ARLINGTON, Texas – It was desire and salesmanship that earned C.J. Wilson an opportunity to start. He convinced Rangers CEO Nolan Ryan and the club’s front office team that he deserved the chance to show he could make the transition from reliever to starter in 2010.
Ryan believed Wilson could do it. Others weren’t so sure. But an excellent spring training morphed into a memorable season in the rotation for Wilson. He worked hard, figured out a routine that worked for him and soaked up every last bit of knowledge from trade-deadline acquisition and fellow lefty Cliff Lee.
But when Lee departed for Philadelphia, joining a talent-rich rotation and moving to a city that had milder temperatures and less congested freeways, Wilson became the de facto No. 1.
You can take that “de facto” title off and perhaps just replace it with “ace.” Wilson has backed up his 2011 campaign with an even better one in 2011. He was 16-7 with a 2.94 ERA with 223 1/3 innings with 206 strikeouts and 74 walks. Opponents hit just .222 against him.
“He’s undoubtedly a top of the rotation starter,” assistant general manager Thad Levine said. “He fits all the bills. When your team has a losing streak, he performs well. The numbers show he performs in every split. This is not a guy that’s benefiting greatly from run support or just pitching well at home. He’s done it in every situation and venue.”
He was the club’s Opening Day starter and will be on the mound at 4:07 p.m. Friday when the Rangers attempt to defend their American League title. It's an interesting matchup in that Wilson takes his two full years as a starter (not to mention all his seasons as a reliever) and his experience from last year's playoffs into a home game against left-handed rookie Matt Moore, making just the second big league start of his career.
Wilson is used to the bright lights of the playoffs and the pressure that comes with shouldering a heavy load. While everyone else received extra days between starts because of off days or skipped a start down the stretch, Wilson went out and pitched every five days. He won big games in the season’s final month and helped Texas increase its lead in the AL West, not allowing the Angels to get close enough to catch them.
“Before the season, a lot of people were picking Anaheim to win the division or Oakland,” Wilson said. “We know what we have in here. We know we have a really good team. Every guy in here is aiming for the same thing, which is to come home with the trophy.”
Wilson, a film and photography buff, will try to play the playoff role that Lee handled in 2010. Against these same Rays, Lee pitched brilliantly in Games 1 and 5 to lead the Rangers to their first playoff win in franchise history. But the Rangers don’t move on to face the Yankees in the ALCS without Wilson’s victory in Game 2 of that series, a great performance on the road in Tropicana Field.
“I had one bad game in the playoffs last year against New York, but every other game was pretty good,” Wilson said. “My blister has fully recovered. I feel like that was the one thing that was holding me back last year is the finger. It was teetering every game. I feel like I’ve got it under control right now.
“My mechanics are good. I’m throwing strikes. I just want to do what I can to be myself. I don’t have to do anything extra. It’s not like I have to throw a knuckle ball. I pitched really well this year against a lot of good teams. I’m going to go out there with the same game plan and prepare the same way.”
In other words: Don’t change anything.
Wilson said he talked to Lee and others last year about the keys to pitching in the postseason and they stressed not deviating from a routine. He’s expecting a ton of ticket requests – “I’ll have so many more Facebook friends and buddies hitting me up”—and has hired an assistant to handle all of that so he doesn’t have to worry about it.
As for toeing the rubber in Game 1 of a big playoff series, Wilson can draw on last year’s start in Arlington against the Yankees. Since Lee had to pitch Game 5 of the ALDS, Wilson became the No. 1 starter in the ALCS and pitched well before the bullpen coughed up a late lead.
“There’s a lot of pressure, but you have to make it normal,” Wilson said. “This is the fun time of year. I’m looking forward to it.”