THE NEWBERG REPORT — MAY 16, 2007

Nine months ago, Texas was making its second trip of the 2006 season to Tampa. Coming off a four-game sweep of the A’s, a two-game split with the Angels, and three of four from the Tigers, baseball’s best team, in Detroit (with interim manager Don Wakamatsu filling in for the suspended Buck Showalter), there was a sense that the Rangers, having pulled back to within 5.5 games of the division lead with six weeks left, might have resuscitated their season and were poised to make things very interesting.

And then the Devil Rays promptly took three straight, before Texas salvaged a win in the final game of the series. Everyone willing to answer the question said in retrospect that it was the decisive moment of the season, a four-tire blowout.

The winner of the first game of that series was anonymous 24-year-old righthander James Shields.

Shields, anything but anonymous at this point (he leads the American League in batting average against at .199), was excellent again last night, and Brandon McCarthy was plenty effective for the third straight start. But Texas once again failed to see many pitches, allowing Shields to go eight innings in under 100 deliveries (including just four in the seventh and eight in the eighth), and a bad tenth inning from Scott Feldman ended the game and got a series this team just can’t afford to lose off to a crummy start.

This time coming in 6.5 games back, Texas is visiting Tampa Bay for the first time since that fateful August set, and it feels just as pivotal, though with a diametrically opposite air. You hate to say a season hangs in the balance in May, but Texas is struggling in all facets, has dropped six of seven to the frontrunning Angels, and now has its ace on the shelf for a second time. McCarthy certainly did his job (especially as he got deeper into the game, as he seemed to be elevating early and working down in the zone more consistently late), but alas, it wasn’t enough.

You probably can’t imagine how hard this is on me. Because it’s not possible for there to be anyone, anywhere, outside of the Texas Rangers organization itself, who cares as much about this team as I do.

There were a handful of notable pitching promotions in the system yesterday, starting with the elevation of lefthander A.J. Murray to Texas to replace the injured Ron Mahay in the bullpen. The 25-year-old Murray, who missed the 2004 and 2006 seasons due to shoulder injuries, was outstanding in the Arizona Fall League in the off-season (1.56 ERA if you ignore one brutal 1.1-inning appearance), earned a November addition to the 40-man roster, had an impressive spring training (4.2 scoreless innings, six strikeouts and one walk), and was dealing thus far in Oklahoma.

Murray has kept the opposition scoreless in 11 of 13 appearances out of the RedHawks bullpen. In 14 innings, he’s allowed six runs (3.86 ERA) on only eight hits (.163 opponents’ average) and six walks while fanning a dozen. After an impressive 1.53 groundout-to-flyout ratio in the AFL (including 13-to-1 against left-handed hitters), he’s been even stronger in that respect in 2007, coaxing 2.10 as many groundouts as flyouts. Murray is a strike-thrower who features a plus change, making him as tough on right-handed hitters (.167) as lefties (.158). He’s capable of going through a full lineup rather than spotting up against a targeted lefty or two.

A draft-and-follow sign in 2001, Murray was in AA by age 21, going 10-4, 3.63 for Frisco before posting an 0.77 ERA in two playoff starts and earning a spot on the Texas League Post-Season All-Star Team. After missing the 2004 season, he split 2005 season between Bakersfield, Frisco, and Oklahoma (7-9, 4.43 combined, with 30 walks and 124 strikeouts in 128 innings), combining with Steve Karsay and Scott Feldman on a RoughRiders perfect game on July 28, fanning eight in six innings of work.

Along with Murray, Feldman returned from Oklahoma to the big league bullpen, as Texas placed Kevin Millwood back on the disabled list with a recurrence of his hamstring injury. A reliever will likely go back to AAA when Millwood’s spot comes back up Saturday in Houston, though if the club opts to give Willie Eyre the start rather than a RedHawk reinforcement (Mike Wood, John Koronka, Bruce Chen, and Josh Rupe would likely be the prime candidates), it may be that no pitching move is made the rest of the week.

