot of the stories are the same," Castro said. "I've heard good things about him and heard from a few guys that have come into contact with him or have met him in the past. I'm excited to meet him moving forward and get a chance to see his managerial prowess and the kind of baseball we'll be playing under him."

Castro said having a manager who's played for several years in the Major Leagues will help him relate to the players.

"I think probably someone who really kind of understands the game and gets the best out of his players and can relate to his players from that aspect," he said. "A guy who played himself for quite a while understands the daily grind and the intrinsic qualities of a baseball team and can relate to a lot of those. In that regard, he should have an inside track with the guys, and at the same time, pushing players and expecting the best out of them and getting guys to play to the best of their ability."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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First managerial moves made as offseason begins

Twins dismiss Gardenhire while Astros hire Hinch

First managerial moves made as offseason begins

One day after the regular season ended, the first managerial moves were made on Monday as the Twins dismissed Ron Gardenhire after 13 seasons on the job and the Astros named A.J. Hinch their next manager.

And there figures to be more changes in the upcoming days and weeks. After all, coaches are usually the first casualties following disappointing seasons.

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There are now three teams looking for managers, with the Twins joining the D-backs and Rangers.

The Rangers are hoping to hire a new manager by the World Series, general manager Jon Daniels said Sunday. Among the candidates under consideration are interim manager Tim Bogar, Triple-A manager Steve Buechele and pitching coach Mike Maddux, in addition to a few candidates from other clubs. Daniels has yet to formally request permission to interview anyone outside of the organization.

The D-backs' search for a manager began Friday, when they let go of Kirk Gibson. Arizona has a new general manager in Dave Stewart and a new senior vice president of baseball operations in De Jon Watson. It did not take long for the club to hire Stewart and Watson when those positions opened, so that could mean a new manager is not far away.

The Twins' search for a new manager will include candidates from both inside and outside the organization. The remainder of the coaching staff will be put together by the new manager and general manager Terry Ryan. The contracts of Minnesota's seven coaches are all set to expire at the end of this year.

Gardenhire had one year remaining on a two-year contract he signed before the season. He became the Twins manager in 2002 and led the team to six American League Central division championships in his first nine years. But the Twins have finished last in the division in three of the last four seasons.

"This is a little bit of a difficult day for a lot of us," Ryan said during a news conference at Target Field on Monday. "We've been together with Ron for a long time. ... I think it was mutually agreed upon that we're going to go in this direction."

"I'm gone. I'm out of here because we didn't win," Gardenhire said. "That's what it gets down to in baseball. That's what it should get down to -- you have to win on the field. These last four years have been tough on us."

The Astros, meanwhile, are looking ahead to the future with Hinch at the helm.

Hinch managed Arizona from May 2009 to July 2010 and had a 89-123 record. After that, he served as the vice president of professional scouting for the Padres for four years. Hinch, 40, played 350 games over his Major League career with the A's, Phillies, Royals and Tigers.

"I am extremely excited to bring in A.J. as our new manager," said Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow. "Throughout our process, we searched for a person with previous Major League experience who could effectively lead our young, growing nucleus of talented players. I have no doubt that A.J. is the right person to do that. He brings experience as a Major League player, Major League manager and player development executive. His skill sets and leadership abilities will be enormous assets in our clubhouse and to our entire organization."

"I couldn't be more excited to be the manager of the Houston Astros," said Hinch, a catcher who won a bronze medal with the United States at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. "We have a lot of work to do to bring winning back to the city of Houston and Astros fans everywhere. I can't wait to get started toward that goal today."

Moving forward, there could also be some extensions for current managers. The Marlins extended Mike Redmond's contract through 2017, finalizing the deal on Sunday. Redmond was set to enter the final season of the contract he signed when he took over after the 2012 season.

Austin Laymance is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Banister interviews, doesn't get Astros job

Banister interviews, doesn't get Astros job

PITTSBURGH -- Pirates bench coach Jeff Banister, a finalist for the Houston managerial job that went to A.J. Hinch on Monday, thanked the Astros organization for the opportunity to realize dream job No. 2. But Banister was also grateful to still have dream job No. 1.

"Am I disappointed I didn't get that opportunity? Absolutely," Banister said a couple hours before the Astros formally introduced Hinch. "But I still have the best job in baseball. I get to show up tomorrow, put on the black and gold and prepare for a playoff game against the San Francisco Giants."

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Banister, a Houston native who lives about 20 minutes from Minute Maid Park, had been informed on Sunday of the Astros' decision.

"It would've been a great opportunity to manage the team that was my Major League team [as a fan] until I became a Pirate, and awesome for my family, but I'm happy to be with a group and an organization I absolutely love," Banister said. "This is also my family."

That feeling is obviously mutual. General manager Neal Huntington, manager Clint Hurdle and others voiced their passionate support for Banister to Houston officials as he went through two rounds of interviews.

"That was humbling and overwhelming," Banister said. "And emotional -- but that's the culture we've created here. It makes me proud that I've reached and touched people around me.

