April 2012

Battle gear.

Toward the end of yesterday’s report, I casually suggested:

“I don’t really care how the Rangers win tonight.  I’d rather see Darvish put up a Lee-like clunker line in a Texas victory than see him deal like Harrison in a loss.” 

When I wrote that, I didn’t imagine last night would be so awful, or so awesome.

The range of sports-emotions that the first inning put me through was as exhausting as the 74 pitches and 11 baserunners, as scattered as Yu Darvish and Hector Noesi’s command of the strike zone.

I’ve seen lots of baseball.  But just one inning in last night, I’d never seen anything like what was unfolding.

Following three teammates who had delivered quality starts to open the season, Darvish lost his chance at one before recording his second big league out, a bases-loaded strikeout of the ninth man in the order and in the inning.  Folks felt compelled to start tweeting about Dirk Nowitzki’s NBA debut, a night on which he started but went 0 for 5 from the field, scoring his two points from the stripe.

Against Seattle, by the way.

Who started an aging Detlef Schrempf, who for Dirk was Darvish’s Ichiro.

Ichiro, who hit safely and scored in each of the first two innings.

I bet Darvish had never seen offense like that.

Or like that.

The idea, after the top of the first and even the top of the second, that Texas would win that game handily was no more implausible than the idea that the Rangers would merely manage to outhit the Mariners (12 to 11) or outwalk them (5 to 4).  Just as things began to settle on one side, they began to unravel on the other.

Four of the dozen Texas hits left the yard, each in majestic fashion: a Nelson Cruz game-tying missile to left in the third with Pudge Rodriguez pop time, a Mitch Moreland rocket shot to right that gave Texas a mind-blowing lead in the fourth, a Josh Hamilton light tower blast to center three batters later, and a game-icing three-run shot by Ian Kinsler in the eighth, minutes before the announcement came down that he and the club had come to terms on a Ranger-for-life deal that led his agent Jay Franklin to say:

They stepped out on a limb here and paid a guy with two years left on his contract the highest AAV ever given to a second baseman.  The Texas Rangers are absolutely committed to keeping a winner here.  They want to establish a dynasty.  Quite frankly, they didn’t need to extend Ian. . . . I didn’t think this would happen.  JD, Thad and I wrestled for a week or two weeks straight.  At the end of the day, we agreed on what this guy means to the organization and the community.

Kinsler is now one of very few players in baseball locked up through 2017.  Only two are pitchers.

Matt Cain and Yu Darvish.

It’s not a stretch to believe Darvish may not have another inning as a Ranger like his first for the club.  His first five pitches missed the zone, most of them by a lot.  The first five hitters started off 1-0.  The fastballs were up, the breaking balls down.  Six straight Mariners reached safely at one point, and Darvish suffered the indignity of seeing Scott Feldman getting loose in the bullpen that he’d just emerged from himself.

Overall in the top of the first inning: Twenty balls and 22 strikes.  Two roped singles and two ducksnorts, three walks, a wild pitch.  A 4-0 deficit as the number nine hitter trotted to the plate with only out.

The amazing energy in the crowd – I don’t remember anything like it in a regular-season game – was really weird as Darvish’s night threatened to come to an end before Texas had the chance to hit.  It was still lively, but there was this nervous encouragement vibe, like 40,000 parents trying to put on the good face as they tried to help get their kid through a talent show catastrophe.

But Darvish never looked rattled, at least in his face.  He had a fascinating comment for the press after the game about the first inning: “When I stepped on the mound for the first time, I was very calm.  I felt very calm mentally, but my body felt like it wanted to go and go and go.  My mind and my body were not on the same page.”

Ron Washington’s observation: “It wasn’t like he was scared or nervous.  He was over-amped.”

Darvish: “All my pitches I had a hard time commanding.  It was more of a mental battle.  I just tried to stay in there and battle.”

Washington let him.  It paid off.

Over the 4.2 innings that followed the brutal first, Darvish allowed one run on four hits and one walk, fanning three.  After the 42-pitch first, he followed with frames of 13, 19, 11, 13, and 12.  At one point Darvish retired 10 straight Mariners, a stretch that began with Texas down, 5-2, and ended with the Rangers up, 8-5.

