BY: Richard W. Humphrey

The Rangers beat Boston Friday night 7-0 and again on Saturday 5-1 to improve their record to 19-11, the second best record in Ranger history after 30 games. The starting and winning pitchers were Derek Holland (2-2), who threw eight shutout innings on Friday and Alexi Ogando (3-2), who allowed one run in six innings. Their ERA’s are down to 2.74 (Holland) and 3.06 (Ogando), and they are the answer to one of the biggest question marks when the season began – the starting rotation. There is no question that Rangers’ GM Jon Daniels spent the winter seeking outside pitching help. They were outbid by the Dodgers for Zach Greinke and weren’t willing to match the prospect package the Royals offered Tampa Bay for James Shields. There was pressure in the local media to sign Kyle Lohse, perhaps the best free agent starting pitcher available last winter after Greinke. Daniels resisted and reluctantly decided to go with internal candidates. The season is little more than a month old and so far the starting pitching has been a major asset to the team’s success as they play this afternoon to become the second team in baseball to win 20 games.

When the season began, the thought was the Ranger rotation was solid at one and two (Yu Darvish and Matt Harrison). The fifth starter was up in the air. Nick Tepesch eventually won the spring training competition for the spot. The fifth starter was not inconsequential, but there are off days in April that could allow the Rangers to skip the spot in the rotation, and reports on Colby Lewis’s progress were positive, such that he was expected to be ready in May. The Rangers could easily limit the fifth starter to five or six starts if they got creative and a little lucky. The key then to the team’s success was Holland and Ogando, the three and four starters. It was a MUST that this pair turn in at least decent performances, or the Rangers’ season could get away in a hurry. The injury to Harrison after two starts only served to intensify the pressure.

Holland has been an enigma. First, he’s left-handed, always a plus. He has good stuff. Perhaps not good enough to be a true number one ace starter like Justin Verlander or Felix Hernandez; but stuff that is good enough for him to be close to that level. In the second half of 2011, Holland seemingly arrived. He was the Rangers’ best pitcher over the final months of 2011, finishing at 16-5 with a 3.95 ERA. With the team trailing two games to one in the World Series, he pitched the finest game in Rangers’ post season history. Last year only added to the enigma. There was the strange illness that caused him to lose a major amount of weight in June that led to a stay on the disabled list. After his return, he was inconsistent. He finished 12-7 in 29 starts, but his ERA ballooned to 4.67, obscene in the post-steroid era. His 12 wins were amassed with tremendous run support.

One thing fans appreciate about Holland is that he has made a home in the area. He is often seen during the off season at Dallas Mavericks games. He is always gracious about signing autographs for fans. He makes personal appearances. He has developed a reputation of being fun loving to put it nicely or to be a goof ball to put it un-nicely. He freely gave impersonations. The mustache that he grew last year only added to the goofyness.

This year, he has toned down the off the field antics, and it shows on the field. His record at 2-2 may not be spectacular, but he has pitched far better than his record as Ranger hitters have been stingy in providing run support this year. Holland has lasted seven innings in all but one of his six starts. Those five were all quality starts. He is giving every indication that he has become the solid starting pitcher the Rangers envisioned when they rushed him to the Majors in 2009.

Ogando is a different case. He started spring training in 2011 as the number nine or ten pitcher in the pecking order for the starting rotation. He had already proven to be a solid setup reliever in 2010, but requested and was granted the opportunity to be in the starting rotation. Late in spring training, the Rangers announced their starting five, and Ogando was not included. He was headed back to the bullpen; but on the very day of the announcement, one of the starting five – Tommy Hunter – was injured; and the rest as they say is history. Texas somewhat surprisingly elected to go with Ogando as Hunter’s replacement. The bottom line was that Ogando made the All-Star team and Hunter never started another game for the Rangers before being traded to Baltimore in July for bullpen pitching help.

Last year, the Rangers committed a rotation spot to Neftali Feliz, and it was Ogando, who was bumped from the rotation. Unquestionably, there were teams around the league that wondered what the Rangers were doing. Ogando seemed to run out of gas toward the end of the 2011 season, but he finished with 13 wins and very respectable 3.52 ERA. Those are incredible numbers for any pitcher in his first full year as a starter. It was certainly a reasonable expectation that he would build on that season and become an even better starting pitcher.

To his credit, Ogando did an outstanding job in the bullpen despite the disappointed of losing his spot in the rotation. Injuries piled up in June, and he again got a shot at the rotation when the team was in San Francisco. He was outstanding that day for three innings. In fact, he was perfect – nine up and nine down. In the top of the fourth, he was injured running out an infield hit and landed on the disabled list. When he returned to the active roster, he also returned to the bullpen for the balance of the season. However, at the end of the year, the Rangers announced that Ogando would be back in the 2013 rotation.

He certainly has his critics. ESPN radio’s Randy Galloway predicted before the season began that Ogando would be out of the rotation within a month. Well surprise Randy. A month has come and gone, and Ogando is still in the rotation, though he has struggled at times. The low point was his fourth start in Chicago, when the Cubs knocked him out of the game in the third inning. However, he has come back with quality starts in his last three appearances, and now has four in seven starts for the season.

The Rangers woke up Sunday morning with their staff ERA at 3.02, which was the best of all 30 Major League teams. At this point, Darvish is clearly the Rangers’ top starter. He is fast becoming recognized as one of the top five pitchers in the league. This was expected. The contributions of rookies Nicke Tepesch and Justin Grimm have been a pleasant surprise, perhaps even a bonus. Holland and Ogando have given this rotation the solidity it needed. The offense has struggled much of the season, but day in and day out, the Rangers get a good effort from their starting rotation that gives them a chance to win every game. It is also amazing that the Rangers’ rotation is posting astounding numbers with every starter being in their 20′s. Colby Lewis and Martin Perez, who was in the rotation at the end of 2012, are rehabbing from injuries and are expected to be available soon. Unless the injury bug bites, their return will present a dilemma for Ranger management. Having too many pitchers is a dilemma every team would like to have.

These are not the Texas Rangers of the old days that had big bopper hitters and no pitching. This Ranger team is in first place, a serious contender to win the division, and a team that can advance in the playoffs if they get there. That’s different from the 90′s with great hitting teams that won just one playoff game in three post season appearances. And the biggest difference is a solid starting rotation.

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