Author Archive

A baseball week.

It can’t get worse.

  That was awesome!

    Well, yeah, it got worse, but now it really can’t get worse.

      That was awesome!

        It got worse.

T minus 157.

I don’t know, either.

Elvis.

When Chuck Morgan roll-calls over 40 men to the first base line at 2:51 this afternoon, it’s a near-certainty that Elvis Andrus will be closer to the back of the line than he’s been on any Opening Day since before the Rangers had ever been to a World Series.  

On Opening Day 2009, a 20-year-old Andrus made his big league debut — just 20 months after he’d turned his Braves Class A uniform in for some Rangers Class A gear — as the starting Texas shortstop, hitting ninth in the lineup as the Rangers hosted Cliff Lee and the Cleveland Indians.  In his first Major League at-bat, Andrus was in the middle of a huge Texas second inning, following up a two-out, two-run Jarrod Saltalamacchia single by rifling a middle-middle Lee offering to right field for a double, moving his former fellow Braves farmhand to third before Ian Kinsler brought both home with line drive single to center.

On Opening Day 2010, coming off a standout debut season (.702 OPS, 85 percent stolen base rate, extraordinary defense, runner-up AL Rookie of the Year honors), Andrus was again hitting ninth on Opening Day, this time behind Saltalamacchia and Andres Blanco.  After eight games, Andrus was hitting .346/.433/.423 and Ron Washington elevated him to the leadoff spot, where he would spend the rest of the year, hitting .262/.338/.297 in that role.

By just about every offensive yardstick, Andrus’s sophomore season lagged his rookie campaign, but when Texas opened the 2011 season at home against Boston, Morgan introduced him right after Kinsler, as Ron Washington plugged his 22-year-old All-Star in at the number two spot in the order — a role he’d experimented with on occasion in 2009 but never in 2010.  With the exception of nine games in which he led off, Andrus would hit second all year in 2011 in games he started.  

And all but five times in 2012.  

Washington experimented a bit more with Andrus in 2013, hitting him sixth (8 times), seventh (3 times), eighth (3 times), and at the top of the order (25 times), though he did hit second primarily (116 times).

In 2014, Washington hit Andrus in the bottom third of the order five straight days in early May, a stretch he entered hitting .220/.288/.288.  He hit second in every other start he made the entire season — by both Washington and Tim Bogar — even though by some measures it was the worst offensive season of the 25/26-year-old’s six in the big leagues.

When the Rangers were introduced at O.co Coliseum on Monday, there was Andrus again in the two hole.  He popped out twice, grounded out to first, and fanned in the opener.  He hit into a first-pitch double play on Tuesday after Leonys Martin had singled to start the game, and then grounded out before singling twice.  In Wednesday’s disaster, Andrus bunted — on his own — after Martin bunted safely to open the game, grounded out to the mound, popped out to second, and flew out to right.

And Andrus’s .182/.182/.182 start was less of a story than the four errors he committed in those three games (later reduced by the scorekeeper to three).

For whatever reason, Jeff Banister — whose reputation suggests he factors statistical advantage heavily into such decisions — moved Shin-Soo Choo up to second in the order for Thursday’s series finale in Oakland, and Andrus down to seventh.  Andrus was the only Rangers starter not to reach base (accounting for six outs in his five trips), but Choo was tremendous (a first-inning single following a Martin walk in what would be a three-run first, and a three-run home run in the fourth to blow the game open) and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Banister stick with Choo at two and Andrus at seven today, against Houston righthander Collin McHugh.

Choo has never faced McHugh and Andrus is 2 for 4 against him (single, bunt single, strikeout, strikeout), but if that extremely small sample is even slightly meaningful to Banister or Steve Buechele or Jayce Tingler or Dave Magadan, I’d like to think there’s nothing wrong with looking for a little spark in the seven hole.  

That’s where Andrus belongs, at least for now.  Maybe even eighth or ninth, depending on the matchup and how Rougned Odor and the catchers are going.

I’d like to see a lot less bunting, especially rogue bunts that weren’t called from the dugout.  Elvis Andrus is and has been one of my favorite players to wear the Rangers uniform, but the court sense doesn’t seem to have advanced as he’s entered what should be his prime (let alone the signature contract that now defines him in part), and sometimes the focus seems to be a bit off.  

Maybe hitting down in the order takes some pressure off him at the plate.

And in the field.

Or maybe it just makes the lineup more efficient.

