In the 16 months since Joe Niekro died from a brain aneurysm in October 2006, Lance Niekro's career has taken somewhat of a tumble. He attributes that more to freak injuries than to the emotional strain of dealing with the grief of losing his dad, and he's grateful that he has been given a chance to compete for a job with the club he remembers watching as a kid.
As a first baseman, there is likely no room for him on the big league roster. Niekro is probably ticketed for Triple-A Round Rock to start the season, a scenario he appears ready to embrace. Having watched his career suffer because of inconsistency and injuries over the last few years, the 29-year-old former Giants infielder is happy to be with the Astros this spring.
"It's something special to me, to be in this locker room and be on this team," Niekro said. "Especially to be wearing 36 on my back right now, to honor my dad."
Joe Niekro was the first Astros pitcher to post back-to-back 20-win seasons (1979-80) and now shares the distinction with Roy Oswalt (2004-05) as the only two pitchers in team history to do so.
Niekro pitched the 163rd game of the 1980 season, throwing a complete-game six-hitter against the Dodgers to lead the Astros to the National League West title. He also pitched 10 shutout innings in the club's first ever playoff win -- Game 3 of the 1980 NLCS, a 1-0 win over the Phillies in 11 innings.
When Niekro was inducted into the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame in November 2005, Lance gave the introductory speech and said, "My dad is my hero."
"There is not a day that goes by that I don't think about my dad," Lance Niekro said on Wednesday. "No matter what I'm doing, not just baseball-wise. I think about him all the time, but time definitely does help. It's still hard to deal with. It is something that happens. You just have to deal with it, you try to honor him and move on."
Pence healing: Hunter Pence is limited in what baseball activities he can participate in, but the right fielder said he could be back on the field as early as this weekend if all goes well.
Pence suffered cuts and lacerations on his hands and knees after falling through a sliding glass door on Tuesday. He received stitches in several areas, including the most severe cuts on his right hand and left knee.
"We just want it to seal up before I start bending it too much," Pence said. "I think they told me they're going to try to let me throw tomorrow and maybe take some swings. The hand is the main problem. They don't want me to re-open whatever it is on my finger. The injuries aren't bad -- it just takes time to get them sealed up so I can play."
Pence has been the butt of several clubhouse jokes since the incident occurred, but the affable outfielder is able to take it in stride.
"I can laugh at myself," he said. "It's just silly if you think someone can just jump through a glass door. It makes sense if you know me, because I'm kind of a spaz anyway. I was just running and running right through a window. I've got to be more careful everywhere I go. I can't be that reckless."
Oswalt absent: Oswalt received sad news on Wednesday that his grandfather passed away, and the right-hander will likely not be in attendance for workouts on Thursday at Osceola County Stadium.
Bullpen talk: Doug Brocail is currently penciled in as the setup man this year, but don't expect the right-hander to get a swelled head after nabbing one of the more prestigious roles in the Astros bullpen.
"I look at one role as being prestigious in the bullpen, and that's the closer," Brocail said. "Everybody else is there to get the ball to the closer."
After pitching in the big leagues for 13 years, the 40-year-old Brocail has served in a variety of roles. He'll gladly pitch the eighth inning, but he also made sure his manager knows he'll be ready to pitch at all times.
"I told them the other day, 'I have a very resilient arm,'" Brocail said. "If it means I'm better suited for seventh than eighth, or sometimes come in and face lefties if our lefty's down, whatever."
Oscar Villarreal probably has the inside track to pitch the seventh, but Cooper is leaving his options open.
"I'm searching for someone to take the seventh inning," Cooper said. "Hopefully it's one of the guys that's with us to step up and take the job. My preference is that it's someone left-handed. If he's not left-handed, I'll take the best guy."
Three lefties are competing for bullpen spots this spring: Wesley Wright, Stephen Randolph and Mark McLemore.