Two batters later, Washington took a step out of the dugout, and his slow walk toward the mound was accompanied by a roar that just didn’t fit a 5.2-8-5-5-4-5 line, until you factored in the 4-1-0-0-0-0 next to the word Seattle on the video board and the substance of the battle that the huge crowd had witnessed – not a battle against so much as a battle through.

Chills.

“I told him I was proud of him, proud of the way he hung in, and battled, and kept going,” Washington would tell reporters.  “He’s a warrior, we know that, and he showed that tonight.”

That’s what you say about the best ones, who on their worst nights refuse to cave.  They find a way.  They settle things down.  They reach down and they battle.

On a more pointed subject, the matter of the big league development of a rotation horse, Jason Parks said it best on Twitter, and he said it during the first inning of Darvish’s big league career, an inning none of us will forget: “This inning could be the best thing for Darvish’s development.  Failure and response to failure is the backbone of baseball.”

The four runs Darvish allowed in the first inning were more runs he’d allowed in an entire game since his first start in 2011 (seven runs in seven innings).  And the five runs he allowed in his first start in 2010 were as many as he’d allow in a start all season.  It’s oddly a common phenomenon for Darvish, whose apparent difficulty syncing up his mind and body the first time out of the gate each season will be just fine if, like in 2010 and 2011, we’ve just seen the most runs allowed we’ll see from him all year.

It was an incredible night of baseball.  Just once I’d like to be as locked in as Josh, to hit a ball like the one Cruz hit, to play infield as effortlessly as Kins.

But it might be even cooler to pitch in front of a lineup like this one, and that’s got to be part of what Darvish takes away as a debut that teetered on the ledge of disaster for half an hour ended up as an opportunity to straighten things out, to keep his team in the game, and to soak things in as 40,000-plus got on their feet and reached down for whatever was left of their voices as Ron Washington took the ball from the man who, against all reason, or maybe not, remains an undefeated Major League pitcher.

Darvish Day.

Two pitching lines for your consideration:

  • Six innings, no runs, four hits, two walks, three strikeouts.  Twelve groundballs, three fly balls.  Eleven swing-and-miss strikes (almost two per inning).  Win.
  • Nine innings, six runs, nine hits, no walks, two strikeouts.  Eleven groundballs, 14 fly balls (three of which left the park).  Seven swing-and-miss strikes (fewer than one per inning).  Loss.

Just about the only thing that Matt Harrison’s gem last night had in common with Cliff Lee’s debut as a Ranger on July 10, 2010 was that Mark Wegner was calling balls and strikes.

If Yu Darvish replicates Harrison’s line tonight, there might be some folks disappointed that he wasn’t more dominating.  Expectations can be crazy things.

At the same time, if the Mariners do to Darvish what the sad-sack Orioles did to Lee, well, you might do well to call Baltimore 6, Texas 1 to mind and stave off the temptation to pour the Kool-Aid out on the curb.

Texas drew only 41,000 fans for Lee’s debut, and in fact (to my surprise) sold the place out only twice in his eight home starts: on August 11 against the Yankees (who over the years have typically filled the Ballpark regardless of who was pitching) and in Game Five of the World Series.  There was another Lee start against the Yankees that didn’t sell out, and two Angels games that fell short.

It shocks me that tonight’s game against Seattle isn’t sold out, but maybe it shouldn’t.  It’s a Monday, it’s a school night, lots of folks shelled out to get to the Ballpark in the last three days.  All that.

It also wouldn’t shock me to see the 8,500 available tickets that the club announced last night end up at half that number.

Or better.  When Lee debuted, the Rangers sold more than 14,000 tickets on the day of that Saturday game.

Of course, a big reason for that is that the Lee trade came down just the day before.  We’ve known for a couple weeks that Darvish would pitch tonight.

There will be a couple reminders this series of the Cliff Lee trade, as Justin Smoak (who went 5 for 11 with home runs in all three games when he first visited Arlington as the opponent in 2010) will be at first base for Seattle and Blake Beavan will make his first appearance at Rangers Ballpark tomorrow night.