I’m hoping we have to wait a bit longer than we’re used to for Chuck to call Elvis’s name today, and I know that if he is hitting in the bottom third rather than the top third, my reaction is going to be to cheer even more loudly for one of my favorite players in the game, and a huge key to getting this team back where it belongs as he makes an effort to do the same with his own career.

History.

On April 8, 1991, in a game that Montreal second baseman Delino DeShields Sr. led off, Barry Bonds singled the opposite way to lead off the Pirates’ seventh inning.  Pittsburgh would lose, 7-0.

Twenty-four years and one big league Delino later, Ryan Rua singled the opposite way to lead off the Rangers’ eighth.  Texas would lose, 8-0. 

That 1991 Pirates season featured, three months later, the one Major League at-bat that Jeff Banister would get.  

He racked up as many hits in that trip to the plate as Pittsburgh had on Opening Day that year, and as his Rangers would in their opener last night.

There have been 732 teams (I think) that have kicked off a big league season between 1991 and 2015.  Only that 1991 Pirates team and this 2015 Rangers team, with a late-game single the other way by their left fielders, managed just one base hit on Opening Day. 

If you’re looking for a silver lining after last night, you could recognize that the Pirates won 98 games that year, even if they had no chance against the Expos and Dennis Martinez on April 8.  

Or you could be grateful that your kids didn’t get to see any of the game, the first pitch of which the A’s were allowed by MLB to schedule, for fans two time zones to the east, after bedtime on a school night.  (So dumb.)

Maybe there isn’t a silver lining at all, other than the fact that 0.617 percent of the season is now history, and we can turn the page.

Some books start really slow.

Opening Day, and that which cannot be believed.

On the first day of the 2010 Major League Baseball season, five years and a day ago, Scott Feldman got the start for Texas.

Rich Harden started Game Two.

C.J. Wilson, who hadn’t started a big league game in five years, started the third game, followed by Colby Lewis, who hadn’t pitched in the United States, at any level, in three years.  

The season-opening rotation for the Rangers, who had never won a playoff series in their 38 years of existence, was rounded out by 24-year-old Matt Harrison, whose two-year big league ERA was 5.76.

Let me repeat: Rich Harden started Game Two.

Frankie Francisco headed up a bullpen that included 39-year-old Darren Oliver in his third tour with Texas, Darren O’Day in his first year after his Rule 5 odyssey, and rookie Neftali Feliz.  The rest of the relief corps: Dustin Nippert, Doug Mathis, and Chris Ray.

Julio Borbon’s first Opening Day in the big leagues saw him leading off.  Andres Blanco (acquired by trade a week earlier) was the starting second baseman, and was lifted for pinch-hitter Ryan Garko (claimed off waivers four days earlier) in the eighth, which led to Joaquin Arias playing defense in the ninth — and one if not two of those three probably wouldn’t have played in that game (or even made the club) if Khalil Greene hadn’t announced a month after signing as a free agent that he wouldn’t be reporting to Surprise.

On April 5, 2010, Jarrod Saltalamacchia made four trips to the plate.  He’d make one more as a Ranger.  

That Texas club was coming off a camp in which it had posted the worst spring training record (10-19) in the American League and in Arizona, and the third-worst in baseball.  It was also a camp in which the manager announced he’d failed an MLB drug test the summer before.  

But what we couldn’t have expected that day in early April 2010, hours before Duke tipped the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Game off in Indianapolis (against Butler), was that Josh Hamilton would boost his OPS by more than 300 points, and win AL MVP.  

We couldn’t have expected that Nelson Cruz, in his age 29-30 season, would increase his own OPS by nearly 100 points and record what remains his career season.  

We couldn’t have expected 115 RBI from Vladimir Guerrero, a year after it looked like his career was winding down.  

We couldn’t have expected that rookie Mitch Moreland, a little more than a year after being given the opportunity to convert full-time to the mound as a minor leaguer, would come up to Texas late in the year and, over a little more than a quarter of the schedule, contribute nine bombs and drive in 25 runs with an .833 OPS.

We couldn’t have expected Wilson to win 15, Lewis to win 12, or Tommy Hunter to join the rotation and win 13 himself.  We couldn’t have expected the 22-year-old Feliz taking the ninth over from Francisco and saving 40 games, or Alexi Ogando, eight and a half years after entering pro ball as outfielder Argenis Benitez, reaching the big leagues for the first time and putting up a 1.30 ERA.

In April 2010 we couldn’t have expected Cliff Lee and we couldn’t have expected Bengie Molina, let alone the moment they would give us three months after they arrived.