"Houston treated me with class and integrity, and gave me an opportunity to speak about their position. I thank them for that."

A member of the Pirates organization for more than two decades in a variety of roles, Banister interviewed four years ago with the club for the job that went to Hurdle. The interview with Houston was his first outside the organization.

It should not be the last. The Twins dismissed manager Ron Gardenhire on Monday, and other vacancies could be upcoming.

"I never chase a position," Banister said. "If you're good enough and are recognized, people will find you.

"I'd love to be a candidate to manage if other opportunities present themselves. The greatest compliment I could pay to the Pittsburgh family, the people who taught me, is to take what we have done here and put it to use in another organization. If someone asked me to interview for their job, it would be the ultimate compliment to Clint and to Neal and to [club president Frank Coonelly] and to [club chairman Bob Nutting]. To take what we have created here and apply it elsewhere."

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Altuve claims first batting crown in Astros history

Second baseman chooses to play in finale, goes 2-for-4 to secure AL title

Altuve claims first batting crown in Astros history

NEW YORK -- If you know anything about Jose Altuve, you weren't surprised he wound up wanting to play Sunday after originally being out of the lineup. And if you know anything else about Altuve, you weren't surprised to see him rise to the occasion.

Altuve, the Astros' 24-year-old energizing second baseman, capped off one of the greatest offensive seasons in club history Sunday afternoon by going 2-for-4 in an 8-3 season-ending loss to the Mets to win the American League batting crown -- the first time an Astros player has captured a title.

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"That means a lot," Altuve said. "That's something I've been working for, and I'm trying to help my team every day. And to win a batting title and being the first one in franchise history is pretty exciting to me."

Altuve finished the season by leading the Major Leagues with 225 hits -- smashing Craig Biggio's franchise record of 210 -- and a .341 batting average, to go along with 47 doubles, 59 RBIs and 56 stolen bases, which led the AL. He led the Majors in average, multihit games and three-hit games.

"It's awesome," teammate Dexter Fowler said. "You see the guy and how hard he works and you see it paying off."

After the game, Astros teammates, coaches and staff gave Altuve a champagne toast in the clubhouse.

"I'm pretty excited, but what made me happier is all the support and the things my team has done for me," Altuve said. "After the game, they were happy for me and all came to me and said 'Congratulations,' and that made my season way better."

Astros hitting coach John Mallee laid out three goals for Altuve in Spring Training: become more disciplined in the strike zone, make the All-Star team and win a batting title. Check, check and check.

"That caps off [Altuve] as a person, the hard work he put in," Mallee said. "He went out and finished the job. He did it on the field."

The Astros had originally decided to keep Altuve out of the lineup Sunday -- with the second baseman's blessing -- to help protect his three-point lead over Detroit designated hitter Victor Martinez entering the game, but interim manager Tom Lawless said Altuve was called back into the office. There was a change of heart.

The team released a statement via Twitter about 30 minutes prior to the first pitch saying Altuve was playing.

"He wanted to play, he didn't want to play, he wanted to play, so we played him," Lawless said. "We decided to make the change and play him and whatever happened, happened. And it happened that with his two hits, he became the batting champion. It was a moot point what happened before."

Altuve would have won the batting title had he not played, because Martinez went 0-for-3 Sunday and finished at .335, but it was gratifying for Altuve to get two hits on the season's final day.

"This is way better just sitting on the bench and waiting for something," Altuve said.

After hitting into a double play in his first bat against Bartolo Colon, Altuve came up in the third and shot a ground-rule double into the gap in left-center, taking the pressure off of him and the Astros' dugout. The batting crown was pretty much locked up at that point.

"It's not easy when people come to you and say, 'You've got to win it, you've got to win it' and 'We trust you,'" Altuve said. "My teammates and coaches, they wanted me to win it and I did the best I can, and I did it."

For good measure, Altuve beat out an infield hit to score a run in the fifth for his 69th multihit game, extending his franchise record. The bat he used Sunday will be sent to Cooperstown and displayed in the Hall of Fame.

Altuve had the most hits by a second baseman in a single season since 1936, and he joined Joe Mauer (2006) and Alex Rodriguez (1996) as the only AL players 24-years-old or younger to win a batting title in the last 20 seasons.

"There was a lot of relief on [Altuve's] part, I know that," Lawless said. "A big [weight] came off his shoulders once he got that first hit and he threw another one in there, so that pretty much solidified his goal of being the American League batting champ. That's a goal that is a pretty prized possession."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Altuve's two hits in finale lock up batting title

All-Star becomes first Astros player to capture crown in season finale

Altuve's two hits in finale lock up batting title

NEW YORK -- It was a big day for rookie right-hander Nick Tropeano, the Long Island native making his first career start at Citi Field. It was a big day for rookie catcher Max Stassi, who had a pair of RBIs and threw out a runner trying to steal second base.