None of us expects Darvish’s performance tonight to remind us of Lee’s debut as a Ranger, but if you’re anticipating something more along the lines of what Harrison did last night, whether you’re at the Ballpark or back at home, well, that’s cool.

But the Yankees and Red Sox have yet to win, the Orioles and Mets have yet to lose, Zack Cozart is hitting .545/.583/1.182, and Alex Gordon, Kevin Youkilis, and Jayson Werth have a combined zero hits this season.

And Cliff Lee gave up home runs in three straight innings of his Texas unveiling.

I don’t really care how the Rangers win tonight.  I’d rather see Darvish put up a Lee-like clunker line in a Texas victory than see him deal like Harrison in a loss.

But I feel comfortable in predicting that if Darvish comes out of the gate tonight firing the club’s fourth quality start out of four, maybe putting up strikeout numbers at something approaching his spring rate or doing something else super-memorable, there will be 51,703,411 folks claiming they were in the building that Monday night in April, on their feet and using up whatever’s left of their voices at the moment Ron Washington took the ball from Darvish, or as Mike Napoli handed it to him.

Kins and Danks.

John Danks was the ninth player selected in the first round of the 2003 draft.  And the best player selected in the first round of the 2003 draft.

(BaseballReference.com will tell you that Nick Markakis’s 19.7 career Wins Above Replacement exceed Danks’s 18.9, but I’d take Danks over Markakis, the seventh overall pick that year, and bet most teams would, too.)

Danks not only stands out in the first round of that 2003 draft, Grady Fuson’s second as Rangers scouting director – he has been one of the best picks of the 1,480 made that year.

Oklahoma high school outfielder Matt Kemp, chosen by the Dodgers in the sixth round, has been better (21.7 WAR).

Washington high school righthander Tim Lincecum, selected by the Cubs in the 48th round but not signed, has been better (22.5 WAR).

But Danks and Markakis and Kemp and Lincecum and everybody else in the 2003 draft trail one player.

The best player whose name was called in the 2003 draft, at least sabermetrically speaking, has been 17th-rounder Ian Kinsler (the 496th overall pick), whose 24.9 WAR reigns supreme.  You have to go all the way back to 1988, when Kinsler was six years old, to find a 17th-round pick who has had a more productive career, and that was outfielder Brian Giles, who in 15 seasons racked up a 42.5 WAR count.

Kinsler’s 24.9 has been six seasons in the making.

Before Kinsler reached Arlington, and before Danks was traded to Chicago, the two were teammates in Short-Season A Spokane (2003) and Low A Clinton (2004).  Danks was in the LumberKings dugout in that spring of 2004 when Kinsler destroyed Midwest League pitching and wore out Midwest League left field foul lines and left field foul poles to the tune of .402/.465/.692 over 60 games.

Both Kinsler and Danks said goodbye to Clinton after the June 12 game, a 4-3 L-Kings win over the Peoria Chiefs that featured Kinsler’s 11th home run, 30th double (!), a walk, and a couple RBI, and Danks going three innings (two unearned runs on three hits and a walk, three strikeouts).  Therafter, Kinsler was sent two levels up to AA Frisco, and Danks was moved up to High A Stockton (to replace righthander John Hudgins, who was promoted to Frisco to replace lefthander Sam Narron, who was promoted to Oklahoma to replace righthander John Wasdin, who was promoted to the Texas rotation to replace righthander R.A. Dickey, who was moved from the rotation to the long man role in the bullpen of a bad Rangers team).

Kinsler and Danks wouldn’t play together in 2005, as Kinsler spent the whole year in Oklahoma while Danks split the season between High A Bakersfield and Frisco.  They missed each other the next year when Kinsler, in May of his rookie season, spent two weeks rehabbing a thumb injury in Oklahoma, where Danks had made one cameo start in late April but wouldn’t return for good until late June.

That winter, Kinsler finished seventh in the AL Rookie of the Year vote.  And Danks, yet to pitch in the big leagues, was traded to the White Sox.

Since then, neither Kinsler nor Danks has seen the minor leagues (with the exception of a handful of rehab games for both).  And they’ve faced off 30 times.

