Commentary

Rangers' rotation in it for the long run

Starters urged to pitch deep into games as Texas looks to go all the way this year

Updated: May 15, 2012, 5:12 PM ET
By Jean-Jacques Taylor | ESPNDallas.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- If you listen to manager Ron Washington and pitching coach Mike Maddux, the transformation of the Texas Rangers' pitching staff is complete.

Matt Harrison's reaction when Washington yanked him from the seventh inning of Saturday's loss to the Los Angeles Angels confirmed it.

[+] EnlargeRon Washington
Jason Miller/Getty ImagesRon Washington wants Colby Lewis and the Rangers' other starting pitchers to be disappointed when they are pulled from the game.

"Harry wanted to kill me," Washington said of Harrison before Monday night's loss to Kansas City. "All of our starters want to take the ball and go deep in the game, and they get mad when it doesn't happen.

"[Neftali] Feliz, [Derek] Holland, Harrison and [Alexi] Ogando have all played in a lot of big games. They understand the responsibility that comes with taking the ball."

Nolan Ryan created the mindset, when he joined the organization in February 2008. Washington and Maddux have fostered it.

They must.

We can talk about blown saves and missed fly balls in the outfield, but the Rangers lost the World Series because their starting pitching was awful throughout the playoffs.

Their starters' inability to consistently go deep into game taxed the bullpen beyond repair just to get to the World Series. By the time the Fall Classic arrived, the bullpen didn't have much left.

In 17 playoff games last year, the Rangers' starters pitched at least six innings just four times.

Ridiculous.

In the ALDS, the starters pitched 21 innings, while the relievers logged 15. In the ALCS, the starters pitched 28 2/3 and the bullpen pitched 26 1/3.

And in their seven-game World Series loss to the Cardinals, the starters logged just 39 innings. Obviously, Feliz should've protected a two-run lead in the ninth inning and Scott Feldman and Darren Oliver should've protected the lead in the 10th of Game 6.

But if the starting pitching in the playoffs had been better, they might not have been in that position.

Scoff if you want, but it's clear this season Washington and Maddux are demanding that their starters pitch deeper into games.

[+] EnlargeMike Maddux
AP Photo/Tony Gutierre"Good games are pitched in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings -- not in the sixth," preaches Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux.

They don't want their starters to think six innings represents a good start just because relievers Ogando, Mike Adams and Joe Nathan will lock the game down 99 percent of the time.

Maddux and Washington want their starters taking ownership of the game. It's the reason Washington might choose to leave them in a game, especially in the seventh inning, when it seems like the perfect spot for Ogando.

Like in April, when Washington left Holland in against Boston even though he had yielded a one-out double in the seventh inning and the Rangers led only 3-2 at Fenway Park. Holland worked out of the jam and the Rangers won.

Sometimes staying with a starter backfires, like when Cleveland scored three runs off Colby Lewis with two outs in the seventh inning of a 6-3 loss earlier this month.

The potential positives of succeeding in that moment always outweigh the prospect of failing -- even if it ultimately leads to a loss. Washington often says the experience gained from losses in April and May can lead to victories in September and October.

Harrison and Holland each set career highs in innings pitched last season, and Feliz will establish a new high this season with his move into the rotation. Add the heat wave we know is coming in July and August and it's important for the Rangers to make sure those pitchers will pitch as well at the end of the season as they're pitching now.

To help, the Rangers are already getting their starters extra rest when they can. They can do it because Feldman, the long man, would be a starter on many staffs.

He started Monday night against Kansas City.

Feliz had a start moved back last week. Holland is getting one moved back this week. Sometime soon, Harrison will get the same treatment.

"They have to learn to grind," Washington said of his pitching staff. "They have to learn to battle through fatigue and use mental toughness because in the playoffs those are the types of games you play every day."

So far, so good.

The Rangers' starters entered Monday leading the AL in wins (18) and ranking third in quality starts (22) -- at least six innings and three earned runs or fewer allowed -- and starts with at least 100 pitches (21).

The Rangers rank fourth in innings pitched per start at 6.3.

"They get pissed when you take them out of the game," Maddux said. "That's how you know they understand what we're trying to do.

"Good games are pitched in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings -- not in the sixth."

This franchise has evolved.

Division titles are nice. So is winning playoff series.

But these days the Rangers are consumed only with winning a title after consecutive World Series losses.

Their starting rotation must lead the way.

Jean-Jacques Taylor joined ESPNDallas.com in August 2011. A native of Dallas, Taylor spent the past 20 years writing for The Dallas Morning News, where he covered high schools sports, the Texas Rangers and spent 11 seasons covering the Dallas Cowboys before becoming a general columnist in 2006.

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