By Evan Ren
Killeen Daily Herald
ROUND ROCK Just days away from embarking on its inaugural season in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, the Round Rock Express took time to entertain some old friends on Friday.
Facing the parent club Houston Astros in an exhibition game for the first time since 2001, the Express welcomed several Round Rock alumni to Dell Diamond, including a few in its own dugout.
By the way, the Astros won the game, 8-2.
"That was like a big ol' family picnic," Express manager Jackie Moore said. "It was like a family reunion with a bat and a ball."
Former Express players that saw action for Houston included Morgan Ensberg, Jason Lane, Luke Scott, Chris Burke, Eric Bruntlett and Willy Taveras, all of whom called Dell Diamond home during the franchise's Double-A Texas League days.
The sellout crowd of 12,201 also welcomed Brooks Conrad, Chris Tremie, Mike Coolbaugh, Tommy Whiteman, Dax Norris, Phillip Barzilla, Jared Gothreaux and Todd Self back to the Express roster.
"It was great to come back here," said former Express pitcher Chad Qualls, who is currently in the Astro bullpen. "Just seeing all the guys one more time before the season starts was really special."
For Scott, who is still battling for a Houston roster spot, the return to Round Rock meant perhaps even more.
Leading the Astros in hits (23), runs scored (17), home runs (six), RBIs (18) and slugging (.839), the 27-year-old outfielder has suprised both the Houston organization and himself this spring. But a possible demotion to Triple-A Round Rock won't bring the disappointment one may expect.
"This is the greatest place I've ever played the game," said Scott, who finished 0-for-4 at the plate. "The fans, the organization and the ballpark here are all unbelievable.
"I always enjoyed my time here and it was great to be back."
Nearly lost in the homecoming atmosphere was a five-run eighth inning which Houston used to take control of the game.
Burke provided most of the impetus with a two-run double off Scott McRae to score Bruntlett and Orlando Palmeiro.
Mike Gallo earned the win in relief of starter Andy Pettitte, who allowed two unearned runs on four hits through five innings. MacRae took the loss.
"I pushed it, the shoulder, the elbow, all of it," said Pettitte, who spent much of the 2004 season on the disabled list with a variety of arm problems. "I got a little tired there, but it was perfect.
"I felt like I needed to be able to throw 80 pitches. It was important because in my last two starts, after like 60 pitches, I was pretty much cooked."
Astro regulars who made appearances during the evening included Adam Everett, who finished 0-for-3. Craig Biggio was 1-for-3, Mike Lamb was 1-for-4. Ensberg finished 0-for-2, as did Brad Ausmus.
Whiteman was 2-for-4 to lead the Express and Tremie was 1-for-2. But it was starting pitcher Wandy Rodriquez, who sat down 15 straight Astros through the first five frames, who handed in the evening's top performance.
"What can you say about Wandy?" Moore asked. "I don't know how he could have done much better.
"He's come a long way in a short time with a bright future."
Round Rock will next see action when it hosts the Double-A Corpus Christi Hooks at 2 p.m. on Sunday.
The Hooks, a new franchise owned by Ryan Sanders Baseball, which also owns the Express, will serve as the Astros' Double-A affiliate in the TL.
Round Rock will open the regular season on Thursday when it hosts the Omaha Royals at 7:05 p.m.
"I thought everything went pretty well tonight," Moore said. "We got a lot of people a chance to get some work in, and we gave our fans a chance to see a lot of the new guys who might make it to the big leagues."
EXPRESS NOTES Taveras, who came to the Astros organization along with Scott from the Cleveland Indians in the Jeriome Robertson trade last year, is having a solid spring. Taveras brought a .306 average into Friday's game and was tied for the Major League lead with 10 stolen bases. ... Noticeably absent at Dell Diamond were pitcher Roger Clemens, who will start today's exhibition game with the Kansas City Royals, and infielder Jeff Bagwell, who is nursing a sore shoulder. ... Scott on his surprising spring numbers: "I think I can go well, because I work hard, but I admit the numbers are a little overwhelming."
Contact Evan Ren at email@example.com