HOUSTON—Roy Oswalt and Opening Day have become as much of as an Astros tradition as rainbow uniforms and air-conditioned baseball.
Oswalt will make his eighth consecutive Opening Day start Monday night at Minute Maid Park when the Astros face the San Francisco Giants and two-time National League Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum. There will be a buzz in the stands, pomp and pageantry on the field, and then the veteran ace will go against the young gun before a big crowd.
That’s what Opening Day is all about.
But for Oswalt, it’s just another game.
"It seems like every time you face a different team Opening Day," Oswalt said. "Going up against the Giants, they’ve got a few new guys in the lineup that are going to help them. They added a few more bats to the lineup, and they’ve got a good pitching staff, so you know you have to go out there and throw up some zeroes."
Oswalt, who had to have an injection into his lower back to lessen pain in his left leg less than a week ago, enters this season with plenty to prove. He’s eager to prove to his critics that his 8-6 record and 4.12 ERA last year isn’t a sign he’s on the decline, and he needs seven wins to tie Joe Niekro for the all-time franchise lead at 144.
Oswalt, who had a club-record 16 no-decisions last year, is 5-5 with a 3.70 ERA in 13 career starts against the Giants and 75-25 in his career at Minute Maid Park. He faced the Giants once last year and held them to three hits and one run and struck out six batters in eight innings July 5 in San Francisco.
Like the rest of his teammates, he begins this year with a clean slate. The bad memories of last season’s 88-loss team and poor clubhouse chemistry under former manager Cecil Cooper are gone. Brad Mills’ can-do attitude and infectious energy has trickled through the clubhouse, and the pitchers have taken to new pitching coach Brad Arnsberg.
"We have new personnel that are more easy to work for, and Arnie is easy to talk to in the bullpen," Oswalt said. "With the skipper, he’s checked on me more the last two or three weeks than I got checked on the last two or three years, so it means a lot to you when you know what you’ve done for the organization for eight or nine years that guys care what you do. It helps a lot."
Mills has downplayed the significance of Monday’s season-opener for him for the entire spring, saying the focus should be on the players. But after managing in the Minor Leagues for more than 11 years and with more than 30 years of experience in professional baseball, he’s finally getting his shot to run a Major League team at age 53.
"The way they’ve gone about their business this spring has been very impressive," Mills said. "They’ve done a good job. We could not have asked for anything more from them. The effort they’ve given has helped them improve as a team."
He inherits a team with a mix of veteran players, youngsters and question marks. Oswalt is battling a chronic back condition, first baseman Lance Berkman is beginning the season on the disabled list after surgery on his left knee and he’ll start a rookie shortstop in Tommy Manzella.
Because of the health concerns and questions surrounding the pitching staff, the Astros have been picked to finish near the bottom of the National League Central by just about every national publication.
"I think part of the perception of our team is based on a faulty representation of our season last year, and if we can just play up to our capabilities and if guys perform like they’ve performed in the past and we’re able to avoid significant injury, I think we’ll be competitive," Berkman said.
Astros general manager Ed Wade believes his club is ready.
"What we wanted to do coming into [Spring Training] was prepare as effectively as we could to open the season, and I think the tone Mills and his coaching staff set from the very first day has allowed us to do that," Wade said. "We have to navigate around health issues like every team does, but from the standpoint of the innings guys got, the quality of at-bats guys got, it leads me to believe we’re ready to go."