101210cliffbengie3

In April 2010, we couldn’t have expected October 2010.  Never, ever, ever.

Understand that I’m not predicting a World Series for Texas in 2015.  That’s not the point here.

The point is that none of were predicting anything close to a World Series in 2010 either, given the franchise’s history and especially after such a brutal spring training, on the field and off, and a regular season that started with Ian Kinsler, one of the club’s two or three best players, parked on the disabled list, and not just for a couple weeks.  

That fourth of Saltalamacchia’s five 2010 Texas at-bats was also the one that ended that Opening Day.  

Toronto brought closer Jason Frasor on to nail things down in a 4-3 game that the Jays — who had no-hit the Rangers until the seventh inning — had never trailed.  

Michael Young doubled to right center.  

Hamilton watched strike three, low and away.  

Guerrero hit an infield single.

Cruz doubled the other way on the first pitch he saw, tying the game and sending Guerrero to third, where he’d pass the baton to pinch-runner David Murphy.

Cito Gaston decided he’d rather pitch to Saltalamacchia than Chris Davis, with Texas needing only a medium-deep fly ball to win the game, and he put Davis on with four wide ones.  

Frasor to Saltalamacchia:

Ball one.

Foul ball.

Ball two.

Foul ball.

Foul ball.  

Slider down and in, lasered to right center field.  

Murphy dashed home, and after he and Cruz and Davis had advanced their 90 feet each they joined 21 of their teammates and dashed toward Saltalamacchia, who’d just rounded first in what nobody would have ever believed would be his final act as a Ranger (save a pinch-hit strikeout looking against Frasor two days later).

But then again, on Opening Day 2010 nobody would have ever believed much of anything as far as where the 2010 Texas Rangers season was headed.

Look: Don’t go anywhere.  

Open the book.

Wash it off.

We’ve all heard Jeff Banister use the expression half a dozen times.

When the day’s over, it’s over.  You wash it off.  You don’t carry it into the next day.  

That thunderstorm that woke me up and just rolled through?  I figured I might have to wait out a power outage before writing this morning.

It’s all good.

Whatever holiday you celebrate today, hope it’s a good one.

We celebrate together tomorrow.

Twenty-four teams will have a win or a loss by the time Texas and Oakland players and coaches line the chalk in O.co Monday night.  Maybe 26, if those new pace-of-play rules work.

By the time Leonys Martin steps in against Sonny Gray tomorrow night, there will be 12 (and maybe 13) teams with more losses than the Rangers, whose 9-19-5 spring record was, handily, baseball’s worst.

Wash it off.

Go time.

All that once was good, and that could be again.

No, the ERA’s and the batting averages and the win-loss records don’t matter, but yeah, I’d be happier if Texas didn’t head into today’s final exhibition on an eight-game losing streak, one that’s capped off a run of 19 basically meaningless games that’s included just two wins.  Picking up just a little momentum, and that feeling of a team meeting at the mound to line up for fist-bumps, with the season just around the corner would be cool.

But you know what?

This:  

http://m.mlb.com/video/v60085883/mlb-players-recite-famous-field-of-dreams-speech

One more.

One yard.  I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been thinking about that one yard for the past 17 days.”  

Russell Wilson said that in a Players’ Tribune article and video just about 40 days ago.

And every one of us can relate, given what happened on a baseball diamond just about 40 months ago.

That lingering sportsache doesn’t go for every player in the Rangers clubhouse these days — in fact, it applies to fewer than a fifth of them — but based on several written accounts this morning, it was clearly a big part of the things Wilson talked about with his Texas Rangers teammates on his day in camp yesterday.

“We had a great conversation,” Wilson told reporters.  “We talked about how you get back to winning and get back to that opportunity where you are there again and the focus that it takes.  It comes down to fundamentals, but also team bonding and that ‘I’ve got your back kind of mentality at all costs.’  I think we have that. . . . You learn from winning, but also how to deal with a loss.  I think consistency in your perspective shouldn’t change.  The idea of having a championship mindset, that shouldn’t leave. . . . When everybody has that championship mindset, you never fear.  You never doubt.”

Wilson apparently brought brand new Bose headphones and speakers for every one of his teammates and every member of the Rangers staff, but it’s the other thing he brought, the stuff you can’t put a retail price on, that for me goes into the stack along with Prince Fielder’s handful of opposite-field square-ups and the strikeout barrage Jon Edwards and Keone Kela fired yesterday, the first with the uniformed Wilson in the dugout hanging with young baseball players and the second just after he’d left the stadium, and now I’m tormenting myself obsessing over how much Kela’s temperament on the mound might have made a difference on October 27, 2011.  One more . . . . 