But this stage, this moment, belonged to the little guy who had the biggest day of all. Astros second baseman Jose Altuve had a pair of hits to lock up the American League battle title in an 8-3 loss to the Mets that put a cap on the 2014 season.

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"Everybody was saying, 'Congratulations' and they're happy, and when your team is happy, you have to feel good," said Altuve, the first Astro to win a league batting crown.

The Astros finished the season with a 70-92 record, which is a 19-game improvement over last year's 51-win season. The win-loss record is definitely a sign of the strides that were made on the field, and a productive offseason could set them up to push .500 in 2015.

"There's pros and cons with the season," general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "This team is making improvements, and we still have a long way to go, but we feel good about the progress we made this year, despite having some setbacks and hurdles. I feel good we've laid a good foundation for next year. We should be able to build on the progress we made this year and continue and propel this team to the next level."

Altuve finished the season by leading the Major Leagues with 225 hits -- breaking Craig Biggio's franchise record -- and a .341 batting average, to go along with 47 doubles and 56 stolen bases, which led the AL. He led the Majors in multihit games and three-hit games.

The Astros had originally decided to keep Altuve out of the lineup Sunday to help protect his three-point lead over Detroit designated hitter Victor Martinez entering the game, but the team and Altuve decided he would play. Martinez went 0-for-3 Sunday to finish at .335.

"I always wanted to play and we made the decision together," Altuve said. "We made the decision [initially] not to play, but they trusted me and I trust them, so let's go outside and play."

Altuve doubled in the third inning and had an infield single the fifth that all but locked up the batting title.

Tropeano, who's from West Islip, N.Y., allowed four runs and six hits in five innings while pitching in front of a throng of friends and family he estimates was more than 100.

"Warming up, you could hear them screaming and all that kind of stuff," he said. "Good, bad, win, lose, it was a dream for me just being here and playing the New York Mets. It's surreal."

Mets starter Bartolo Colon (15-13) held the Astros to three runs on eight hits in six innings.

The game was tied in the fifth when Lucas Duda hit a two-run double to right field to put the Mets ahead, 4-2. Stassi's RBI single in the sixth scored Jake Marisnick and cut the lead to one run, 4-3, but Duda blasted a two-run homer to right field in the eighth off Michael Foltynewicz.

Stassi, whose Major League debut last year was marred when he was struck in the face with a pitch, hit .350 in 20 at-bats and leaves the season with a good taste in his mouth.

"I was just approaching this day like any other day and go out there and try to take care of business and let the game come to me," Stassi said. "That's when I get in trouble is when I try to do too much. Today I was out there having fun. I wish we could have pulled off the win, but that's baseball."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Managing or not, Lawless plans to be in uniform in '15

Houston's interim skipper, a 35-year baseball vet, interviewed for permanent job Saturday

Managing or not, Lawless plans to be in uniform in '15

NEW YORK -- When he was asked about Sunday being his last game, Astros interim manager Tom Lawless bristled and said he's going to have a uniform on next year. Whether that's managing the Astros or working elsewhere in their organization remains to be seen.

Lawless wrapped up his month-long tenure at the helm of the Astros with an 8-3 loss to the Mets in Sunday's season finale, dropping his record to 11-13. He took over Sept. 1 when the Astros dismissed manager Bo Porter, and he's one of a handful of candidates for the full-time job, having interviewed Saturday.

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"We had a stretch there we were playing all those teams that were playoff-bound, and we held our own and won a lot of ballgames there," he said.

Lawless, 57, has spent the past six seasons in the Astros' organization, starting the year as the infield coach at Double-A Corpus Christi before serving as interim manager at Triple-A Oklahoma City earlier in the year. He has close to 35 years of experience in baseball, including 10 as a Minor League manager.

"Baseball's my life, and I've been in baseball forever and I'll be in baseball next year doing something," he said. "I've enjoyed the opportunity and I've had fun with it, and I hope the kids had fun with it. The players played hard and responded to what we asked them to do, and that's all you can ask."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Houston BBWAA recognizes Altuve, Keuchel, McHugh

Slugger named MVP; lefty wins Pitcher of the Year; righty gets Rookie nod

Houston BBWAA recognizes Altuve, Keuchel, McHugh

NEW YORK -- The Houston chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America announced its annual awards for the 2014 season on Sunday, with Jose Altuve winning team Most Valuable Player, lefty Dallas Keuchel winning Pitcher of the Year and right-hander Collin McHugh being named Rookie of the Year.

Veteran right-hander Scott Feldman was named the winner of the Darryl Kile Good Guy Award, which goes to the player most affable with teammates, fans and the press. Nationals shortstop Anthony Rendon, who played at Lamar High School in Houston and Rice University, was named Houston-area Major League Player of the Year.

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Also, Astros senior vice president Jamie Hildreth won the Fred Hartman Long and Meritorious Service Award.

The team MVP award is the second for Altuve (2012), who set a club record for hits (225) en route to winning the American League batting crown.

