HOUSTON- Nameplates are often last on the checklist in the frenzy of player transactions, thus while Justin Maxwell was sufficiently outfitted for his Astros debut and announced his arrival with a two-run, pinch-hit home run in the eighth inning on Monday night at Minute Maid Park, the space next to the No. 22 above his locker remained blank afterward.
That logistical hazard did not excuse his being misidentified by one his new teammates. It was his surname that was absent in the clubhouse.
"Somebody called me 'Jason' but I'll forgive him," Maxwell quipped.
Maxwell described his 384-foot blast to left field as "pretty cool" when asked to summarize the likelihood of his capping a frenetic 48 hours in such a fashion. After the Yankees designated Maxwell for assignment last week, he spent several days enjoying family functions back home in Maryland before getting the call the Astros had claimed him off waivers.
He likened the news to divine intervention, a fitting description given that the call came on Easter Sunday. Instead of sulking over the Yankees opting to go in a different direction in constructing their 25-man roster, Maxwell took advantage of the down time to prematurely celebrate the birthday of his middle child, Liana, who won't turn two until Thursday.
"It's just the fact that you put in all the work in spring training and you've got to go home for a few days." Maxwell said of the initial disappointment. "It actually worked out to where I got to see my daughter for her second birthday party. I got to experience that; I missed it last year because I was playing. And then my father-in-law and brother-in-law had a surprise birthday party, so I got to do some fun stuff.
"It was nice to go home for another day, but at the same time I kind of wish I was on a team for opening day."
His opening day came Monday night in the Astros' 8-3 victory over the Braves. Acquired to provide some additional depth in the outfield and to balance the scales of a largely left-handed collection featuring Jordan Schafer, Brian Bogusevic and Travis Buck, Maxwell flexed some of the prodigious power Astros manager Brad Mills had gushed about earlier.
The Nationals' fourth-round draft pick out of Maryland in 2005, Maxwell slugged .579 with Single A Hagerstown in 2007, .491 with Double A Potomac that same summer, and .500 in 27 plate appearances with the Nationals following his call-up on Sept. 5 later that season. Maxwell, 28, played a total of 122 games with the Nationals over three seasons (batting .201.319.379), was traded to the Yankees on Feb. 2, 2011, and slugged .588 in 48 games with Triple A ScrantonWilkes-Barre.
What the Astros are taking a flyer on is his raw power and athleticism. Maxwell can play all three outfield positions and runs fluidly for a man who stands 6-foot-5 and weights 235 pounds. In many ways he resembles Astros right fielder Brian Bogusevic in that he's a plus athlete with power potential that hasn't yet materialized in the major leagues.
The issue with Maxwell has been the frequency with which his swings and misses. In three separate stints with the Nationals his strikeout rate was 29.6 percent in 2007, 31.4 percent in '09, and 32.8 percent in 2010. Last season Maxwell struck out in 35.3 percent of his plate appearances, leaving the Astros next in line to attempt to harness his talent.
"If we feel that there is something mechanically that he's doing wrong and we see exactly where his mindset is, then we'll make those adjustments as we go," Mills said. "It kind of comes into play the same thing when you talk about can a guy see more pitches, can a guy have a better on-base percentage as he gets older. Well, you never really know. You don't know unless you work on it and then try to get better, and that's how we're going to face it with him."
In 2008, Maxwell played 43 games with Double A Harrisburg and produced what to this point represents an outlier sample. His walk rate (17.2 percent) exceeded his strikeout rate (15.6) for the only time in his professional career. This spring with the Yankees, Maxwell posted a batting line of .310.408.429 with seven walks and 10 strikeouts.
"I like what I'm doing now as opposed to having an open stance back then," Maxwell said of his years on the farm. "As you climb the ladder pitchers start to take advantage of those mechanical things, like I got a lot more sinkers in and jammed myself a lot. There are a lot of moving parts, so I just try to keep it simple now."
Fortune smiled on Maxwell against the Braves, continuing a weekend of beneficial timing. He was able to scout the Astros on Sunday because of the free preview package offered by MLB Extra Innings. With the Astros comfortably ahead in the latter stages on Monday, Mills took advantage of the opportunity to get Maxwell an at-bat on his first night in uniform.
The dugout erupted after Maxwell cashed in against Braves right-hander Chad Durbin. All that remains is a refresher course on names.
"Everybody was thrilled to death for him," Mills said. "This guy got here at, what, 12:30, and he stepped in and just kind of joined the club. The guys take him and we just move on. From my point of view that's outstanding."
Said Maxwell: "All the guys have been very welcoming. The hardest part has been learning everybody's name."
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