PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- On one of those rare baseball afternoons when the great Greg Maddux was in control of neither his pitches nor the game, he characterized his poor performance in these words: "I was hitting a lot more bats than I was hitting spots."
He smiled, secure that his career was not about to take a southward turn. It was 1997, and Maddux proved quite right in the expectation.
The phrase applies regularly to young pitchers who, even on their best of days, lack the command Maddux routinely demonstrated en route to his current standing as a Cooperstown-designate. And the phrase could rightfully be applied to Rudy Owens, the young left-handed hopeful on the Astros' 40-man roster but seemingly not in their immediate plans.
Owens made his second appearance and first start of the spring Tuesday afternoon against the Mets. He threw 27 pitches; the vast majority misbehaved. Twelve were factors in the three walks he surrendered in his one-third of an inning. Three others were whacked for hits, with one, struck by Curtis Granderson, clearing the right-field wall. And most of the others were misplaced and led to disadvantageous counts. Even the out Owens achieved -- a well-struck line drive to right-center field that Dexter Fowler nonchalantly caught -- was a mark against the pitcher.
The unsightly performance was precisely what Owns didn't need, coming off a one-inning relief appearance against the Braves on Friday. He allowed a home run in that one, too.
So he now carries an ERA that suggests his pitches are the size of grapefruits and his chance of winning the fifth spot in the rotation is the size of a pit.
At age 26 and in his third big league Spring Training, Owens pretty much needed to produce an almost unblemished spring to beat out the likes of Dallas Keuchel, Brad Peacock, Lucas Harrell and Brett Oberholtzer -- not that any of them had been promised a spot on the rotation. And now this, a spring ERA of 27.01 after 1 1/3 innings.
He did take it like a man, which matters doesn't matter much even when outs outnumber baserunners.
"No excuses," Owens said. "I had good stuff getting ready. "I sped things up, and I couldn't figure out how to slow them down," he said. "I was talking to myself. ... But I wasn't listening. I think I was sound, mechanically. But just too quick."
Frustration took over, and after his early exit, it changed into disappointment. But Owens said he kept his performance from tinting his view of the competition.
"Everyone -- all the young guys -- have that in the back of their mind," said Owens. "I'm no different."
Manager Bo Porter softened the afternoon for Owens, saying, "It was a little case of nerves" and that more opportunities would be afforded the pitcher.
Acquired from the Pirates in the Wandy Rodriguez deal in 2012, Owens missed most of last season because of a stress fracture in his left foot. He made merely four appearances, three starts, producing an 0-3 record and 3.71 ERA in 17 innings. He pitched in the Dominican Winter League, producing a 3-2 record and 2.68 ERA in 10 starts and 53 2/3 innings.
But at this stage, he has to get outs in Spring Training games, too.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.