Keuchel has been one of the top starters in the Majors this season, posting a 12-9 record in 29 starts with a 2.93 ERA and an AL-best five complete games. In addition to wins, Keuchel also leads the Astros in innings with a career-high 200.

McHugh, has been one of the top rookies in the AL with an 11-9 record in 25 starts with a 2.73 ERA, 157 strikeouts and 117 hits allowed in 154 2/3 innings of work. McHugh, who began the 2014 season at Triple-A Oklahoma City, leads the Astros' staff in strikeouts, while ranking among the AL leaders in strikeouts per nine innings and opponents' batting average (.208). 

Feldman, who was the Astros' Opening Day starter in 2014, is the senior member of the rotation and provided guidance and leadership to Houston's young staff. On the field, Feldman finished the season strong, posting a 3.32 ERA in six starts in August and a 1.91 ERA in four September starts.

Rendon had the best season of his young career as he helped lead the Nationals to the National League East title. Rendon finished the year with a .287 ERA in 153 games with 39 doubles, six triples, 21 homers and 83 RBIs. His 111 runs scored are third in the Majors.

Hildreth has been with the Astros for 28 seasons, currently serving as senior vice president, broadcasting and alumni relations. This award is in memory of the late Baytown newspaper man who covered the Astros from their infancy in 1962 until his death in 1991.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Sipp, Astros lose shutout bid on walk-off homer

Reliever allows two-out, two-run shot in ninth to New York's Duda

Sipp, Astros lose shutout bid on walk-off homer

NEW YORK -- The Astros walked a high-wire act for four innings in their second-to-last game of the season Saturday night, trying to protect a tenuous one-run lead with a flurry of relief pitchers.

Left-hander Tony Sipp, the Astros' fifth pitcher of the night, was one out away from polishing off a three-hit shutout when Lucas Duda rocketed a two-run homer down the right-field line, clanking it off the foul pole, to lead the Mets to a 2-1 win at Citi Field.

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"It's a game of inches and that ball could've hooked foul," Astros interim manager Tom Lawless said. "They did enough to score two in the ninth and you can't blame anybody. We played hard and we pitched well and they just happened to get good wood on the ball and hit a home run."

The Astros enter the final game of the season with a 70-91 record and needing a win to give them a 20-game improvement from last year's 51-loss season.

But much of the focus for the Astros will be on All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve, who went 0-for-4 on Saturday and holds a slim three-point lead over Victor Martinez for the batting title. Altuve is hitting .340, and Martinez is at .337.

"We'll see what happens," Lawless said. "It should be fun."

Sipp, who threw two scoreless innings on Friday, entered the ninth with a 1-0 lead in an attempt to polish off a two-hit shutout. Eric Young Jr. tripled with one out, and he was still at third when Duda came to the plate with two outs and delivered.

"I was just trying to make contact," Duda said. "Obviously, I haven't hit lefties all too well this year, that's pretty obvious. But I'll get better at it. In the past I've hit lefties a little better than I have this year. A work in progress still."

Sipp (4-3) left a 1-0 fastball over the plate.

"I knew if I made good pitches that I matched up against him," he said. "I made one mistake and he took advantage of it, and a guy with that much power, you've got to locate at least down and I left it up. He did what most power hitters do with fastballs that are elevated in the middle, and I've got to do a better job of locating."

Astros catcher Jason Castro, making his final start of the season, ripped an RBI double into the right-field corner in the sixth inning to score Dexter Fowler from first base and give Houston a 1-0 lead.

The Astros have scored nine runs in their past five games and were 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position Saturday.

"We're trying to get some runs," Lawless said. We had first and third [in the sixth] and would have scored some runs if we could get a ball in the outfield, and we couldn't do it again tonight. We tried to hold a one-run lead and in Major League Baseball that's kind of hard because they have some good hitters on the other side. It's a tough one."

Samuel Deduno, a late-season waiver claim making his first start with the Astros, threw four scoreless innings -- he was on a pitch limit -- and struck out four batters. He also shot a double to left field in the third for his first Major League hit and the first hit by an Astros pitcher this year.

Twins starter Rafael Montero held the Astros to one run and six hits in 5 1/3 innings.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Altuve picked to play for MLB All-Star team in Japan

Altuve picked to play for MLB All-Star team in Japan

NEW YORK -- Now that he's conquered the Major Leagues, Astros second baseman Jose Altuve is taking his hitting prowess to Japan.

Altuve told MLB.com on Saturday the Major League Baseball Players Association called him earlier this week and invited him to play to the MLB All-Star team during the All-Star Series 2014, which is a five-game series against Japan's national team this November in Japan.

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"I heard the guys talking about it in the All-Star Game, so I said I want to go. Why not?" Altuve said. "I told my agent to tell the Players Association, and they called me a couple of days ago and said I made the team. I'm really happy and looking forward to going to Japan."

The team will be managed by Red Sox manager John Farrell, who was announced recently as a replacement for former Rangers manager Ron Washington.

