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02/27/11 2:37 PM ET

Mills, Astros eager to see if hard work pays off

Houston visits Atlanta on Monday in Grapefruit League opener

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- The Astros have done all the bunting drills, pitcher's fielding practice and infield drills they can stomach. They've practiced rundowns and cutoffs, took batting practice off their teammates and worked out in the cage enough to last the rest of the spring.

Simply put, they're ready for a change of pace.

That will come on Monday at 12:05 p.m. CT, when the Astros kick off their Grapefruit League campaign with a game against the Braves at Champion Stadium in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. It's the first of 37 games for Houston this spring -- including six split-squad games -- in preparation for the April 1 season opener at Philadelphia. Fans can catch all the action on MLB.com's Gameday Audio.

"You can go through as much drills as you want, but until you're really putting another team across the field, you're never really [sure what you're seeing]," Astros manager Brad Mills said. "We can go through these fundamentals, but they know where we're going to hit the fungo or know what's happening. Now the evaluating process ramps up a little bit."

Because they're opening on the road and several regulars won't make the short drive to the Braves' complex, the Astros will have to wait until Tuesday's 12:05 p.m. CT home opener against the Braves at Osceola County Stadium to get a look at their full complement of players.

The two newest Astros -- shortstop Clint Barmes and second baseman Bill Hall -- won't make their debuts until Tuesday, but catcher Jason Castro, first baseman Brett Wallace, shortstop Tommy Manzella, third baseman Chris Johnson, left fielder Carlos Lee, center fielder Michael Bourn and right fielder Hunter Pence will all be in the lineup, along with second baseman Matt Downs.

Left-hander Wandy Rodriguez, who had a rough spring a year ago and struggled in the first half of the regular season, will get the start and is scheduled to throw two innings. He had a 12.10 ERA in six spring starts last year. Henry Villar, Enerio Del Rosario, Fernando Rodriguez, Lance Pendleton, Sergio Escalona and Wesley Wright are also scheduled to pitch.

"I'm pretty anxious to get some live at-bats," Pence said. "We're excited about the group we've got and excited to get on the field with some of our new additions, whenever that does come. I think it's going to be fun to get the crew back together and really try to feed off of what we did last year and try to start improving and build off of it."

Pence's main goal is getting a good feel for his timing at the plate, but establishing a winning atmosphere is important, too.

"I think there are some players that use Spring Training to accomplish certain things and a lot of veteran pitchers will practice a new pitch and see how it feels in the spring," Pence said. "You're not going to see a lot of people's real stuff. As a team, we want to come out and win every day.

"Different people are doing different things, but we want to play defense and execute, and I think if we're doing that, then we're going to be looking good going into the season. If we're not executing or playing good defense, then I think you have something that needs to be fixed."

Lee knows spring stats don't mean as much as breaking camp feeling good at the plate. Lee hit .333 with two homers and 13 RBIs last year, but wound up getting off to a slow start and posted some of the lowest numbers of his career.

"I don't think that spring counts at all for putting up good numbers," he said. "I think you need to work on your approach and make sure you're ready to go with your swings. Last year, I had a great spring and it didn't work. I think the main thing, main goal is when Opening Day comes, you use Spring Training to prepare yourself real good."

Mills would like to get his starting position players about 55-60 at-bats this spring, which shouldn't be too difficult considering the club has six split-squad games. With 30 healthy pitchers in camp, the Astros needed the extra games to have enough innings to get a good luck at all their arms.

Veterans like Pence, Lee, Barmes and Hall won't play as much early in spring as they will later on, when the roster begins to get pared down with players getting sent to Minor League camp.

"That enables them to get their hands in shape and get extra time on the [practice] field," Mills said. "When they start playing games on a regular basis -- three or four games a week and getting three at-bats in a game -- now they're ready because their hands are ready to swing and everything else."

Mills has been eager to see his players compete in a game for several days to find out how much all those fundamentals on the back fields have paid off.

"It's called Spring Training for a reason, because the games don't count," Mills said. "What we're more concerned with is execution and letting these guys see how it comes together and how well a bunt defense ties into if you win or lose the game. And how well offensive execution ties into if you win a ballgame.

"That's what we preach in these Spring Training games -- to see how everything we've worked on and how it ties into being a successful ballclub and how it helps us win games."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.