Astros put Springer in key No. 2 batting spot behind Altuve

KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) The Houston Astros are looking for a link between the leadoff excellence of Jose Altuve and the business of scoring enough runs to win.

George Springer, the free-spirited, free-swinging outfielder who hit 20 home runs in 78 games as a rookie, welcomes the assignment.

''First of all, you're hitting behind the batting champ, and he's always on base,'' Springer said. ''If he's on base he's a threat to run, and that puts me in a better position to hit.''

Batting second is an important assignment on the Astros, who wasted Altuve's phenomenal 2014 season by often failing to drive him in. While batting .341 and leading the major leagues in hits (225), Altuve also led the American League with 56 stolen bases. Yet he scored only 85 runs, failing to rank among the top 15.

How many runs could Altuve score with better production behind him?

''I'm not putting any numbers in my head right now. What I can do is play hard every day and help my team in every aspect. That's where I can have a good year,'' Altuve said.

Springer knows it's an advantage to have the leadoff batter on base.

''If he's on first or second, whoever is up behind him, it's their job to either get him to third or to drive him in,'' Springer said. ''I understand that he's going to be on base a lot, and I just need to slow the game down and trust the guys behind me and trust him.''

The 25-year-old Springer, whose rookie season was cut short by a left quad strain, doesn't seem like the prototypical No. 2 hitter, but new manager A.J. Hinch doesn't buy into the traditional formula.

''He's a guy you want to hit in the first inning, a guy who can produce in any role,'' Hinch said. ''I think if you walk into this with no preconceived expectation of what a guy is supposed to look like, you just let him be himself. You want him to be George Springer whether that's hitting first, second, third, fifth or ninth.''

For a 6-foot-3, 216-pounder with noteworthy power, Springer can run. He stole 77 bases in his last two minor league seasons.

''If I'm on base and the other team knows I can run,'' he said, ''that's probably an advantage to us.''

Houston's biggest problem at the plate was striking out. The Astros led the league by a wide margin and Springer wasn't much help, striking out 114 times in 295 at bats.

Chris Carter, who will bat third, struck out 182 times while hitting 37 home runs. He took it upon himself this spring to shorten his swing.

''We've got guys behind me, so you can't just pitch around one guy and get to the next guy,'' Carter said. ''That's going to be the biggest thing for us this year.''

Nothing will be bigger than production behind Altuve. Even while hitting 163 home runs (third in the AL), the Astros ranked 14th in runs despite having a leadoff hitter who reached base more than anyone.

''Anytime he's on base, it's up to the guys who are up next to drive him in,'' Springer said. ''The job is to get them to home plate, so for us it's always about who's going to step up.

''It's great to hit home runs, but you've got to hit home runs when they count. He does his job and the guys who hit behind him are going to have to do theirs.''

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