Among the players who Farrell will lead to Japan are MLB All-Stars Robinson Cano of the Seattle Mariners, Adam Jones of the Baltimore Orioles, Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Albert Pujols of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.  

"It's something I always wanted to do," Altuve said. "I don't know the country, but I heard it's really good and beautiful. Baseball there is a high level there. I wanted to go there. I know that's going to help my game. I'm going to play with guys like Robinson Cano, Yasiel Puig and Albert Pujols. I have a lot to learn in this sport, so I think that's the right time to go."

Altuve entered Saturday's game with a team-record and Major League-best 223 hits and was closing in on winning the American League batting title with a .342 batting average, which would make him the first Astros player to reach that milestone.

The first game will be held on Nov. 12 at the Kyocera Dome in Osaka, with games two through five at the Tokyo Dome Nov. 14-16. The fifth and final game will be Nov. 18 at the Sapporo Dome in Sapporo. Two exhibition games will complement the five-game series, with one game in Osaka (Koshien Stadium) and the other in Okinawa (Okinawa Cellular Stadium). 

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Chapman thrilled to share field with cousin den Dekker

Chapman thrilled to share field with cousin den Dekker

NEW YORK -- Several members of the family of Astros pitcher Kevin Chapman and Mets outfielder Matt den Dekker, who are cousins, will be at Citi Field for this weekend's series between the Mets and Astros. Chapman said the two are best friends.

"Our families are here, too, so I guess that makes it extra special," he said. "To be able to share this with them and facing my cousin in a big league stadium is pretty cool."

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The two grew up together in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and were extremely close. They were born six months apart and attended the same high school and were roommates at the University of Florida. They were both drafted in 2010 -- Chapman in the fourth round by the Royals, and den Dekker in the fifth round by the Mets. They even made their Major League debuts within a few weeks of each other in August 2013.

"It's the same timeline in our life experiences and the same things that come along with this job," Chapman said. "We're able to talk about it with each other and see it from each other's perspective and bounce things off each other."

The two keep in constant contact via text message and talk on the phone every couple of weeks, Chapman said. When they were kids, Chapman would drive a boat to den Dekker's house because their neighborhoods shared the same canal.

"He's sort of like my brother because I never had a brother," Chapman said. "We were together every day, playing baseball or golfing or going to the beach or whatever. In that aspect, he's like my brother."

As far as what he's thrown den Dekker to try to get him out, Chapman joked before the game: "Can't tell you yet."

Chapman faced den Dekker in the bottom of the sixth Friday and walked him.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Nevin honored to be considered for managerial postition

Nevin honored to be considered for managerial postition

NEW YORK -- Phil Nevin, a candidate to become manager of the Astros, told MLB.com on Friday he was thrilled at the possibility to return to the organization that drafted him 22 years ago.

The Astros are trying to find a full-time manager after dismissing Bo Porter on Sept. 1.

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"Just to be considered one of the guys they thought of the possibility to lead your team with any organization is a tremendous honor," he said. "I was drafted by Houston and was there for my first few years, impressionable years in my professional career and it's always been a place that's special to me."

Nevin, currently the manager at Triple-A Reno in the D-backs' system, is considered managerial material in baseball circles. He's come a long way since early in his career with the Astros when he was known for some immature actions that ultimately led to him being traded.

"I open the paper and look at the box scores and my eyes still go right to the Houston stuff and always have," he said. "Being around it during Spring Training when I was with the Tigers the last four years and seeing the young talent they have there, they have a lot of extremely talented players, and I'm sure a lot of people would be intrigued at this opportunity."

Nevin, 43, played 12 years in the Major Leagues after being taken by the Astros with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1992 First-Year Player Draft. He was a bust with the Astros, but went on to have a solid career by hitting .270 with 208 homers and 743 RBIs with the Astros, Tigers, Angels, Padres, Rangers, Cubs and Twins.

Nevin appeared in just 18 games with Houston, which invested a lot of money and even more faith in taking the slugging third baseman from Cal State Fullerton. The Astros -- and four other teams -- passed up a lanky high school shortstop named Derek Jeter, whom the Yankees drafted with the No. 6 overall pick.

With the D-backs firing manager Kirk Gibson and bench coach Alan Trammell on Friday, Nevin could wind up on the Arizona staff if he doesn't get a managerial job.

"There's only 30 of these jobs out there, the fact you're mentioned as a possibility makes you feel good," he said. "Eventually, it's what I want to do and I feel like it's something I'm ready to do."

Astros interim manager Tom Lawless will interview with general manager Jeff Luhnow on Saturday in New York for the full-time managerial position. Other names to have surfaced as candidates are A.J. Hinch, Dino Ebel, Torey Lovullo, Don Wakamatsu and Dave Martinez.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Feldman's fine first season in Houston ends with loss

Righty allows a run in six innings in his final start of the year

Feldman's fine first season in Houston ends with loss

ARLINGTON -- The Astros signed Scott Feldman to a three-year, $30-million contract in December to be the bell cow of a young rotation, banking he would show the pups the ropes of professionalism while hoping he had plenty left in the tank.

