The first full-squad practice took place Sunday for the 2011 edition of the Houston Astros baseball team with many faces that weren’t counted on at this time last year.

Manager Brad Mills begins his second year at the helm of the Astros with his entire coaching staff intact except for new hitting coach Mike Barnett, who was elevated from his position as the roving minor league hitting coach, a job he had for the past two seasons.
Actually Barnett was named to the job when Jeff Bagwell decided last fall that he wasn’t interested in a full-time position after taking over the hitting coach duties after the All-Star break last season when Houston was dead last in nearly every offensive category.

General Manager Ed Wade was so concerned about the lack of home-run hitting last season that he acquired infielders Cliff Barmes from the Colorado Rockies and Bill Hall from Milwaukee. Light-hitting Tommy Manzella, who was the 2010 Opening Day shortstop, will be also taking ground balls at second and third as a utility infielder.

There have been changes in five starting positions since Opening Day 2010 with rookies Jason Castro (catcher), Chris Johnson (third base) and Brett Wallace (first base) and veterans Barmes (shortstop) and Hall (second base). Castro and Wallace had tough stints as starters but came around near the tail-end of last season.

The Astros dumped several of the high-salaried players at mid-season whenever owner Drayton McLane Jr. decided to sell the franchise.

Ace right-hander Roy Oswalt was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies, first baseman Lance Berkman was dealt to the New York Yankees at mid-season and inconsistent closer Matt Lindstrom was traded to Colorado after the season ended.

Only Carlos Lee, who has two years remaining on his six-year, $100 million contract is the only high-dollar player who remains on the 2011 roster. The sale of the team should be easier for McLane with no other players with long-term contracts.

Lee, along with Michael Bourne and Hunter Pence comprise the returning Houston starting outfield unless Wallace doesn’t work out at first base. Then Lee would play first and probably Jason Michaels will take over in left field.

Lee is coming off his worst season since his rookie year. His .246 batting average was the only one under .300 during his four years with Houston. “I know I can be better than the season I had last year,” the 34-year-old Lee was quoted in Monday’s edition of the Houston Chronicle. “I’m capable of doing a lot to help this team.”

“He (Lee) has two more seasons with us,” McLane told The Chronicle “And he is the person who can make a huge, huge difference on this team.”

On Saturday Pence became the first Astros’ player since 1996 to win a salary arbitration case against the team. After hitting .282 with a .325 on-base percentage, a .461 slugging percentage and a 25-homer season for the third year in a row, Pence sought a $6.9 salary for 2011 and the team offered $5.15. The three-member arbitration panel ruled in favor of Pence, who made $3.5 million last season.

Pence came on the scene four years ago and hustled his way into the hearts of the fans and his teammates with his enthusiasm and passion for the game. Back in his rookie year his attitude seemed more significant than his talent. And he had plenty of talent, too.

Astros conditioning coach Gene Coleman said the 27-year-old Pence is the hardest-working player since Shane Reynolds. “His attitude is off the charts,” Wade commented.

Regardless whether Pence says a word, his work ethic and intensity are what the Astros would like this next generation of players to emulate.

Wade believes the power will be much better this year than it was last season when the Astros hit only 108 home runs, which was 80 fewer than the Cincinnati Reds and 54 fewer than the San Francisco Giants.

He thinks both Lee and Pence could hit 30 homers, Johnson and Wallace should pop around 20 and Hall and Barmes could hit 15. Barnett will be working with the hitters to be more selective at the plate without giving away aggressiveness.

KWICKIES…The Houston Texans waived five players last weekend including eight-year veteran free safety Eugene Wilson. Other players released include nine-year veteran wide receiver Andre Davis, linebackers Darnell Bing and Isiah Greenhouse plus defensive tackle DeMario Pressley.

Congrats to the University of Houston Lady Cougars for wrapping up the Conference USA title with three games remaining by defeating UTEP 77-61 Sunday in Hofheinz Pavilion. It was the first regular-season Conference USA championship since the 2003-04 season. The win also extended Houston’s winning streak to 13 games, tying a school record set in 2003-04. The Lady Coogs were led by former West Orange-Stark phenom Brittney Scott who pumped in a game-high 23 points. The team certainly would like to present first-year head coach Todd Buchanan with a perfect 16-0 record to join the 2007-08 UTEP team as the only squads to finish C-USA play undefeated. The Lady Coogs will play at Marshall Thursday in a 6 p.m. tip-off.

Sunset Grove golfer Dean Priddy got a hole-in-one recently on the Par 3 No. 14 hole. Dean used a five-iron for his ace, which was his first at Sunset, but his second lifetime.
Look for some low-scoring college baseball games this season after the NCAA policy-makers replaced the offensive-minded aluminum bats with the “bbcor” graphite bat. Perhaps this change in bats will bring back the art of bunting and playing for a single run instead of big innings all the time.

The Duke Blue Devils catapulted from the No. 5 team in the Associated Press Top 25 Men’s College Poll last week to No. l after Kansas, Ohio State, Texas and Pittsburgh all suffered upset losses last week. Duke was the first team to make that kind of a jump during the regular season since the 1997-98 season.

Doug Williams has been re-hired as the head football coach by his alma mater Grambling State. The former college and NFL star quarterback coached at Grambling from 1998-2003.

Former West Orange-Stark Mustangs quarterback Andre Bevil and tailback DePauldrick Garrett provided what little offense the Lamar Cardinals were able to scrounge up in Saturday’s 90-play spring practice Intrasquad scrimmage at Provost-Umphrey Stadium. Bevil threw for the only touchdown in the scrimmage while Garrett picked up good yardage on his carries. The red-clad defense held the white-shirted offense to a touchdown and three field goals in 14 possessions. Silsbee’s Jeremy Johnson ran three times for 42 yards but had his first pass intercepted. The Cardinals will hold another scrimmage Saturday at 10 a.m. The spring game is March 3 at 6 p.m. Admission is free.

Speaking of Lamar, the Lady Cardinals basketball team secured a berth in next month’s State Farm Southland Conference Tournament with a 75-64 win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Saturday night. The Lady Cards improved to 10-2 in SLC play and 21-5 overall. They will play their final home game of the season tonight (Wed.) in the Montagne Center against Stephen F. Austin.

The Lamar men’s basketball team stayed in contention for a playoff berth by downing Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 73-56 for their third-straight Southland Conference victory. The Cardinals evened their SLC record to 6-6 to join UT-San Antonio, Nicholls State and Southeastern Louisiana in a battle for the seventh and eighth spots in the tourney’s field.

JUST BETWEEN US…In our regular weekend golf match, Craig Couvillion came up with a round Sunday at Sunset Grove Country Club that most golfers dream of. He birdied the first two holes plus the Par 5 No. 7 and parred the other six holes on the front nine for a three-under 32. He fell out of his tree momentarily on No. 10 with a bogey, which turned out to be his only one of the round. He parred the rest of the holes EXCEPT No. 17, where he chipped in his second shot on the par-4 for an EAGLE, for a one-under 35 and a career best 67. His best round before that was 71. A round like that can certainly lighten an opponent’s wallet in a hurry. But it was fun to watch.