Notes: Oswalt to start Astros opener

Astros name Oswalt their Opening Day starter

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- In a move surprising to no one, the Houston Astros officially announced that Roy Oswalt will start Opening Day on April 3 against the Florida Marlins.

The Oswalt news has been a running joke this spring between manager Phil Garner and reporters, who haven't been able to figure out why the obvious selection was never made official until Wednesday, the second-to-last day of Spring Training camp.

"After much deliberation," Garner proclaimed, "the gnawing and nashing of teeth, scribbling it out on paper, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, computer analysis out the gazoo, consulting with the powers that be -- my staff -- and the one who really runs the team -- my wife -- we decided upon Roy Oswalt.

"Before you're all upset about this choice ... let me explain why. I think he would pout if he [wasn't]."

This is all tongue-in-cheek, of course. Oswalt stated several weeks ago that he doesn't care if he's No. 1 or No. 5, and that all starters should not look at where they are in the rotation as much as the fact that they're priviledged to be there in the first place.

"If I can get 35, 36 starts, it doesn't matter if I pitch first or last," Oswalt said. "It would be good to get started with a win, for sure. Other than that, you start 35 games, and the goal is to win 20 or more."

Oswalt, a back-to-back 20-game winner, will make his fourth career Opening Day start, one shy of the club record held by Shane Reynolds (1996-2000), J.R. Richard (1976-80) and Mike Scott (1987-91). Oswalt will attempt this year to become the first pitcher since Tom Glavine from 1991-93 to win 20 or more games in three consecutive seasons.

Left-hander Andy Pettitte will follow Oswalt, with Brandon Backe and Wandy Rodriguez serving as Nos. 3 and 4. The fifth-starter job will likely go to Taylor Buchholz, but that announcement will likely arrive after the Astros return to Houston this weekend.

Pettitte, who posted the second-lowest ERA in the Majors last year, is considered by teammates and coaches to be a co-No. 1 with Oswalt rather than a No. 2 pitcher. Like Oswalt, Pettitte couldn't care less where he falls in the rotation.

Pettitte illustrated this when he recently met with Garner in the official "here's when you're pitching" meeting.

"He pretended he was mad and walked out," Oswalt chuckled.

Count general manager Tim Purpura as one of many who's thrilled to not have to give a second thought to who's at the top of the rotation.

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"The biggest job of the general manager is to worry," Purpura said. "You do it every day. You go home at night and you just worry about things. To get down the pecking order to where you're worried about four and five as opposed to one and two is a great luxury.

"I don't think we have a one and two. We have two ones. One's right-handed [Oswalt] and one's left-handed [Pettitte]. They're both No. 1's on any club. You feel so blessed to have that kind of pitching talent at the top of your rotation. You're going to get a great performance every time they go out there."

Added Garner: "We're blessed with two No. 1 starters. Even before I [started managing] here, I've always considered Andy Pettitte particularly special."

Sparks released: Following the Astros' game with the Indians at Winter Haven on Wednesday, the Astros released right-handed knuckleballer Steve Sparks.

Sparks, 40, was 1-3 with an 11.30 ERA over six games (one start) this spring. He allowed 20 runs (18 earned) over 14 1/3 innings, walking eight and striking out 10.

The Spring Training roster stands at 27. It appears Fernando Nieve and Buchholz will both make the team, assuming the Astros begin the year with 12 pitchers. The backup catcher job is still open and has come down to Raul Chavez and Eric Munson competing for that final spot on the roster.

Almost a lock: Buchholz has the edge to win the final spot in the rotation, and unless something drastic happens between now and Monday, the right-hander can be considered a virtual lock.

"You can make that speculation," Garner said. "He's pitched well. Of the participants this spring, the past two outings showed he's pretty good. Of course, I'm still looking at Nieve as an option."

And Carlos Hernandez, to some degree. Hernandez was sent to Minor League camp earlier this week, but will stay on schedule to possibly be available on April 11, the first day the Astros need a fifth starter.

Nieve appears to be headed for the bullpen, and he'll assume the long relief role.

Speaking of "Knee-eh-vay" ... For most of the spring, Garner has been referring to Nieve as "Nueve," until recently when pitching coach Jim Hickey corrected the skipper.

"Hickey's been on my [butt] about that," Garner said. "The poor man [Nieve] probably thinks I don't know who he is. He probably thinks this kid [Nueve] is giving him a run for his money."

Odds and ends: Eric Bruntlett turned 28 on Wednesday. ... Backe will start the exhibition game at Minute Maid Park on Friday vs. Kansas City. The Royals will counter with righty Joe Mays. On Saturday, Buchholz will start, facing lefty Jeremy Affeldt. ...Backe's first regular-season start on April 5 will also mark his 28th birthday. ... Former Astros second baseman Jeff Kent signed a one-year contract extension with the Dodgers, worth $11.5 million. This contract will take him through the 2007 season, and the club holds an option for '08.

Coming up: The Astros will play their final Grapefruit League game on Thursday, hosting the Dodgers at Osceola County Stadium at 12:05 p.m. CT. Left-hander Andy Pettitte will face right-hander Brad Penny.

Alyson Footer is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.