Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks celebrates opening day almost like Christmas, complete with a family dinner the night before. This year’s festivities included some “pretty optimistic” talk that he joked may only have been partly caused by the wine.
Maybe the expectations aren’t so farfetched.
The Rangers can still hit. And if they keep pitching the way Kevin Millwood and the relievers did in a 9-1 opening victory over the Cleveland Indians on Monday, this could finally be their breakout season.
“There’s that quiet confidence about this team. Not many people share that with us, but that’s OK,” Millwood said. “We believe in each other. That’s how it felt before the game, during the game and after the game.”
Millwood allowed one run over seven innings in his fourth consecutive opening-day start, and the Rangers scored seven runs in five innings off AL Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee.
Hank Blalock and Jarrod Saltalamacchia homered for the Rangers, whose 15 hits off four pitchers matched their most in an opener.
This time, the pitching was just as good.
“Certainly did what we wanted to do—pitched well, good defense and did what we do best, swing the bats,” manager Ron Washington said. “It was a very good beginning.”
Texas led the majors with a .283 batting average and 901 runs scored last season, but finished with a losing record—its eighth in nine years—because of a majors-worst 5.37 ERA and the game’s most overworked bullpen.
Team president Nolan Ryan, the Hall of Fame pitcher known for work ethic, has since emphasized tougher workouts for every pitcher while stressing that starters go deeper into games. The Rangers hired Mike Maddux as their new pitching coach.
Millwood, who lost at least 15 pounds with extensive cardio work and changes to his diet during the offseason, threw 113 pitches before C.J. Wilson and Frank Francisco both had perfect innings.
“I think it made a big difference. Even after I came out of the game, I felt like I could still go,” Millwood said. “That’s a great sign, that on April 6 I can throw 100-something pitches and still feel like I’ve got something left.”
Millwood would guarantee his $12 million contract for 2010 if he pitches at least 180 innings this season. If the 34-year-old right-hander stays healthy— he was on the disabled list four times the past two seasons with nagging injuries—and has more games like this, that shouldn’t be a problem. He struck out five and allowed five hits, all singles.
“If he’s healthy, you’ll see more of what you saw today,” Washington said.
Cleveland’s only run against him came with two outs in the seventh when Travis Hafner scored on a wild pitch.
Lee was 22-3 with an AL-leading 2.54 ERA last season, when the left-hander never gave up more than six runs in a game—one of those starts was in a victory at the Rangers.
Texas jumped ahead with four runs in the second off Lee, who allowed only four earned runs in his first seven starts a year ago.
“I felt he was hitting some spots, but he made a few mistakes and they didn’t miss ‘em,” manager Eric Wedge said.
Blalock hit a one-hopper that ricocheted off Lee’s forearm in the second. Wedge and a trainer went out to check on Lee, who threw one warmup pitch and said he was OK.
“When they ran out, I could have done without that. … It’s going to have to be dangling or broken before I’m going to come out,” Lee said. “It’s fine. I got it in the forearm. It’ll probably be a little sore, but it’ll be fine. I don’t think it affected my pitches.”
But Marlon Byrd then doubled and the Rangers scored all their runs that inning with two outs. Saltalamacchia had a two-run single before Elvis Andrus, the 20-year-old shortstop who had never before played above Double-A, doubled in his first at-bat. Ian Kinsler, who finished with three hits, followed with a two-run double to make it 4-0.
Blalock, primarily the designated hitter after being the opening-day third baseman the past seven seasons, hit a high flyball in the fifth that kept carrying in the wind and dropped into the right-field seats.
Lee, whose ascension to the top of the Indians rotation was cleared by the trade of CC Sabathia to Milwaukee last summer, also struggled throughout spring training. Lee was 0-3 with a 12.46 ERA in six starts, including a game against Texas when he allowed 10 runs—nine earned—in 2 2-3 innings.
“It was a good way to start,” said Michael Young, the five-time All-Star shortstop now playing third base. “We know we have to have a lot of efforts like the one we had today in order to have the season we want to have.”
Ryan certainly liked what he saw.
“That was a complete team effort. We were clicking on all cylinders,” Ryan said. “That was fun.”