Stop.

I’m so ready for ball.

Forget counting sleeps at this point.

One more Sunday.

Straight Outta Compton….to New Jersey?

The Keone Kela backstory is familiar to some and will be soon to many more, but the present tense is the story now, with last night providing the latest chapter, and an exclamation point.

Asked to pitch on back-to-back days (which he did only twice in all of 2014 and never before that in his three-year pro career) and for the third time in four days, the between-the-lines read was clear: The Rangers – who haven’t had anyone else pitch on consecutive days this spring – put yet another box in front of Kela to check, as he’s put himself in line to win a bullpen job that the club certainly didn’t plan for when extending the 21-year-old his first invite to big league camp.

Box checked.

Sunday’s seventh inning against the Mariners:

Groundout to third.

Strikeout swinging.

Groundout to second. 

The righty (“built like an ox, with a sturdy and tall frame conducive for a power reliever,” according to Baseball Prospectus’s Tucker Blair) sat 95-97 – but got the punchout on a hammer curve.

Monday’s seventh against Cincinnati:

Walk.

Strikeout swinging (Joey Votto on full-count, 95-mph cheese).

Groundout to short.

After which “Cold Blooded” (maybe I’ll give up on that nickname at some point) handed the ball off to Jeff Banister, with what had to be one of the greatest feelings of the Compton product’s baseball life.

Kela, who became a father at age 21 – which sounds young until you learn his own parents were 15 and 16 when he was born – recently told Star-Telegram writer Jeff Wilson for a Baseball America piece: “There’s a saying, ‘If you’ve got a jersey, you’ve got a chance.’  It’s just about being consistent and handling your business the best you can.  The opportunity is there.  It’s all about how you perform.”

In the last couple days, the Rangers have optioned (in the case of 40-man roster members) or reassigned (in the case of those not on the 40) several key minor leaguers to the back fields to get more reps, as the players earmarked for the Opening Day roster (or at least battling for those spots) start to get more regular work.  Out are Chi Chi Gonzalez, who’s had an eye-opening camp as well, and Joey Gallo, as well as Jorge Alfaro and Tomas Telis and Jared Hoying and Hanser Alberto and Spencer Patton.  They’ll all be back, most of them at some point in 2015.

But for now, they’ll work in minor league games, with a possible “just in case” assignment with the big club here and there before camp breaks.

When the Rangers and Cubs tee it up next Monday night in the Futures Game the two organizations have put together, Gallo and Alfaro may get the chance to step in against C.J. Edwards, the wiry righthander who keyed the Rangers’ deal for Matt Garza in 2013 and who will probably arrive in Chicago sometime in 2015.

It won’t happen for Edwards at the start of the season, however, as the Cubs have already optioned the 23-year-old to AAA, just as the Brewers have done with 23-year-old Corey Knebel and the Blue Jays have done with 26-year-old Matt West, both former Rangers relief prospects with late-inning upside.

Kela, instead, may be pitching that day against Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer in a big league exhibition game, with his usage pattern carefully mapped out so he’ll be ready to go in Oakland a week after that, assuming his charge towards a bullpen role continues on the path he’s carved out to date.

Last night’s ballgame provided big moments by Gonzalez and by Ryan Rua that caused me to overtweet, and I felt great about Prince Fielder’s 0-for-3 that produced four outs, because results don’t matter in Surprise and we could all see how that swing and the action off the bat looks completely different from 2014, but the moment as indelible as any may have been Kela’s, in part because of the significance of the plan but more so in the execution of it.

Kela’s still got that jersey, so he still has that chance.  And it’s starting to look more and more like “chance” is not the right word to use when talking about the odds that the young man, having earned this opportunity and so far blown its doors off, starts 2015 rocking one of those jerseys that says neither “Frisco” nor “Round Rock” across the front, but instead “Texas.”

The hoping and the hating.

A few days ago a friend sent me a link to a BBC article on cricket and rugby, which I nearly deleted as quickly as you’re considering deleting this, but I checked it out, and both the subtitle (“Does sport make us happy?”) and part of the final paragraph struck a chord:

Who wants to go through life insulated from emotion?  Sport — the winning, the losing, the hoping, the hating, the tension and the despair and the very occasional ecstatic moment — opens us up to feeling alive. 