In those 30 battles, Kinsler has hit safely 11 times and drawn two walks, video-gaming a slash line of .393/.433/.929.  Danks has fanned Kinsler three times – though not at all in their last 18 matchups – while Kinsler has three doubles and four homers among those 11 hits.

One of those doubles came yesterday, on the second pitch the Rangers saw in 2012, and one of the bombs came two innings later.

Danks was really good yesterday.  He was super-efficient, his changeup was filthy, he was hurt in his sixth and final inning by an Adrian Beltre grounder to third that would have gone for a double play if Brent Morel had played it like Beltre would have, and that instead led to the game’s decisive run.

I’m more than a bit surprised Danks signed long-term with the White Sox in December, in the midst of a Chicago teardown and a year before he would have been a free agent, but maybe that’s exactly where he wanted to be (or maybe he figured five years and $65 million was too good a deal to pass up).  I have no problem with that.  But I sure wish he’d have gone free this coming winter and that he’d have been open to a return to Texas.

The idea of locking up long-term before the issue becomes acute is also the big story in Texas right now, as the Rangers and Kinsler reportedly got very, very close on a lengthy extension this week, and there seems to be at least some speculation that two sides, while preferring to avoid the potential distraction of negotiations now that the season is underway, could nonetheless punch the ball in soon if whatever issues remain can get ironed out quickly and quietly.

What Kinsler did yesterday afternoon shouldn’t impact contract talks any more than Albert Pujols hitting into four outs in three official at-bats last night and never getting the ball out of the infield should affect how his contract is viewed.

But it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Kinsler stepped up regardless of what was happening off the field.  The guy’s a baller.

Or that Colby Lewis, who was in the midst of a demotion to AAA at the time Kinsler and Danks signed just after the 2003 draft, before a shoulder surgery and a couple designations for assignment and an outright assignment and another designation for assignment and outright and a release and another designation for assignment and outright and another designation for assignment and release and a stint in Japan and two really solid years back with Texas, especially in the biggest games, would get the job done on Opening Day.

Or that the bullpen, deployed yesterday just the way things are drawn up around here, would be nails, starting with a nasty inning from Alexi Ogando, who has been in pro ball one year longer than Kinsler or Danks.

The only real surprise for me from Texas 3, Chicago 2 is that anyone would throw Josh Hamilton strike one, or any hittable pitch whatsoever to start an at-bat, which the White Sox did every one of his four times up.

It was the kind of day it would have been fun to dream up nine years ago, when Texas popped Danks in Round One, and an infielder with lightning-fast hands from Central Arizona Community College and Arizona State and the University of Missouri in Round 17, a couple players who have turned out to be two of the five most productive players from that draft, chosen 487 slots apart.

It would have been a crazy dream, but for lots of us maybe no more of one than imagining that they’d be facing off on Opening Day, one in the uniform of the two-time defending American League champions, and that the uniform would have “Texas” stitched across its front.

Go time.

A look back, and a look ahead . . . .

Looking back, it seems appropriate, if not tantamount to a complete give-up, to reissue what I wrote hours before the season began one year ago.

Gazing forward, I’m gonna suggest you go ahead and buy your tickets for Sunday, September 30, Game 159 and the home finale, because on that day, with Texas hosting “the first team ever to have too many good players,” Joe Nathan will deliver a ninth-inning fastball and Mark Trumbo will lift a lazy fly that Josh Hamilton will camp under in left center (see what I did there?) and there will be a celebration in the stands and on the field and then in the clubhouse, after which the Rangers will pack up and fly to Oakland for three more games, not knowing yet who the next opponent will be, but knowing they’ll tee things up with them late in the first week of October rather than in the spring of 2013.

I don’t know how many games Texas will win, and I don’t know how many games the Angels will win, and I don’t necessarily know which team will win more, but I’m prepared to say that on the fourth-to-last day of the regular season, the Rangers’ Magic Number will flip to zero.

Between now and then, there’s going to be another great story told, and that brand new book, crisp and clean and begging to get all dog-earred and over-analyzed, with a whole lot of moments of awesome in store, and moments of fail, too, is ready to bust out of the shrink-wrap and keep us company again, for the next six months, and another month after that.