Texas decided not to activate Frank Catalanotto for the road trip after all, but with Brad Wilkerson pulling up lame with an apparent hamstring injury in the fifth inning last night, maybe the club reconsiders the Catalanotto decision. If Wilkerson needs to go on the disabled list, we’ll probably see Marlon Byrd (who notably was lifted from Oklahoma’s game in the fifth inning last night) recalled.

Righthanders Danny Touchet and Mike Wagner were sent from extended to Oklahoma, but more notable were the promotions of righthander Edinson Volquez from Bakersfield to Frisco, and lefthander Glenn Swanson from Clinton to Bakersfield. Volquez went 0-4, 7.13 in seven Blaze starts, holding Cal League hitters to a .211 average but issuing an unacceptable 20 walks in 35.1 innings. He won his first game of 2007 last night in his season debut for Frisco, but his line wasn’t especially pretty: two runs on three hits (one home run) and five walks in five innings, four strikeouts, three groundouts, eight flyouts.

Righthander Kea Kometani, who struggled in six Frisco starts (1-2, 5.64) after faring reasonably well in his first taste of AA last year (8-5, 4.69), worked in relief last night, suggesting it was his spot in the RoughRiders rotation that Volquez claimed.

Swanson, who pitched 21 times in his debut season last year, all in relief, has been sensational in his conversion to starter. In seven games for the LumberKings, he went 6-1, 2.93, punching out 42 and walking just six in 43 innings.

Outfielder Brandon Boggs is finally getting eye-opening results out of his tantalizing tools. A lifetime .249 hitter in three pro seasons, the 2004 fourth-round pick out of Georgia Tech is hitting .375/.448/.458 since a promotion to Frisco 10 days ago, with four walks and three strikeouts in 24 at-bats. A plus defender, he has played primarily left field for the RoughRiders (one game in center field), just as he did with Bakersfield over the first month, hitting .250/.361/.500 in that encore stint with the Blaze.

Bakersfield’s Taylor Teagarden is still DH’ing, and is still ridiculously hot at the plate. He homered and walked last night, and is hitting .407/.573./796 for the season.

Meanwhile, Clinton third baseman Johnny Whittleman (.373/.462/.678) and outfielder K.C. Herren (.358/.404/.613), the reigning Midwest League Player of the Week, were held in check last night.

Because the LumberKings were rained out.

Whittleman (December 2005) and Teagarden (December 2006) were among the guests at the Newberg Report Bound Edition Release Parties the last two years. Applications for guest appearances this winter will soon be available.

Virgil Vasquez, the young righthander whom the Tigers called up for Sunday night’s nationally televised game against Minnesota, was the Rangers’ seventh-round pick in 2000, opting to enroll at UCSB rather than sign. Vasquez was roughed up in his debut, which was earmarked to be nothing but a spot start, and he has gone back to AAA. Legitimate prospect.

Cincinnati has made former Rangers farmhand Rick Asadoorian a pitcher, after a minor league career as an outfielder that never came together as it was supposed to for the former Boston first-rounder. Asadoorian posted a 1.29 ERA in 12 High A Sarasota relief appearances, earning a promotion to AA Chattanooga, where he fired two scoreless innings in his first trip to the mound a couple days ago.

The Sioux Falls Canaries of the independent American Association signed righthander Pat Mahomes. The Quebec Capitales of the independent Can-Am League released infielder Craig Ringe. The Sussex SkyHakes of the same league signed righthander Fernando Rijo.

The draft is in three weeks. Texas drafts 17th and 24th (and 35th, 44th, and 54th), and projections are beginning to show up. Baseball Prospectus’s Bryan Smith speculates that Irving righthander Blake Beavan or Georgia high school southpaw Josh Smoker could fall to the Rangers’ first slot — Baseball America projected a week ago that they will go 15th and 16th, however — and Smith named University of Maryland lefthander Brett Cecil and switch-hitting Houston Memorial third baseman Kevin Ahrens as candidates for the number 24 pick.

I wish I weren’t already thinking about the draft. And I really, really wish I weren’t checking to see that, yes, Texas would draft third in June 2008, the club’s highest slot since 1985, if the 2007 season were to end today.

You can read more from Jamey Newberg at www.NewbergReport.com.

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