The Rangers won their opening series for the fourth consecutive season, rebounding from a less-than-stellar Opening Day on the mound to come away with back-to-back, one-run walkoff wins over the Phillies. Martin Perez, Robbie Ross and the Texas bullpen had answers for the immediate pitching staff question mark from day one. But heading into the second series of 2014 in Tampa Bay, there are more questions to be answered.
Here are my Five Questions heading into the weekend:
1. Who will survive as a member of the starting rotation, Joe Saunders or Nick Martinez?
I suppose a third option could be “both,” but it’s highly unlikely. Manager Ron Washington made the announcement heard ‘round the world (well, maybe just America and Japan) that Yu Darvish would return to the rotation on Sunday. He elaborated that the trio of Scheppers, Perez and Ross would follow, but “wouldn’t commit” to anything beyond that. That likely means that one of the two - Saunders or Martinez - will get bumped from the rotation after just one start.
It should be noted that the survivor of the two very well may have his spot taken, too, as the return of Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison are looming in the coming weeks. But the performance from Saunders on Friday and Martinez on Saturday, and Washington’s evaluation of each, will be an interesting storyline to follow moving into next week.
Answer after the series: Nick Martinez was the first Texas starter to record a quality start this season, but was optioned to double-A Frisco to make room for Yu Darvish. Saunders gave up five funs (four earned) in just 3.2 innings Friday before exiting the game with a bruised ankle after getting pegged by a shot up the middle by Evan Longoria. X-rays came back negative on the ankle, but it's up in the air whether Saunders will be able to make his next scheduled start. The answer to this question is likely "neither," as Colby Lewis will be eligible to join the Rangers rotation on April 11 if his rehab start goes smoothly Sunday at triple-A Round Rock.
2. Can the Rangers get on the board first?
While the 10-run output on Opening Day against Cliff Lee and the Philadelphia pitching staff was impressive, Texas didn’t plate a run until the sixth inning in game two, and the seventh in game three. In fact, the brief 7-6 lead in the third inning on Opening Day is the only lead the Rangers have held before the bottom of the ninth inning through three games.
As ESPN Dallas’s Richard Durrett pointed out, the Rangers were 59-17 last season when they scored first -- but accomplishing that feat only 76 times in a 162-game season is not an über-frequent rate. Early runs are important, and the top of the lineup is equipped to produce them. Texas had men on second and third with no outs in the first inning against Philadelphia on Wednesday but failed to bring home a run. The ability to execute in those situations will be important moving forward.
After all, the Rangers can’t count on winning each of the final 161 games in walk-off fashion.
Answer after the series: Texas finally got on the board first in back-to-back games in Tampa. They scored on an Alex Rios double in the first inning Saturday, but it was for naught as the bullpen relinquished the lead in the late innings. Yu Darvish didn't need much run support Sunday as he was spectacular in his season debut, but the Rangers didn't put a run on the board until the eighth inning again in the series finale. They got on the board first, but not early -- which works when the ace is on the mound throwing seven shutout, but won't be a formula for success over the remaining 156 games of the season.
3. Will Michael Choice see his first start as a Ranger?
Mitch Moreland is known for struggling against left-handed pitching. Even though his batting average was higher against lefties (.241) than it was against righties (.227) in 2013, his average was a meager .183 against southpaws in the second half of last year. Washington gave Moreland the nod against the left-handed Lee on Opening Day, because “he deserved it.” He pointed out that day that the Rangers face left-handed pitching in Tampa, and we may not see Moreland in the lineup.
The first-baseman-turned DH recorded two extra-base hits on Wednesday (each against righties), so seeing him in the lineup for Friday’s game is no surprise. But Tampa Bay’s lefty ace David Price takes the mound on Saturday, so it will be interesting to see if Choice earns a start at DH in that game.
Answer after the series: Yes. Choice was penciled in as the starting right fielder for Saturday's game against the lefty David Price, going 0-for-4. Moreland went 1-for-4 against the righty Odorizzi in the first game of the series, but returns to the DH role against Tampa Bay's Alex Cobb on Sunday. Moreland again went 1-for-4, giving Choice and Moreland a combined 1-for-12 series. The Rangers will need more production out of the DH spot going forward.
4. Can Prince Fielder bust out of his early slump?
It’s possibly too early to even label it a “slump,” but if you’re Prince Fielder, you certainly don’t want it to become one. The Ranger slugger is just 2-for-12 in his first three games with Texas, going 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position.
As I sat at my Globe Life Park press box perch Wednesday, I uttered “the call” to myself, thinking each Fielder at-bat would be the one in which Prince launched one into the right field porch. It didn’t happen, and he hits the road with just a .167 batting average.
The addition of Fielder to the meat of the lineup was made so he would be a catalyst to run production, and a slump from no. 84 won’t bode well for the lineup. Prince has hit just .206 in his career at Tropicana Field, but he has hit at a .368 clip at Fenway Park, where the Rangers go after Tampa Bay.
Answer after the series: No. While Fielder did raise his average 83 points in the first game of the series, collecting two hits including his first hit with a runner in scoring position and his first Ranger RBI, he went 0-for-4 in each of the final two games. His first three at-bats Saturday came with runners in scoring position, and the only productive at-bat was a fly ball to center in the first that moved Shin-Soo Choo from second to third. He didn't bat with a runner in scoring position Sunday. His average fell to the same .167 mark with which he entered the weekend.
5. What will the bullpen rotation be?
If you had told me that two of the three games in the opening series would be one-run games, and the series was decided by a total of six runs, I would not have guessed that Shawn Tolleson, Seth Rosin and Pedro Figueroa would each have more innings pitched than Neal Cotts, Jason Frasor and Joakim Soria. But that’s the case as the Rangers “feel it out” in the bullpen with staples Tanner Scheppers and Robbie Ross in the starting rotation this season.
If Tolleson-Figueroa-Rosin is the rotation that wins 67 percent of games this season, then so be it. No disrespect to the aforementioned group of hurlers, but I’m hardfought to believe it’s the one Washington sticks with consistently. So I, personally, am interested to see when the “feeling it out” ends and the normal rotation of arms out of the ‘pen begins. The Rays scored eight runs off of the Toronto Blue Jays’ bullpen in their four-game opening series.
Answer after the series: The late inning bullpen formula seems to be set, as it was last year, but the long relief role is still in flux. The Rangers rolled out Daniel McCutchen, Figueroa and Ogando in Friday's blowout loss. McCutchen was then sent down to double-A Frisco to make room for Nick Martinez. On three days' rest, Frasor and Cotts came in for the seventh and eighth innings Saturday, as predicted. But Soria didn't get a chance to throw the ninth, as Loney's late-inning heroics off of Cotts put the Rays ahead for good and nixed the need for a bottom of the ninth. Ogando, Cotts and Soria relieved Yu Darvish, Cotts being the first pitcher to throw on back-to-back days this year, and Soria recording the first save of the young season.