Notes: Towles continues to 'rake'

Notes: Towles continues to 'rake'

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- As the media gathered around Astros catcher J.R. Towles' locker following his 3-for-3 day at the plate against the Tigers on Tuesday, outfielder Reggie Abercrombie grabbed a piece of paper and a pen and asked his teammate, "How does it feel to rake?"

"I just feel good," Towles said. "I'm at the plate, just seeing that ball. That's all I'm doing."

And it appears to be plenty. Before Spring Training began, manager Cecil Cooper told Towles he had to make the team just like every other young player who was part of the Spring Training roster. Although Towles had already been touted as the team's No. 1 catcher, Cooper wanted to make sure the 24-year-old understood he wasn't being handed anything.

If Towles keeps up this pace, it's highly unlikely anyone could supplant him as the Opening Day catcher March 31. Including his three-hit game Tuesday, Towles is hitting .600 this spring, logging six hits in 10 at-bats with two doubles, one home run and five RBIs.

None of this surprises his manager, who took one look at Towles' swing last year and sensed he'd be able to hold his own offensively.

"We talked about him this morning, about how compact his swing is," Cooper said. "How it's going to be tough for him to get in a lot of trouble, because [his swing is] short and he gets to the ball quick. There's not many pitches that he doesn't handle well.

"A young kid might have some problems with breaking balls, but he gets to it good and he puts a good swing on it most of the time. He stays balanced."

Towles hit .375 over 14 games when he was called up last September, and by the end of the month, the Astros were comfortable penciling him in as the front-line catcher in 2008, with Brad Ausmus as the backup.

Towles is taking nothing for granted, but he's grateful for the small sampling he showed the Astros during his brief time with the team last year.

"I'm always trying to prove myself," he said. "But they know a little bit what I can do."

Bagwell in the house: Upon arriving to Kissimmee on Tuesday, Jeff Bagwell spent most of the afternoon in the dugout with the Astros during the club's 11-10 win over the Tigers.

Bagwell, a special assistant to the general manager, will spend some of his time with the Major League club during the two weeks he'll be in Florida, but he's also expected to work with the Minor Leaguers as well.

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"He showed up right before the game started," Cooper said. "Hopefully he'll be around from here out or for a while, at least the next week or so. He'll help some of these guys, lend his hand. That's a lot of knowledge walking around right there."

Day off: Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn were omitted from Tuesday's lineup, but that does not mean the two young outfielders had the day off.

Cooper sent Pence, Bourn and Abercrombie to spend some time with baserunning coach Gary Redus, and Cooper surmised the trio would be "exhausted" by the time the drills were complete.

"These are guys that have ability to steal a base," Cooper said. "Tomorrow, Kaz [Matsui] will do some of it. We just have to continue to do fundamental things that we need to do. It's a refresher. Heck, they've played every game. They need a little bit of a break."

"We worked on stealing bases," Pence said.

The absence of Pence and Bourn from Tuesday's game prompted Cooper to tinker with the lineup a bit, but he implored inquiring reporters "not to read anything into it, please."

Lance Berkman is projected to hit cleanup when the regular season begins, but for this exhibition game with the Tigers, Cooper slotted Berkman into the five-hole. Carlos Lee moved up a spot to fourth.

"I'm just playing around with it a little bit," Cooper said. "Next time Kaz and Michael are together, I just might flip-flop them -- just to see what it looks like. I think we have to do a little bit of that."

Cooper said he also may try Pence in the leadoff spot at some point this spring.

Community events: The Astros will begin their annual Spring Training community visits on Wednesday by hosting 150 students from Narcoossee Community School to commemorate the National Education Association's 11th anniversary of "Read Across America."

The event includes an annual reading motivation and awareness program sponsored by the National Education Association that calls for every child in every community to celebrate reading on or around Dr. Seuss' birthday (March 2).

Up next: The Astros will travel to St. Petersburg, Fla., on Wednesday to play the Rays at 1:05 p.m. ET. Right-hander Runelvys Hernandez, a non-roster invitee attempting to win a rotation spot, will face Rays righty Jason Hammel.

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