The Rangers started the season with their two reliable starters from their American League pennant winning side on the mound and opened 2-0. Then they turned to two still-developing lefties hoping for them to hold their own against Clay Buchholz and Erik Bedard, and they remained perfect. Tonight they look to Alexi Ogando, who will start the first game of his major league career as a part of an experiment with one of last season’s best relievers in the rotation filling in for injured Tommy Hunter.
Ogando has been on quite the journey for the past 16 months. Signed originally by the A’s a tall, strong armed outfielder, he showed some promise but was exposed in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft after his second season, and the Rangers decided to grab him and try him as a pitcher. Before the start of the 2005 season he was caught in the net of an illegal operation that offered Dominican baseball players a few thousand dollars to pose as married to women so that those women could be snuck into the U.S. on false visas.
He was kicked out of the country and remained banned from entering the States “for life” until the Rangers found a sympathetic ear in the new Obama administration. The process of reinstating his work visa lasted until early in 2010, when he was allowed to take part in baseball activities prior to spring training.
Last season was a whirlwind for him as he stepped onto a mound in a competitive U.S. game for the first time at the Double-A level. He made three abbreviated starts there – the only three of his career – then made four more relief appearances before being promoted to Triple-A. Eleven more appearances later, after just 30.2 career minor league innings, he was off to the major leagues to join a Rangers team writing its own very first storybook season.
After 44 regular season appearances and a solid contribution to a World Series team, he entered camp a fringe candidate for a rotation and a likely setup man. Exactly that happened just before final cuts were made, as the Rangers announced that he would stay in the pen this season. Hunter’s injury one day later made the Rangers re-think that decision and hand Ogando the fifth starter role for the start of the season.
Ogando relies on a mid-90’s fastball and a slider but has worked on a splitter this spring. The Rangers are open to moving him back to the bullpen when other starting candidates get healthy, but they’re intrigued by his starting ability and like the fact that he ’doesn’t know where he is.’
Opposing Ogando will be Michael Pineda, the first unproven starter the Rangers have faced this season. Pineda’s route to the majors was much more typical. He had success in the Dominican Summer League as an 18-year-old, then was jumped two levels to the Midwest League. He dominated hitters there, but primarily with just his fastball and fastball command, so he didn’t yet show up high on prospect lists. An abbreviated season in the California level caught more eyes but ended after just 38 innings with injury issues.
The 2010 season was his coming out party, as he became the talk of Mariners camp before heading for Double-A. He had grown from a 6-5, 180 lb rail to a 6-7, 260 lb monster, had seen his velocity spike, and was learning to complement his fastball. He ended the season in Triple-A as one of the top pitching prospects in baseball and surprised again this spring by making the major league roster directly out of spring training.
He’ll look to slow down a Rangers offense that is setting records literally nightly, while Ogando will try to win just his fifth major league game and extend his team’s best start in 15 years.