It’s a subject I sort of wrote about a month ago (“The curse of caring”), and I bring it back up today not because of the stupid “baseball” that was played in San Antonio on Friday and Saturday or yesterday’s hardly indistinguishable Seagering, but because I needed to remind myself that as much as we all want spring training to end — at this point it’s a headache made exponentially worse by running side by side with the impeccable sportsiness of March Madness — the buildup, as long and often excruciating as it is, is a much bigger part of what makes Opening Day such an eagerly anticipated day of awesome than a crate of red, white, and blue bunting, or a barbershop quartet stationed in the concourse.

Yes, we’re all hoping Shin-Soo Choo’s triceps soreness fits in with John Wetteland’s spring training neck strain in whatever year that was, or with Yu Darvish’s stiff neck in camp a year ago, and not with the “not expected to serious” read we all got on Darvish’s precautionary exit after triceps tightness in the first inning three Thursday’s ago.  We’ll have to wait out the Choo news, and if you’re just a little nervous, too, hey, I hear ya. 

I’m sure a tremendous amount of charitable good was done in San Antonio, and as fans we can all discount Justin Turner reaching out to spoil a two-strike Ross Wolf breaking ball down and away . . . and parking it in the right field seats, but look, these guys are competitors, and I doubt Wolf or Anthony Ranaudo or Anthony Bass is laughing anything off just because they gave up wiffle ball bombs in a joke of a room not even big enough to be described as a bandbox.  Those guys are fighting for big league roles (if not employment in some cases), and no pitcher wants to have a new baseball tossed his way as the other guy trots 360 with a stuff-eating grin on his face.  

I ran into a former pro ballplayer yesterday, a man who was issued a uniform for all of one spring training, which is one more than 99-point-something percent of us.

He said camp (then in Port Charlotte) was the longest six weeks of his life.

We all embrace the countdown to Pitchers & Catchers, and there is a modicum of greatness in these six or seven weeks, this year including what Keone Kela and Chi Chi Gonzalez have done to accelerate the conversation, what Carlos Peguero and Ross Detwiler and Nick Martinez and Ross Ohlendorf have done with an opportunity, what Alex Claudio and Phil Klein have quietly done to build on 2014, what Jorge Alfaro and Lewis Brinson have done on different stages to generate talk of taking the next step.  

And whether Rougned Odor’s .385/.407/.577 slash in a small sample is as adrenalizing as the staredown and words he had with Dodgers righthander Juan Nicasio in an even smaller sample on Saturday.  

There’s also plenty of back fields greatness in the video that accompanies this Baseball Prospectus writeup on Nomar Mazara, and you should scroll down and read the Michael De Leon scouting report, too.

When BP’s Jordan Gorosh tweets from the back fields that Rangers outfield prospect “Nick Williams has gotten himself into plus counts, and has a laser-beam double (8.3 time, slowed a bit) and a walk to show for it,” the least exciting part about that sentence is the double, and you know why.   

If someone offered up a ticket to the March 30 “Futures Games” pitting Rangers prospects against Cubs prospects a week from tonight Mesa, there’s no way I’d be able to set life aside and get out there, but I’d give it more thought than I would have if someone asked if I wanted to watch a big league exhibition in the Alamodome.  

Speaking of night games, the Rangers’ first in Arizona this spring is tonight, with Gonzalez taking the hill against the Reds (TXA 21 and 105.3 FM), and if, as expected, we see Kela for an inning against Cincinnati hitters — and he gets through with the relative ease that he’s shown all month — don’t be surprised if he’s facing Oakland hitters in two weeks.  

That’s not to suggest Gonzalez doesn’t have his own shot to head west for Opening Day, but Kela’s basically built a case that his might be a job to lose at this point, and that would probably be the case even if Shawn Tolleson weren’t dealing with minor soreness forearm right now.

There’s a night game in about 11 hours, and that’s going to be worth tuning into because of Gonzalez and Kela and a roster competitor or two in the starting lineup, but also because night baseball is a strong-to-quite-strong reminder that real baseball is getting a lot closer.  (And no, I don’t count last Friday night in San Antonio, because that wasn’t even imitation baseball.)  

There are storylines involving Cole Hamels and Chris Carter and Mark Trumbo and Jhoulys Chacin and Brad Hand that have a Rangers angle, at least peripherally, but the odds of much happening to move those stories forward locally before camp breaks are probably about the same as Darwin Barney squaring to bunt and putting the ball over the right field fence in the Alamodome.