It’s Opening Day.  Time for flyovers and Yu Darvish trotting out for the first time to the first base line to the tune of Chuck Morgan.

Time for Ian Kinsler and chalked lines and 11 in ’12, and for the home whites and blue caps and the blinding green and Robbie Ross wearing the pink backpack.

Time for friends who want to talk about the center field situation and about what’s changed at the Ballpark and about Justin Grimm.

So here we are.

No more sleeps.

Go time.

And a great big bag of Bring It.

Hurry.

A little punch-drunk from staring too long at that freakish kaleidoscope thing in left center field at Marlins Park, or maybe from trying to get my head wrapped around the fact that we’ve already had two Opening Days, have another today, and another tomorrow, here for you to waste a couple minutes (that you’ll never get back) on are some fun facts about the Rangers’ pitching matchups the first time through the rotation:

Tomorrow, one-time Rangers first-round pick Colby Lewis (1999) faces one-time Rangers first-round pick John Danks (2003).

Saturday, Derek Holland faces White Sox righthander Jake Peavy, the last pitcher that San Diego had given a contract extension to before doing so a week ago for lefthander Cory Luebke, who starts Game Two for the Padres himself and who was once selected by the Rangers, as a draft-eligible sophomore from Ohio State, in the 22nd round of the 2006 draft . . . three rounds before Texas chose Holland.

Sunday, Matt Harrison faces Gavin Floyd.  Harrison was traded for Mark Teixeira.  Floyd and Teixeira went to the same high school, and were chosen back-to-back near the top of the 2001 draft.

Monday night, Yu Darvish takes on Hector Noesi.  I got nothing.  Let’s see . . . . both are making their team debut that night.  Noesi accompanied the Mariners on their junket to Japan last week for the two-game set against Oakland, but Seattle designated him ineligible for the series.  Darvish is also ineligible to pitch in Japan this year.  (Like I said: I got nothing.)

Tuesday night, Neftali Feliz and Blake Beavan tee it up.  The Rangers acquired Beavan in June 2007, and Feliz in July 2007.

Sorry.

I really, really need Opening Day No. 4 to hurry and get here.

On the side of Angels.

In the last few days, as clubs have left Arizona and Florida en masse and national writers have returned to their home perches, the inevitable crystal ball articles have sprouted.  At ESPN.com, for instance, 49 contributors were asked to predict the six division winners and the four Wild Cards and the pennant winners and the World Series champions, the results of which were published this morning.

Nearly half (21) have the Angels in the World Series, with a staggering 18 of those calling for an Angels title.

After that, eight have Texas emerging from the American League (seven of whom give the Rangers the title), the same number that have Tampa Bay getting to the World Series (and winning) and one more than the Detroit camp.  The stragglers give the pennant to the Yankees (four) and Red Sox (one).

Peter Gammons is no longer at ESPN and so his vote wasn’t requested, but in his MLB.com space he had something targeted and interesting to say this week in the context of an article weighing in on the state of the game as spring training comes to an end and we stand on the doorstep of the first season in which 10 spots to play past 162 will be offered.

“Several GMs believe that midseason trades will be harder to make,” Gammons writes, “because there will seemingly be more teams in races for October.  There are fewer draft choices, and since Pat Gillick figured out 20-something years ago how to trade for players who would require compensation and store additional draft picks, there have been trades made with that in mind that now won’t exist.  But there are teams that will clearly be positioned to make the headline trade.”

He lists four: Texas, Toronto, Arizona, and Los Angeles – the Los Angeles Dodgers, that is.

The Angels are all in for this season and the next few – the years before the Albert Pujols contract starts to weigh too much – and maybe by that time the Los Angeles farm system (under Scott Servais’s supervision) will have enough near-ready and vertical depth to be included on a short list like that.  But for now?

The Rangers, Gammons suggests, “probably are not going to deal Jurickson Profar or Martin Perez, but look around baseball and see the paucity of third base bats, think Mike Olt, throw in a big arm and GM Jon Daniels can probably get whatever the Rangers need, if they turn out to need anything.”

