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Sunday, March 31, 2013
Updated: April 1, 3:34 AM ET
Rangers' bullpen a work in progress

By Jean-Jacques Taylor
ESPNDallas.com

HOUSTON -- Texas Rangers pitcher Matt Harrison didn't pitch well Sunday -- he had too many walks -- but he'll be fine.

Derek Lowe
Derek Lowe gave up a three-run homer to Rick Ankiel to take the Rangers out of striking distance.

The bullpen? We have no idea.

Not yet.

We do know it was a disaster on Day 1 of the 2013 baseball season. The result: The raggedy Houston Astros, easily the American League's worst team, kicked the Rangers' butt.

Houston 8, Texas 2.

This was embarrassing, even though 161 games remain in the season.

Trust me, sports talk radio shows and social media will be discussing whether the Rangers losing to a team with a payroll of $24 million -- less than the New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez will earn this season -- is more embarrassing than the Dallas Cowboys losing to the expansion Houston Texans in 2002.

Derek Lowe, the versatile veteran signed to a minor-league contract in spring training, was the primary culprit against Houston. Harrison put Lowe in a tough spot with a pair of walks, but Lowe handled the situation poorly.

Ron Washington chose Lowe, making his Texas debut, because he figured he could coax a ground ball and get out of the sixth inning with the score still 4-2. Rick Ankiel, a lefty, pinch hit for Brandon Barnes. Just so you know, Ankiel came in 4-for-10 with two homers and six RBIs against Lowe.

Now, he has three homers and nine RBIs.

Ankiel, the former pitcher turned hitter after a case of the yips more than a decade ago, ripped a 3-2, thigh-high slider over the left-field wall for the decisive homer.

Ballgame.

"Historically, he's given me fits," said Lowe, a severe ground ball pitcher. "It was the third breaking ball he'd seen, and he hit it. You have to make a better pitch in that situation, especially with a right-hander up next."

One loss is hardly the end of the world, especially with 161 games remaining in the Rangers' season. Need evidence? Without using Google, raise your hand if you know the opponent and score from the Rangers' first loss last season.

That said, any questions about the bullpen are certainly legitimate. Right now, only Joe Nathan has a role.

Frankly, that's not a positive.

Washington has said that performance will determine roles in the bullpen. At one level, that's fine, because it means no jobs are being handed out. But we have no idea how many guys will accept the challenge and create a niche for themselves in the bullpen.

"Right there, I trust Mark Lowe, he just didn't make the pitch. I mean Derek," said a chuckling Washington after a Freudian slip. "He threw a breaking ball, and Ankiel just caught him."

Ankiel's homer gave the Astros a 7-2 lead. We're talking about a team that finished last in the National League last season in hitting (.236) and runs (583) putting a crooked number on your Rangers.

Jason Frasor pitched a perfect seventh and rookie Joe Ortiz allowed a run on a triple and an infield single in the eighth.

The bullpen woes seemed worse when you consider Houston's Erik Bedard did what Lowe couldn't.

Bedard retired Mitch Moreland in the sixth inning with two on and two out after the Rangers had trimmed a 4-0 lead in half. He allowed one hit in 3 1/3 innings to record his first save.

Long term, the Rangers feel good about the bullpen because former Kansas City closer Joakim Soria, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, should join the staff in late May and handle the eighth inning. In August, former closer Neftali Feliz should return to the bullpen after recovering from tearing the ulnar collateral ligament in his right arm.

The Rangers need to solidify their bullpen quickly.

Nothing wrecks a club's psyche like an unreliable bullpen, because it's either blowing leads or turning close games into blowouts.