Notes: Pair of righty starters impress

Notes: Pair of righty starters impress

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Shawn Chacon and Brandon Backe, a pair of veteran right-handers the Astros are counting on for the rotation, passed their first spring tests in impressive fashion Sunday.

Backe pitched two scoreless innings against Atlanta, while Chacon gave an encouraging performance in a two-inning stint against Washington.

"Absolutely," Chacon said when asked if he was satisfied with his outing. "One bad pitch and [Washington's Ryan] Zimmerman hit it out. Other than that, I was very happy with my stuff today. Five ground-ball outs, [for] a sinkerball pitcher, that works. Overall, I felt pretty good."

Chacon, who signed a free-agent contract two weeks ago, went 4-3 with a 3.52 ERA in 60 relief appearances and 1-1 with a 5.59 ERA in four starts for Pittsburgh last year. One of the reasons he signed with Houston was the opportunity to compete for a rotation spot.

Chacon hung a curve to Zimmerman after giving up a bloop double to Lastings Milledge in the first. He retired the six other batters he faced on strikeouts or groundouts.

"I'm right on schedule," Chacon said. "As far as stuff-wise, I feel pretty good as far as command. I think I might be with my fastball, [I'm] probably a little bit ahead of where it has been in the past. My mechanics coming into spring are ahead of schedule."

Backe, who underwent Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery on his right elbow in September 2006, was 3-1 with a 3.77 ERA in five starts for the Astros last season. He had been sidelined after getting hit on the foot with a line drive on Feb. 23. Against the Braves the only baserunner he allowed was a walk.

"I was very excited; I went in today trying to do what I did, except for the walk," Backe said. "I really had only a couple of bad pitches today. When I missed, I missed off the plate and not over the plate."

Backe still has some soreness, but otherwise said he felt fine.

"I feel it, the doctor said I might feel it for a few months, so really I'm just trying to adjust to what I feel down there," Backe said. "It just feels like a bone bruise. It doesn't feel like it's broken anymore. It just feel like if something hits it, it's going to hurt. As long as I keep away from bumping into something, it's going to be fine."

Backe will likely go three innings in his next start.

"It's all about just getting repetition and getting myself prepared for the season, because I feel like I have a lot to offer this year," he said.

Spring Training
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Numbers crunching: The Astros have all 37 players on the 40-man roster signed to contracts, including 16 signed to one-year contracts in recent days. That meant Houston did not have to renew any contracts on Sunday, the first day clubs could renew contracts for the 2008 season.

The Opening Day payroll won't be known until the club determines its 25-man roster, but it is projected to be approximately $96 million, which would be an increase of roughly $8 million over last season's Opening Day payroll.

Here's the breakdown on what each of the 37 players currently on the Astros' Major League roster will be paid for the 2008 season. The figures are base salary only, including Major League value for players who might not be on the Opening Day roster: Lance Berkman ($14.5 million), Miguel Tejada ($13 million), Roy Oswalt ($13 million), Carlos Lee ($12 million), Woody Williams ($6.25 million), Kaz Matsui ($5 million), Jose Valverde ($4.7 million), Ty Wigginton ($4.3 million), Mark Loretta ($2.75 million), Doug Brocail ($2.5 million), Brad Ausmus ($2 million), Shawn Chacon ($2 million), Geoff Geary ($1.125 million), Geoff Blum ($1.1 million), Darin Erstad ($1 million).

Also on the current roster: Oscar Villareal ($1 million), Brandon Backe ($800,000), Dave Borkowski ($800,000), Chad Paronto ($500,000), Wandy Rodriguez ($451,000), Humberto Quintero ($405,000), Chris Sampson ($401,000), Fernando Nieve ($401,000), Jack Cassel ($400,000), Reggie Abercrombie ($397,000), Hunter Pence ($396,000), Michael Bourn ($396,000), Mark McLemore ($392,000), J.R. Towles ($390,000), Paul Estrada ($390,000), Sammy Gervacio ($390,000), Ryan Houston ($390,000), Brad James ($390,000), Felipe Paulino ($390,000), Chad Reineke ($390,000), Wesley Wright ($390,000) and Yordany Ramirez ($390,000).

Hard hatting it: Astros first-base coach Jose Cruz and third-base coach Ed Romero have to wear batting helmets while in the coaches boxes as per Major League Baseball's new regulations.

"It's a lot warmer with the helmets on [than the caps], but you've got to do what you've got to do," Cruz said. "I don't feel as comfortable wearing the helmet, but it's not that big a deal and this is what they want us to do. And it's for safety, so I understand."

Romero doesn't have any problem with the change.

"I think rules are rules, it's mandatory by Major League Baseball and if we've got to do it, we've got to do it," Romero said. "I don't see a problem; for me, it's not a problem at all.

"It's just a matter for me to get used to it. The more games we play here [in Florida], it's going to end up feeling like a hat. It gets a little warm at times, [so] you've got to make sure after the inning's over, you take it off so you can get some air. But I don't see any problem. It's not a big deal for me."

Extra bases: Lance Berkman made his first start of the spring and doubled on the second pitch he saw from the Nationals' Steven Shell. Berkman wasn't supposed to start hitting left-handed until Monday, but the Nationals changed plans and went with Shell, a right-hander. Berkman grounded out in his second at-bat against Shell and struck out swinging batting right-handed against lefty Mike O'Connor. ... The Astros are in good shape injury wise. "For the most part we're all good," Cooper said. "[Head athletic trainer] David [Labossiere] gave me a thumbs up this morning, so we're getting progress on Ryan Houston [hamstring], [Paul] Estrada [shoulder] and [Fernando] Nieve [hamstring]. "So everybody's pretty much back to norm," Cooper said. "There's nobody that's with no activity, there's there just limited for a few guys." ... Cooper was pleased with what he saw from Woody Williams on Saturday. The veteran right-hander pitched two scoreless innings and faced the minimum. "[Saturday] was so encouraging and I'm anticipating it continues in the same way," Cooper said.

Quotable: "We've got Brad Ausmus sitting there who has done this forever [it] seems like, you know he's an old fossil. He knows the league inside out, he's going to be invaluable to [catcher] J.R. [Towles] and our pitching staff and our team. That's a great in-house scouting report right there." -- Cooper, on the veteran catcher's added value as an extra coach

On the air: Monday's game against the Yankees at Osceola County Stadium will be the first of nine Astros Spring Training games to be broadcast on FSN Houston. First pitch is scheduled for 12:05 p.m. CT.

Five additional home games -- March 4 vs. the Tigers, March 6 vs. the Indians, March 8 vs. the Nationals, March 13 vs. the Dodgers and March 22 vs. the Reds -- have been added to the FSN schedule. The home games on March 3 vs. the Yankees, March 16 vs. the Mets and March 28 vs. the Tigers will also be televised.

On deck: Left-hander Wandy Rodriguez will start Monday against the Yankees at 12:05 p.m. Following Rodriguez will be Mark McLemore, Oscar Villarreal, Brian Moehler and Mike DeJean. Mike Mussina is scheduled to start for the Yankees.

Astros ace Roy Oswalt will start Tuesday against Detroit, with Dave Borkowski, Jose Valverde and Doug Brocail also scheduled to pitch. Left-hander Nate Robertson is the scheduled starter for the Tigers.

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