Yep, the winning and the losing, the hoping and the hating, the tension and the despair and the very occasional ecstatic moment make more than just cricket and rugby fans feel alive, and there’s a lot of the less-good stuff in that list that clouds spring training once we get to late March, but there’s still hope in a whole bunch of directions, and tonight’s there’s night baseball (and 350 feet down the lines), too, and as much as none of it counts, it does still matter, and I’ve gone ahead and set an appointment on my couch. 

Yu Darvish, and the discovery of positive findings.

You can expect all kinds of residual effects when you lose your number one starter before the battle is even joined, repercussions that go beyond asking your sixth starter to take the ball more than 30 times in place of your ace.  

With 2014’s disaster now incidental history, and with stacks of good winter reports on the health of so many key players who were unable to finish the season — not the least of which revolved around Yu Darvish’s encouraging off-season in the Metroplex — justifying your chosen level of renewed hope, getting bludgeoned with the news before camp was even half over that Darvish would miss all of 2015 figured to be yet another overwhelming morale-crusher for those who suit up in Rangers blue, not to mention those of us who pay to watch them play.

Not the case, at least as far as the club itself is concerned, and it was the biggest surprise of my week at Rangers camp.

As you’d expect, Jon Daniels set the tone with his public comments in the immediate aftermath of last Saturday’s news, and Jeff Banister’s message was consistent with his career and his attitude — we will pick our brother up and fire off the ball as a team — but it was Darvish’s own attitude that made arguably the biggest statement.

I’m very optimistic,” Darvish said at his Friday press conference at which it was announced he would have “Tommy John” ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction surgery.  “I have no worries whatsoever.” 

I have no negative feelings,” the 28-year-old added.  “Nothing positive comes out of that.”  

I’m going to take this time to learn a lot. . . . There is a lot I can do to make myself better.  And maybe what I learn I can pass onto other players.”   

Darvish offered those things Friday in full uniform, cap to kicks, which I thought got a point across as well, in line with the fact that he was on the field the morning before and morning after, participating in pitchers’ batting practice, even if only manning the pitching machine, or shagging shallow flies — with a glove on his right hand.  And he was doing it all with a smile on his face as permanent as those on the faces of the kids spending their Spring Break lining the chain link fence.

darvish smile small

Understand that I’m not trying to compare Darvish’s “thinned out” (not torn) UCL to the much more serious life adversity that Josh Hamilton apparently now faces, but when I heard Darvish and Daniels both talk about Darvish’s desire to stay in camp with his teammates until it was time yesterday to fly to Pensacola, to return to Surprise after tomorrow’s surgery to be around them and the Rangers’ medical people as he gets his rehab program underway, and to spend the 2015 season in Arlington — “to be part of the fabric of the team,” as Daniels put it — I couldn’t help but think about the statement the Angels made when they decided they wouldn’t put Hamilton’s name on a locker this spring, because, as Mike Scioscia told Fox Sports columnist Jon Morosi, Hamilton wasn’t going to be around, and “we needed the space.”

Yeah, I’d trade the Rangers’ 95 losses in 2014 for Los Angeles’s 98 wins, but both of those numbers are safely in the past now, and I’m a big believer in energy and attitude and team.  Darvish won’t spend any more days on an active roster in 2015 than Hamilton will — and likely a lot fewer — but he’ll have a locker as soon as he’s back in camp Wednesday or Thursday, and you can bet he will all year long.  

More than one club official will tell you the vibe in the clubhouse is dramatically better than it was a year ago, for any number of reasons.  Maybe that would have been the case even if the manager were Tim Bogar, or Kevin Cash, or Ron Washington.  But there’s no question that it’s a Banister strength, and aside from that there’s an obvious drive among veterans like Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo to reestablish themselves, which is to say nothing of the fire that guys like Derek Holland and Rougned Odor have to build off strong finishes and take that next step in 2015 — or of the mission Elvis Andrus is on to be Good Elvis again, and even better than that.  

Even if you’re not someone who believes positive energy can affect the win column or that a negative atmosphere can drag a team down — I understand the camp that minimizes those things, but I absolutely believe swagger makes a difference — you’d have to admit, I assume, that you want Joey Gallo not only around his coaches but also around Adrian Beltre.  Odor around Michael Young.  Jorge Alfaro around Pudge Rodriguez.  Every possible chance.  Less A.J. Pierzynski and Vicente Padilla. 

