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Notes: Pitchers excited to hit Daytona

Notes: Pitchers excited to hit Daytona

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- As soon as the morning workouts were officially done for the day Sunday, a handful of Astros players dressed quickly and bolted for the exits.

Their haste was understandable, considering they were headed to the Daytona 500. Roy Oswalt, Woody Williams, Chad Qualls and Brandon Backe, through a connection in the Astros front office, not only obtained tickets to the event, but they were awarded pit passes, which allowed them to get up close and personal to the action on the track.

Oswalt, a dedicated NASCAR fan, has never actually been to a live race, mainly because of scheduling conflicts.

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"I watch on TV, but we don't get to watch much because we're usually playing when they're driving," Oswalt said.

Still, Oswalt keeps tabs on the racing world, especially Dale Earnhardt Jr., whom he met during the All-Star Game in Detroit in 2005.

"He came in the clubhouse," Oswalt said. "It was pretty neat. I'll see him on his turf now."

Subbing for the skipper: Bench coach Cecil Cooper hopes to someday have an opportunity to manage in the big leagues, and thanks to Phil Garner, Cooper has been able to hone his managerial skills during his time as the club's bench coach.

Since joining the coaching staff in 2005, Cooper has mangaged three times while Garner served suspensions, and Sunday, Cooper was in charge while Garner was away attending his daughter's wedding.

"You always want to have a chance to show what you can do," said Cooper, who interviewed for the vacant managerial job in Washington during the offseason. "This is an opportunity, just like the opportunity I had to manage. You have to show people you can do it, and the only way you're going to do that is if you get put in those positions."

Cooper praised Garner for teaching him the ropes during their two years together.

"I'm grateful for those times he got kicked out so I have a chance to do my thing," Cooper said with a laugh. "I'm happy to be here and be his right-hand man and help him in any way possible, and help the Astros. If that time ever comes that I do get a big-league [managerial] job, I'll try to draw from the experience I've had here."

Bunting competition: To add some spice to the morning workouts, the Astros have brought back the annual bunting competition, drawing fierce determination among the pitchers.

The grassy area in front of the plate is divided into sections, marked by chalk outlines. Players get plus and minus numbers depending on where the ball stops. The area closest to the plate is minus one, followed by plus one, plus two, plus three, and for the section closest to the mound, minus three.

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Bunting commissioner Doug Mansolino, also known as the Astros' third-base coach, has divided the pitchers into four groups, tabbing veterans to be the captains -- Oswalt, Williams, Jason Jennings and Brad Lidge.

Williams' group finished Day 1 in the lead with 19 points. Lidge's group is far behind, in last place at minus 18.

Donation: Continuing a longtime Astros tradition, club executives made their annual steer purchase at the Osceola County Fair auction Saturday.

The team purchased a 1,051-pound steer for $3.75 per pound, arriving at a final cost of $3,941.25. The steer was raised by Brittany Burns of the Silver Saddles 4-H Club, and a percentage of the purchased price will benefit a scholarship to fund Burns' future college education.

As in years past, the Astros will also pay for the steer to be processed, and the food will be donated to the Osceola Children's Home. Representing the club at the event were assistant directors of baseball operations Jay Edmiston and Charlie Norton and Osceola County Stadium custodian Tracy Neal.

Odds and ends: Outfielder Mike Rodriguez and infielder Brooks Conrad were the first position players to report to Osceola County Stadium for Spring Training on Sunday. The duo took batting practice and worked out. Position players report on Wednesday, with the first full-squad workout scheduled for Thursday. ... Because of high winds and cold temperatures, Cooper shortened Sunday's workout. "We thought it would be best to cut it down a little bit to get guys in and out because of the briskness of the wind," Cooper said. ... Qualls, who is nursing a sore shoulder, was scaled back with his workout, too. "We'll give him another day," Cooper said. "Anytime you've got a little bit of an ailment, you don't want to go to this type of weather."

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

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