I figure some of the eight ESPN folks who pegged Texas to leave Los Angeles and everyone else in the American League behind factored in the July factor.  But I bet some of those eight and lots of the Angels 21 looked strictly at Opening Day rosters and nothing more.  And that’s fine.

But it’s incomplete.

Look at the Rangers’ most-days bench (Craig Gentry, Brandon Snyder, Alberto Gonzalez, and one of the two starting catchers), and you know that Texas isn’t going to take that group to October.  There won’t be a key late-inning playoff at-bat in which Alberto Gonzalez is asked to deliver where Esteban German couldn’t.  There will be veterans available in July and August who aren’t available now, and the Rangers will make at least one trade to strengthen the back of the roster in those months.

If not in the next few hours, before today’s 4:00 deadline to set rosters.

A timeframe during which there could be major progress made on a six-year contract extension for Ian Kinsler, particularly considering that the years rather than the dollars were recently reported (by Fox Sports columnist Ken Rosenthal) to be the primary hang-up.

I’m not much on forecasting win totals, because it seems sorta silly in baseball, where there are more than twice as many games played than quarters in a football season, and where roster stability is significantly affected by injuries that we can’t foresee, and by trades that we can’t yet envision.  I think it’s kinda cool to see a writer like Keith Law (ESPN) predict that Yu Darvish will win AL Rookie of the Year and AL Cy Young, but I’m far more interested in seeing him win Monday.

Sports balloting just doesn’t move the needle for me.  And sitting here today and deciding between 88 and 93 and 98 wins isn’t something I care to spend any time thinking about.

Pegging the Angels to win something in 2012 is fashionable right now, and far from foolish.  But the games get played between the lines – and on General Managers’ cell phones – not on webpages in April, and this is shaping up to be one fantastic race in the AL West and beyond that.

This Rangers-Angels rivalry will be going strong even when one team belongs to Ian Kinsler and Jurickson Profar, the other to Howie Kendrick and Mike Trout.  But no need to think that far ahead.

Game on.  Bring it.  And all that.

The significant chunk of life that I’ve thrown into this project might reveal that I’m driven by the big picture, but the great thing about following a great team that’s poised right now to win (and yes, to sustain) is that all the crystal-balling about what things will look like in six and seven months can fire the adrenaline and reinforce confidence, but if it’s all the same to you, you can save the Wild Card and MVP and Prospect of the Year predictions and just get me to 1:05 on Friday afternoon.

Robbie Ross, Texas Ranger.

Ron Washington lifted most of his starting lineup before the game was a third old yesterday, letting his veterans get ready to leave Arizona for Texas while giving a handful of the organization’s top prospects a lengthy chance to play against big league ballplayers in front of big league coaches.

In that latter group were Mike Olt and Jurickson Profar, both headed to Frisco for the first time, one with all of 69 games of experience at the High Class A level, the other with 69 games fewer than that.  And Engel Beltre, whose diving catch in foul ground ended another spring in Surprise, and whose next stop is probably Frisco as well, which will make it four straight years for the mercurial talent to play home games at Dr Pepper Ballpark.

There’s another Rangers prospect who sights were set on breaking camp by moving his pro career from South Carolina, where he spent most of 2011, to Texas, where he made six starts for Frisco plus one in the playoffs late last year, after one cameo playoff appearance in 2010, only the realistic goal was probably 35 miles north-northeast of where it’s going to be.

I’m sure Robbie Ross planned all winter to be in Frisco on Wednesday, only he didn’t expect it would be in the visitors’ bullpen rather than the home dugout.

Texas didn’t re-sign Darren Oliver or Mike Gonzalez (who remains a free agent) this winter.  The club brought veterans Joe Beimel and Mitch Stetter in on non-roster deals, and Neal Cotts in one that at first didn’t even include an invite to big league camp.  Rumors of a Roy Oswalt signing that would have pushed Matt Harrison to the bullpen never had any traction.

Frisco lefties Miguel De Los Santos and Ben Snyder were given shots in camp, and Martin Perez was as well, at least in appearance, but they all had less of a chance combined to stick than Michael Kirkman, but his inconsistent spring led the Rangers to send him out on what will be his final option, opening a door that Ross, more than anyone else, refused to let shut.

