Tip Fairchild is getting closer to Houston every day, literally.

The former Monmouth Academy and University of Southern Maine star learned Wednesday that he will be pitching for the Houston Astros’ Double-A affiliate in Corpus Christi, Texas this year.

He also learned yesterday that he will get his first shot at opposing Major League hitters today when he pitches for the Astros in a split-squad spring training game against the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland, Fla. He has faced some of the Astros’ players in intrasquad games this spring, but today will be his first exposure to big league hitters from other clubs.

Houston’s 12th-round choice in the 2005 draft is scheduled to pitch two innings today then head immediately for Texas.

The Astros’ minor league rosters are jam packed with pitchers, so even though he was listed on the Double-A roster from the beginning, Fairchild wasn’t sure whether he would have to make a brief return to Single-A before continuing his climb up the ladder.

“I guess this means I made it,” he said.

After developing a heavy sinker to add to his fastball/curveball repertoire, the 23-year-old right-hander emerged as one of the Astros’ top pitching prospects last year after finishing with a 14-7 record and a 2.45 ERA in 27 starts split between Class A affiliates Lexington and Salem.

The promotion to Corpus Christi this year makes him one of the organization’s fastest-rising prospects.

“I’ve only been with the Astros for a year-and-a-half now, but it seems like forever,” he said. “I’m the first guy from the 2005 draft on the Double-A roster, so I’ve got to make some new friends.”

Apparently, he’s already made a number of new friends in the Astros front office. He was invited to participate in Nolan Ryan Elite Camp along with the organization’s other top prospects and some members of the big league club, where he received instruction from the legendary fireballer himself.

After that, he attended minor league mini-camp in Florida for some one-on-one sessions with minor league pitching instructors and Astros pitching coach, and former Red Sox coach, Dave Wallace.

“That actually put me a little bit ahead of the game than where I was last year at this time,” Fairchild said. “I’ve thrown probably eight more innings down here than I threw last year, which is a lot for spring training.”

“My routine is about the same as last year,” he added. “My velocity is still going up (his fastball is regularly in the low 90s), which pretty much happens with everybody. I’ve been throwing pretty well my last two outings, which have been four innings. I gave up two runs in the last one. (Facing the Tigers) will be a pretty good test for a couple of innings.”

The Hooks’ regular season begins in Wichita on April 5. Fairchild expects to get his first start a day or two later.

He said he is setting more modest goals for his time in Corpus Christi than he did last year. The key is to continue to work on the things he’s been working on over the last year-and-a-half.

Double-A is often the last stop for prospects before they make their first step to the Major Leagues, so Fairchild knows he’ll be watched closely by Astros officials over the spring and summer.

“If you can compete in Double-A, then you can compete in the big leagues. This is the testing ground,” he said.

“The big thing they want from me is to not try to be any different. They wouldn’t put me in a position where they think I’m really going to struggle.”

One area where he might struggle doesn’t have anything to do with pitching. For the first time in almost two years, he’ll be swinging the bat.

“I’m taking BP every day,” he said. “I haven’t faced live pitching since college, so it’s going to be pretty interesting.”


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