HOUSTON — Eighteen hours after his major league career began with four standing ovations from more than 30,000 fans, Alex Bregman roamed left field in a dark, empty Minute Maid Park on Tuesday afternoon.
Houston Astros bench coach Trey Hillman stood on the pitcher’s mound, hitting baseballs with an orange fungo bat. It rolled down the third-base line, scooting into the left-field corner.
Bregman, the former LSU standout, sprinted toward it, slid to one knee and backhanded the grounder. Outfield coach Gary Pettis kept close eyes on his newest pupil.
But Tuesday night, in his second game with the Astros, Bregman didn't show off his outfield skills. Manager A.J. Hinch used him as the designated hitter during the team’s 6-3 loss to the New York Yankees; Bregman finished 0-for-3 but reached base for the first time in his big league career on an eighth-inning walk that brought the potential go-ahead run to the plate in a futile rally.
“Give him a work day and let him settle in after the attention he’s been getting over the last couple days,” Hinch said. “(He’ll) be in the field somewhere (Wednesday), potentially left field, and we wanted to get him some early work and just continue to develop that process.”
Bregman heeded Pettis’ advice throughout Wednesday's 45-minute training session. Hillman struck liners to all angles, forcing Bregman to read and take different routes to each. Pettis, also the third-base coach, provided calm interjections following each play.
“You just have to be aggressive. You have to play hard every pitch and watch the ball,” Bregman said. “(The) warning track is a little bit bigger, and there’s a little bit of a crease in left-center that you have to be able to maneuver with. (Pettis) was just trying to give me little tidbits about anything, whether it was balls on the ground or balls in the air — just everything regarding the outfield play that he wants me to know before I head out there.”
By design, Bregman began his big league career silently. His assignment in this series is to absorb as much from his teammates as possible.
It's how, he said, he planned to remain locked into Tuesday’s game as the DH.
“Pick the brain of some of the guys on the bench and try to learn the game, learn important stuff, just be a sponge and pick up anything I can,” Bregman said. “I watch every pitch — especially because I’ll probably be playing in the field (Wednesday). I don’t know; I might not. Who knows? But if I do, I’m going to be watching every pitch to see the tendencies of these hitters.”
Before he made two starts in left field with Triple-A Fresno, Bregman had not played outfield since high school summer leagues. He is now expected to promptly produce for a division-contending team, so Bregman must become proficient in this unfamiliar position while conquering one of the league’s trickiest left-field layouts.
A 19-foot scoreboard compounds the left fielder’s duty to catch and keep in front anything hit in his vicinity. The letters and numbers on the scoreboard are softer and deaden a fly ball’s velocity when it makes contact.
A month ago, Cincinnati Reds right fielder Jay Bruce knocked a ball that avoided a letter or a number. Instead, it struck one of the wall’s many steel beams. Unable to discern exactly where it would hit, Astros left fielder Colby Rasmus played close.
“Bounced up over my head,” Rasmus remembered Tuesday. “You have to be a lab at the beach in the outfield. Just super locked in, but relaxed and having fun while letting your instincts take over. If (Bregman) gets all choppy and wants to do more than the game will let him do, then he may have some struggles. But he’s a good athlete. He’s going to be all right.”
Early in his career, the 29-year-old Rasmus, who began with the St. Louis Cardinals, had coaches hit every piece of padding in the Busch Stadium outfield, mimicking any sort of carom he might play.
“But your mind’s going to do what it wants to do when there’s 40,000 people yelling and screaming and a ball is hit in the air or on the ground to the corner,” Rasmus said. “The idea I feel is just to keep (Bregman) confident. There may be some times where he has hiccups here and there — all of us have; even the best athletes in the game mess up. Just trying to make him feel comfortable in his own skin out there.”
Comfort manifests from familiarity. Bregman has spent less than 48 hours in Houston and in this clubhouse, so few things can resonate.
Tuesday brought one token: an LSU football helmet presented Monday by LSU equipment manager Spencer Farley as a gift from athletic director Joe Alleva.
The helmet hung in Bregman’s locker and was instantly the talk of the sizable media scrum that descended on the former Tigers shortstop, who answered questions in low, firm tones.
Suddenly, a smile appeared.
“I’ll always be a Tiger,” he said, patting the gift and showing it for all to see.