Though the numbers, which include a career-high 12 losses, won't be cause for celebration, Feldman delivered in his first season wearing an Astros uniform, which came to an end Wednesday night in a 5-1 loss to the Rangers at Globe Life Park.

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"It was a little hit or miss, but overall we kept the team in the game and the other guy was better tonight," said Feldman after holding the Rangers to one run in six innings.

Astros second baseman Jose Altuve went 1-for-3 with a walk and two stolen bases, keeping his batting average at an American League-best .343 with three games remaining. He joined Ichiro Suzuki as the only players in the last 14 years with at least 222 hits in a season.

Unfortunately for the Astros, hits were hard to find as they finished with only five. Chris Carter went 0-for-4 for the second game in a row and is in a 1-for-19 slump, with only one homer since Sept. 5.

"The middle of the lineup, that's where the runs are usually driven in and right now he's just missing pitches," Astros interim manager Tom Lawless said of Carter. "He's fouling them off and just missing them by a little bit. If he comes through in some situations and puts good wood on the ball, good things happen for us, obviously. Right now, he's off a little bit."

En route to their 90th loss, the Astros were swept in three games by the Rangers, finishing 11-8 against their Lone Star rivals after going 2-17 against them last year. Houston heads to New York on Friday for its final three games of the season against the Mets at Citi Field.

The Rangers have won four in a row and 11 of their last 12. Interim manager Tim Bogar jokingly held up an "interim Silver Boot" made of aluminum foil after sweeping the Astros. The real Silver Boot is in Houston for the first time since 2006.

"It's always good to win three in a row against anybody," he said. "We didn't play well against them up to this point so it's nice to play well and nice to get good starting pitching like we have."

Feldman, who pitched for the Rangers from 2005-12, worked six innings in his 29th and final start for the Astros this year, allowing the Rangers one run and four hits to drop his ERA to 3.74 -- the lowest of his career.

"I guess I've always had pretty bad ERAs in the past," Feldman joked. "That part of it was good. I obviously wish I could have won some more games, but hopefully next year we'll win more games as a team and I'll win more as a pitcher."

Rangers starter Lisalverto Bonilla (3-0) held the Astros to four hits in six scoreless innings, striking out seven batters.

Feldman pitched out of a bases-loaded jam in the fourth inning before giving up an RBI single to Elvis Andrus in the fifth. Rougned Odor homered to center field off reliever Jose Veras with one out in the seventh, and Ryan Rua blasted a three-run homer later in the inning to make it 5-0.

Veras had a 0.96 ERA in his previous 19 appearances before allowing four runs in two-thirds of an inning Wednesday.

"Jose, he's been so good for so long, you figure one of those is on the way, but he just didn't have his control tonight," Lawless said. "He got behind in the count, and usually he's pretty good ahead in the count for the last two or three weeks I've been here, and tonight was just one of those nights."

Astros shortstop Jonathan Villar hit his seventh homer of the season in the eighth inning -- the only Houston hit that wasn't a single.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Berkman, the student, makes field trip to Minute Maid

Berkman, the student, makes field trip to Minute Maid

ARLINGTON -- When Astros director of decision sciences Sig Mejdal, who oversees the club's analytics department, invited some Rice University students to come to Minute Maid Park on Sunday for a presentation on analytics, he had no idea about the star pupil who would walk through the door.

Former Astros slugger Lance Berkman, who helped the Cardinals win a World Series in 2011 when Mejdal and general manager Jeff Luhnow were in St. Louis, was among a group of about two dozen students who came to the ballpark on a field trip. Berkman is finishing his degree in kinesiology at Rice, where he was the 1997 college player of the year and works as a baseball student-assistant coach.

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"It was a surprise to see him walking with all the other students," Mejdal said. "It was like Rodney Daingerfield in 'Back to School.'"

The two classes that met with Mejdal are taught by Jimmy Disch, associate professor in the department of sport management. One class is Theory of High Level Performance, which is how to coach high-level athletes, and the other is Sport Analytics, which studies statistical trends in sports and how they're being used to help performances on the field.

"The people that didn't show up had to do a written assignment, and I didn't want to do a written assignment," Berkman joked. "To be honest with you, I've heard a lot about how the Astros have made the analytics side of things a priority, and I kind of wanted to hear what it was all about."

Mejdal started the presentation with the history of statistical analytics in baseball, from the influences of Branch Rickey and Sandy Alderson, to the data that's available now. He discussed some of the tools the Astros use to analyze data, as well as lessons learned and a few examples of how they use it.

"There's a lot of information that is not so readily obvious, particularly when it comes to pitch selection on a certain hitter," Berkman said. "For example, a hitter may have a perceived weakness against a certain pitch, and when in fact that's not necessarily the case from a statistical standpoint. I think things like that can be very beneficial to pitchers when it comes to preparing scouting reports and having a general philosophy about how they're going to attack certain lineups and how the defense is going to be positioned in certain situations.