Darvish had just been told by two of the world’s top specialists (Dr. Keith Meister and Dr. David Altchek) that his elbow needed to be operated on — he says he made up his mind to have surgery as soon as he heard it from Dr. Meister — when he took the field for pitchers’ BP, hollered along with his teammates when Lisalverto Bonilla went deep, and had a distance-throwing contest with Martin Perez (Darvish left-handed, Perez with his right).

darvish LH long toss

And he was feeding a pitching machine the morning before flying out to Florida to have his season cut short, on Dr. James Andrews’s operating table, before it began.  

A year from now Banister will probably say about Darvish what he’s saying now about Fielder and Choo, which is that reading a player’s body language is 80 percent of the evaluation process when it comes to a player coming back from injury.  

Last Monday, in the bottom of the fifth inning of an exhibition game against Oakland, with both teams having already begun making substitutions — the stage of the game being relevant since Fielder knew he was about to come out of the game himself — he stood in with two outs and Hanser Alberto on third.  Fielder shot a ground ball back toward the box and pitcher Jesse Chavez got a glove on it, slowing it down enough for Marcus Semien to field the ball and make the throw to first.  

Fielder beat it out, keeping the inning from ending and allowing Alberto to score in a basically meaningless moment in an ultimately meaningless spring training game.  

Banister promptly sent Josh Morgan out to pinch-run for Fielder, and the reception Fielder got from his teammates as he reentered the dugout matched what was going on in the crowd of 5,500 that had just watched the 275-pounder leg out a two-out infield grounder. 

Two days later, Banister challenged his entire team, offering $100 to the first player to take an extra base on a “dirt ball,” that is, a pitch that the catcher failed to handle cleanly.  

In the first inning that afternoon, after Fielder singled Leonys Martin in to start the game’s scoring, White Sox starter Carlos Rodon’s first pitch to Ryan Ludwick got away from catcher Rob Brantly, and Fielder advanced, laying claim to the Banister bounty.  Two batters after that, Fielder scampered home on a wild pitch.

The next morning, Banister couldn’t have been more happy to report that he was $100 lighter.  “What a groundswell that was,” the manager said, “having your veteran power hitter be the first.”  He praised Fielder for the execution — heightened awareness, anticipation and recognition, zero hesitation — but it was more than that.  

Banister talked about wanting the Rangers’ identity, their culture, their attitude, to be about playing a bold and aggressive style of baseball, to anticipate rather than react.  Having Fielder put his stamp on it in that situation — not Odor or Martin or Jake Smolinksi (whom Banister calls a “straight bulldog”) — couldn’t have worked out better, it seems, not just because of the type of player Fielder is but also because of the lost year he’s intent on storming back from.

And in the first-to-third drills the big leaguers ran that same morning, I kid you not: The player running with the most purpose, as if he were a non-roster journeyman or a AA prospect trying to open some eyes, was Choo.  It was more than the look of a healthy ankle — he was cutting the bag and digging at 11 a.m. on Back Field No. 1 as if there were a game on the line.  

It was awesome.  

As was Choo dropping down and carrying out a 10-push-up sentence for pulling his head out on a batting practice swing — even though he hit the ball out of the park, opposite field.  You won’t ever see me compare Choo to Young, but it’s a clinic when Choo runs through his BP work.  

Five hours after that, Choo rocketed a line drive that beat White Sox center fielder Emilio Bonifacio to the fence, 400 feet away, and seconds later Choo beat Bonifacio’s throw to third base, standing up.

Man, if Fielder and Choo are Fielder and Choo in 2015.

Not only productive hitters in a revitalized lineup, but also a pair of veterans that a couple waves of young players can learn from, along with Sheriff Beltre.  

When you have a player like Beltre who can be the heavy when necessary, you can instead be the guy who tells the entire team that they’re prohibited from reporting the next morning to the clubhouse at 5:15 a.m., or 6:00, or 7:30, as Banister did at the end of the day on Saturday, sensing his team “ha[d] gone at it hard” and needed “a little extra recharge”: Nobody was allowed to show up Sunday morning before 8:00.

Just as nobody was allowed to sulk about Darvish.  I heard basically the same thing from three different people while I was out there: The team took about 10 minutes to get their anger and frustration out over the diagnosis on their ace’s elbow.  

After that:  OK.  Let’s go.

If you’ve been out in Surprise this month or are headed there shortly, you’ll see it too: The players (and coaches) are moving around with the same buzz and conviction as the 10-year-old Ranger-lidded kids in every direction chasing baseballs and autographs and dreams that deserve to be kept alive as long as possible.  