As for the others, Cotts may have had as strong a bead on a bullpen spot as Ross, but he strained a muscle in his left side on his penultimate pitch on Saturday, taking him out of the mix.  Texas told Ross on Sunday that he was a big leaguer.

Rangers Senior Special Assistant Don Welke flew to Florida in April 2008 to catch a game in Florida with dozens of other scouts, most of whom were there to see Niceville High School lefthander Brett DeVall, an Aflac All-American projected to be a first-round pick two months later.  DeVall’s opposition traveled 600 miles from Kentucky, and his counterpart on the mound was Ross, who outdueled DeVall in a 2-1 game, reached 94 miles per hour – his highest reading of the day – on the game’s final pitch, and left an impression on Welke that he took with him to the war room, where Texas would take him in June with its second-round pick.  Aside from the obvious tools Ross took to the mound, Welke came away raving about his competitiveness, especially with the game on the line.

Just yesterday, former Rangers minor league pitcher Michael Schlact tweeted: “Couldn’t happen to a better dude.  Nicest guy ever in the dugout.  Meanest guy ever on the mound.”

Ross was named Carolina League Pitcher of the Year and the Rangers’ Nolan Ryan Minor League Pitcher of the Year based on his work as a starter in 2011.  He’s locates a heavy fastball and sharp slider, pounding the zone and keeping the ball on the ground.  There’s no reason he can’t develop into a starting pitcher, but right now he’s the club’s best bet to get lefties out – but not only lefties – in a bullpen otherwise comprised fully of righthanders.  With Myrtle Beach and Frisco last year, left-handed batters hit just .167 off Ross, with zero home runs and only five extra-base hits in 138 at-bats.

Would it be better for his career if Ross continued to work as a starter in Frisco or Round Rock?  Not necessarily.  There’s a school of thought that supports breaking young pitchers into the big leagues as relievers (see Derek Holland), but there’s something else at work here, too.

This isn’t a club 12.5 games back in the race bringing a 22-year-old Edinson Volquez up to make a spot start at the front end of a late-August doubleheader.

This is the two-time defending American League champion, and Robbie Ross is no experiment, no stunt.  He’s established over the last month that he’s best suited to do the job the Rangers are asking him to do.

Late last season, a couple weeks after his promotion to AA, the 22-year-old Ross said: “I want to get to the big leagues any way I can.  If that means coming out of the bullpen, so be it.”

So be it.

Ross will be in Round Rock tonight, as the Rangers tune up against the Express in a game that ought to be over shortly after Kansas tips off against Kentucky, the school Ross committed to pitch for had he not signed with Texas out of high school four years ago.

The Rangers told reporters a few days ago they didn’t intend to pitch Ross on consecutive days in camp (a signal that he’ll be asked ideally to go an inning or two as needed, rather than as a left-on-left specialist), and if that remains the plan, he’ll sit tonight’s game out, having gotten through a clean sixth yesterday with a groundout, a strikeout, and another groundout.

If Ross making the team is the biggest story coming out of Rangers camp, and it just might be, that’s great news, because face it: we’re talking about the lowest man on the pitching staff totem pole.  That’s not to diminish Ross’s accomplishment, or his future, but no news is good news when it comes to spring training, and every team in the league would happily ignore whatever’s behind Door No. 2 if given the option of having a former first-round pick winning the last bullpen spot emerge as the headline as the trucks load up in Arizona or Florida.

Yesterday’s Cactus League finale featured Colby Lewis making his final appearance before Friday’s opener, followed in relief by Scott Feldman, Ross, Mark Lowe, Alexi Ogando, and Joe Nathan.

While Washington got his position players off the field in the early innings, his pitching appointments were far more representative, in fact conceivably not unlike a succession that he could run out there on Friday to start and lock down an Opening Day win, followed by a handshake line behind the Rangers Ballpark mound that should take place at about the time that the players Ross probably figured his teammates would be are getting off the bus at Hammons Field in Springfield, Missouri, getting ready for Game Two of a RoughRiders-Cardinals series that will just have to go on without him.

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