"We never shifted hardly at all my whole career, and now I think the Astros lead the Major Leagues in shifting and they can demonstrate where that has been an effective strategy in terms of taking hits away from the opposition."

Mejdal shared some of the PITCHf/x data capabilities with Berkman, who asked specific questions about the ability to quantify a good pitch from the data.

"I shared a little bit about the defensive positioning and he shared his thoughts on that," Mejdal said. "He's all for it. He's skeptical, of course, of whether it's being done too much or not enough, what effect it has on the human factor associated with it and what affect is has on the pitchers and the infielders."

With that in mind, Berkman suggested to Mejdal that the Astros' analytics staff could communicate more directly with the players about what they're trying to accomplish with shifts, etc.

"He and I were talking perhaps half an hour past the end of class and he had suggested 'Why don't you put on a uniform and go present this to the players?'" Mejdal said. "I laughed and said, 'That's the job of the coaches' and in fact I told him the interaction I've had with him is about as much interaction as I've had with a player at one time. It's really the coaches that are the ones that deal best with the players, but it was a great interaction with him."

Berkman said he didn't think analytics would have changed things much for him while he was playing.

"I think it has more to do with the way a team approaches defense rather than how an individual player is going to perform," he said. "For me, a lot of the stuff is intuitive, where I think the numbers confirm some of the things I've always believed about the game. Sig showed us statistical analysis that pitching up and in and down and away is effective. Some of that stuff you just kind of know or you learn from being around the game."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Astros still negotiating for proposed spring facility

Club to learn on Oct. 21 whether shared complex with Nats can be ready for 2017

Astros still negotiating for proposed spring facility

ARLINGTON -- The Astros will learn on Oct. 21, whether their proposed two-team Spring Training facility to be shared with the Washington Nationals in West Palm Beach, Fla., will be reality when they go back before the county commissioners, who on Tuesday rejected a financing request but vowed to keep negotiating with the teams.

The Palm Beach County commissioners agreed on Tuesday to commit $90 million in bed tax money to help finance a new stadium, which is short of the $145 million the clubs had requested. The clubs have proposed a 3.1 percent annual escalator to the $3 million bed tax payments over 30 years in order to complete the financing package for construction of the complex.

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"What they said today was 'The $3 million a year is fine, but what we're struggling with is increasing it by 3.1 percent every year,'" said Astros general counsel Giles Kibbe. "What they instructed us to do was go back and start working with the county and try to figure out a way to get that lower than 3.1 percent. They didn't tell us a number we needed to get to.

"They recognize we're going to need an increase every year; they're struggling on the 3.1-percent increase. They sent us back to the negotiating table with the county staff to try to figure out a number to make this work."

The Astros, whose lease at Osceola County Stadium expires after the 2016 spring season, are up against a clock if they want to have a new facility built by 2017. They would have to begin construction around January.

"Extending it past [Oct. 21] will be difficult if we're going to get in the new facility in January of 2017," Kibbe said. "Oct. 21 does not create a problem."

The Astros have been so focused on the 160-acre site south of 45th Street between Haverhill Road and Military Trail, they haven't considered contingency plans.

"There's a lot of questions of whether or not this is going to happen now," Kibbe said. "We'll have to evaluate that."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Orbit, Logan Morrison dance to N'Sync during warmups

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Orbit, Logan Morrison dance to N'Sync during warmups

Don't try to hide it -- You know every move to 'N'Sync's "Bye Bye Bye." You've tried to forget them over the years, but like, like the knowledge of how to ride a bike, all of the lyrics to the theme song to The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and everything else you learned in the '90s, they're permanently embedded in your brain,

But even if you do pretend you've never heard of Lance Bass or Justin Timberlake, Orbit will draw you out. Before Sunday's Mariners-Astros game, the mascot broke out his own VMA-worthy moves

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Astros to make bullpen help priority for 2015

Astros to make bullpen help priority for 2015

ARLINGTON -- Veteran reliever Jesse Crain will miss the entire 2014 season following surgery last October to remove his biceps tendinitis, but he was able to get on the mound and throw a simulated game on Monday in to test his right shoulder.

"Once he loosened up, he threw the ball halfway decent," interim manager Tom Lawless said before Monday's series opener against the Rangers.

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Crain's recovery took longer than expected, which certainly was a disappointment to the Astros. He and Matt Albers were two of the club's big free-agent acquisitions last winter, and Albers pitched in eight games before being shut down. He missed most of the season, too.

Crain, who signed for $3.25 million this year, will be a free agent at season's end, and the Astros have a $3 million option on Albers for 2015 with a $200,000 buyout. General manager Jeff Luhnow said the club will pursue relief pitching this fall as a priority.

