By Evan Ren

Killeen Daily Herald

ROUND ROCK It may be less a baseball game than it is a homecoming.

At least that's the feeling among many of those associated with tonight's exhibition game between the Houston Astros and their new Triple-A affiliate, the Round Rock Express.

Several players who once played for the Express when it represented the Astros in the Double-A Texas League will be making a return to Dell Diamond for the 6:05 game, including Houston's Eric Bruntlett, Jason Lane, Willy Taveras, Chris Burke, Morgan Ensberg, Roy Oswalt and Chad Qualls.

Infielder Tommy Whiteman will be back in uniform for Round Rock after spending much of 2004 at Triple-A New Orleans. He'll be joined by several Express alumni, including veteran catchers Dax Norris and Chris Tremie, pitchers Mike Burns and Jared Gothtreaux, and infielders Brooks Conrad, Royce Huffman and Mike Coolbaugh.

"It's going to be a really cool thing just to see all those guys on our field," Express General Manager Jay Miller said. "We had the Astros here a few years ago, but they didn't have a lot of players who had been in Round Rock before.

"Now they have a lot of former Round Rock players so it's going to be very special."

Owned and operated by Ryan Sanders Baseball, the Round Rock franchise was awarded the Astros' Triple-A affiliation shortly after last season, forever leaving its original home, the Texas League, behind.

The Houston Organization then moved its Double-A operation from Round Rock to Corpus Christi, where another Ryan Sanders franchise, The Hooks, will begin play this season.

Hall-of-Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan and Houston businessman Don Sanders are the majority owners of Ryan Sanders Baseball; Astros outfielder Craig Biggio, along with pitchers Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens are among the minority owners.

Pettitte, who is also an Express alumnist of sorts, after spending a rehab assignment there last season, is slated to start tonight's game for Houston.

"This is a great opportunity for our fans to come out and see some of the best players in the game and to see a lot of players who once played here," said Ryan Sanders Baseball President Reid Ryan. "There will be a lot of familiar faces out there."

This evening's contest also marks the return of manager Jackie Moore, who retained his position despite the franchise jumping to the Triple-A Pacific Coast League.

Moore, the only manager the Express has had since its inaugural season in 2000, won the Texas League title in the team's first year and has guided it to postseason appearances in four of his five seasons.

"It's going to be very exciting, not just for the fans, but for the players and coaches as well," said Moore of the Astros' visit to Dell Diamond. "It's going to be like a homecoming for a lot of these guys and it will send the message that the Round Rock organization gives you a good opportunity to make it to the big leagues."

The Express will play a second exhibition game on Sunday when it hosts Corpus Christi at Dell Diamond. Round Rock will open the regular season on Thursday when it gets a visit from the Omaha Royals at 7 p.m.

Contact Evan Ren at

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