Baseball is hard.  You see outfielder Zach Cone (supplemental first round/2011, compensation for the loss of Cliff Lee) leading off third base as the AA squad goes through morning BP around the minor league Eagle’s Nest, with lefthander Kevin Matthews (also supplemental first/2011, also compensation for Lee) doing arm slot drills 50 feet away — while 300 yards to the east Ryan Rua (17th round/2011) and Keone Kela (12th round/2012) compete for big league jobs on Field 1.  

You see Kyle Blanks put on a batting practice show and squint your eyes, wondering if this is the year that he stays healthy and explodes.

You hear Banister talk about Jared Hoying “digging it out of the dirt every day” and then scribble down the 30-word definition of that description.

You watch Ryan Cordell get in those shortstop reps you’ve been hearing about, and you latch onto one of those dreams that deserves to be kept alive as long as possible, maybe to be filed one day in the “Zobrist” folder.

You recognize why people are so excited about Chi Chi Gonzalez, and so unconcerned about how fast his track has been.

You understand the reason Tony Romo was in camp was partly to tap into what Banister calls the “dynamic of shared experiences,” for leaders to connect and talk about preparation, and leading, like the Pirates did with Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger and Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby — but also so Romo and Matt Harrison could talk about a shared experience of another kind, that one has come back from and another now attempts to.  

You see Romo in camp but not Russell Wilson — a world-class athlete with a world-class work ethic who was a fairly ordinary Class A baseball player — and you don’t see Michael Young, who was between visits to Surprise, and you don’t see Jurickson Profar.

You don’t see Richard Durrett, and that one’s the toughest.

USA Today columnist Bob Nightengale wrote a story a few days ago that Richard would have done a great job with, centered on Fielder’s repaired marriage with Chanel and reunion with his long-estranged father Cecil.  “He might look like the same guy from the exterior,” Nightengale writes, “but he can’t remember the last time he’s ever been happier, and everyone in the Rangers clubhouse sees it.”  

It may be pretty good timing, along with the arrival of Banister, the health of Choo, the imminence of Gallo and Gonzalez and Alfaro and Kela, the return of Young.  Darvish is not going to throw a pitch in 2015, but that was dwelled upon for about 10 minutes.  

“Now,” says Nightengale, “after all he’s endured, Fielder is not about to let Darvish’s injury temper his enthusiasm or anyone else’s in the clubhouse.”  

On a smaller scale, but not an unimportant one, that sentence about Prince Fielder could also be about a fan base, if we choose to look at it that way.

I took down lots of notes last week on prospects like Alfaro and Kela, on non-roster candidates like Ryan Ludwick and Ross Ohlendorf, on Rule 5 picks Delino DeShields and Philadelphia’s Odubel Herrera, and even on new third base coach Tony Beasley, and I had some things I planned to say about Cole Hamels, but this year the lasting impression from camp was different, for whatever reason.  There’s time to get to the player notes before the Rangers pack their things up in Arizona and break camp, but for now I came away from what I think was something like my 20th or 25th spring training thinking more about how different the team’s attitude seems, oblivious to the corner that so many in the national media have shoved it into.  

I was hit with the news that the Rangers’ ace was likely lost for the year just before heading out to Surprise, but as it turns out it didn’t ruin anyone’s trip to Arizona, and it’s apparent that that includes the players who will compete this year wearing “Texas” across their chests.  It’s a baseball setback and a huge one, for the team and for the pitcher, but, as the new manager likes to say, “through every obstacle there is opportunity.” 

Let’s go.

I suppose you take motivation where you can find it, and while we can’t change the reality of the injury, I’m good knowing that the Rangers will keep a locker for Yu Darvish all year long, and even more so that, given the choice, he expressed to his team the choice to be wherever that locker is as he embarks on the unfamiliar journey of putting the pieces back together.  

That’s not going to pack another W or two onto the win-loss, but it’s better than the alternative as this team works on rebuilding its identity, and before you write Texas off because of its projected starting five, take a quick look at the rotation the club took into 2010 and into 2011 — and remember that Martin Perez will be back in a few months, and Matt Harrison just might be, too.  

And hey, fan of awful wordplay (or occasional tolerator of same), perhaps we’ve learned this:  When you see Yu Darvish throwing left-handed, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re looking at a negative.

Darvish photos courtesy of John Payne

Darvish photos courtesy of John Payne

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