"Those two players were going to be two of our three best relievers," Luhnow said. "Albers had a great start and got injured, and Crain we never saw. That was huge. If we have a healthy Albers and a healthy Crain, this team is closer to 75 and 80 wins as opposed to 70, and I think that's a big difference.

"We've reflected on our process last year and made some improvements and we feel good about that. It's always a risk with relievers because there's a lot of variables year to year, but we feel good we'll identity the right guys [in the offseason] and go after them, and hopefully get a good roll of the dice this time in terms of the health side of the equation."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Prospects Phillips, Hader honored for achievements

Astros' Minor League Player, Pitcher of Year recognized in pregame ceremony

Prospects Phillips, Hader honored for achievements

HOUSTON -- Brett Phillips and Josh Hader, the Astros' Minor League Player of the Year and Pitcher of the Year, were at Minute Maid Park this weekend and honored Sunday during a brief pregame ceremony.

The 20-year-olds were enthusiastic and excited about meeting the players and thinking about their future with the Astros.

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"Meeting all the guys and seeing the whole facility is nice," said Hader. "It gets you excited for what's next."

"It's an amazing feeling being here right now," said Phillips, an outfielder. "The highlight has been meeting these guys, talking to all the coaches.

"It's been awesome talking to the guys. They've been very humbling. They are easy to talk to. They'll sit down with us and basically see how we're doing."

Both players attended Saturday's 10-1 win over Seattle that featured five Houston home runs. For both Phillips and Hader, it was their first look at Minute Maid Park. It made quite an impression.

"[Saturday], it was a bit overwhelming," said Phillips. "I had never been in this park before. It's nerve-wracking but exciting at the same time, to know I could be on the same field with these guys some day in the future."

The left-handed Hader is ranked as the organization's No. 10 prospect by MLB.com. He had a 10-3 record and 3.28 ERA between Class A Advanced Lancaster and Double-A Corpus Christi with 136 strikeouts in 123 1/3 innings.

"Our pitching and hitting [in the Minor Leagues] is unbelievable," said Hader. "To be named and be honored as the Pitcher of the Year is a great feeling. The whole Minor Leagues is stacked up. Everybody plays with their heart and gives 110 percent."

Drafted by the Orioles in the 19th round of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, Hader was acquired from Baltimore in July 2013 as part of the trade of right-hander Bud Norris.

The left-handed-hitting Phillips hit .310 in 130 games between Class A Quad Cities and Lancaster. He had 29 doubles, 14 triples, 17 home runs, 68 RBIs and 23 stolen bases.

Phillips is just one of the talented position players in Houston's farm system. Phillips was selected by Houston in the sixth round of the '12 Draft.

"These guys in the Minor Leagues, we've proved in the last couple of years we know how to win," said Phillips. "That's the mentality and attitude that we're looking forward to bringing to the big league club.

"I'm going to continue to work hard and not get complacent, and hopefully be able to do the same things I'm doing in the Minor Leagues in the Major Leagues."

Richard Dean is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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Keuchel finds it 'rewarding' to reach goal of 200 innings

In likely his final start of '14, Astros ace hits mark with eight-frame gem

Keuchel finds it 'rewarding' to reach goal of 200 innings

HOUSTON -- Dallas Keuchel achieved a personal milestone Saturday night.

In beating the Mariners, 10-1, at Minute Maid Park, the Houston left-hander reached the 200-inning mark for the first time.

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"That's the only goal I had was 200 innings," said Keuchel. "I've never been a stat guy. All I ever wanted to do was pitch 200 innings and do my job effectively.

"I want the team to rely on me to get it done. To be able to do that was very rewarding."

Keuchel reached the mark in his final inning, retiring the side in order. In eight innings, Keuchel (12-9) allowed only one run and seven hits. He struck out eight and walked one. Eighty-seven of his 120 pitches were strikes.

Backed by five home runs, Keuchel had plenty of cushion with which to work and was determined to reach the 200-inning mark.

"A lot of joy," said Keuchel. "It took me longer than expected, 120 pitches."

The last Houston pitcher to reach 200 innings in a season was Brett Myers (216) in 2011. The last Houston left-hander to accomplish the feat was Wandy Rodriguez (205 2/3 in '09).

For Keuchel, it was essential for him to reach the mark in this start, likely his last of the season. Last season, he pitched 153 2/3 innings.

"It was important for him because he probably won't pitch any more," said Houston interim manager Tom Lawless. "He'll probably be shut down after 200 innings. That's way more than he had last year.

"I went down and asked him how he was doing after the seventh, he said, 'You're not taking me out.' I said,'You're at 108 pitches. I'll let you go a little more than 125.' But he's a great competitor and that's why he can go 200-plus innings. He battles, not giving in to hitters. He's going to be a pleasure to watch for a long time."

A ground-ball pitcher, Keuchel has the respect of his teammates. He has not allowed more than three earned runs in any of his last seven starts.

"Amazing," said second baseman Jose Altuve on Keuchel's performance Saturday. "A real good pitcher. He did what he's been doing all season long."

Richard Dean is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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