The offense produced three multi-run innings despite just one extra-base hit all night, a havoc-filled attack reminiscent of the October versions that ended Tampa Bay’s seasons in 2010 and 2011, the latter of which was what probably going to be Lance Berkman’s final productive season before the Rangers talked him out of retirement, and the former of which was the year that Texas, shackled in bankruptcy, asked Boston to throw $350,000 into Saltalamacchia-for-Mendez-McGuiness-and-Thomas on July 31 so they could pay 14th-round righthander Nick Tepesch third-round money at the mid-August deadline to keep him from returning to the University of Missouri for his senior year.
Because of the late signing, Tepesch spent the rest of the 2010 summer in Surprise, getting his pro career underway at Fall Instructs as the big club charged into its first post-season since 1999, which was the year Texas drafted Colby Lewis. Tepesch was probably in the Rangers’ Arizona clubhouse watching on TV as Lewis shut the Rays down over five innings in the ALDS, beat the Yankees twice in the ALCS, and earned the Rangers’ lone World Series win against the Giants.
Lewis, the former first-rounder whose career was derailed by injuries and mediocrity and re-routed to Japan, before a return to the big leagues in that 2010 season, achieving what seemingly every other pitcher who had tried to revive his career in Japan before coming back to the States – including former Rangers righthander Brian Sikorski – had failed to achieve.
When I saw Tepesch interviewed a month ago during camp, his demeanor – a calm, sort of unimpressed thing he has going – reminded me of Lewis.
Last night, so did his composure on the mound, and the bag of tricks.
Except for that part about where he lives in the strike zone.
While Lewis tends to work up in the zone and gets his outfielders involved a bunch, Tepesch kept his outfielders so bored that they could have turned to the fans behind them and made football motions.
One lineout to second (his first out of the game).
One harmless flyout to right (his final out of the game).
And 15 groundouts, four of which ended with Tepesch recording the out himself.
Not Lewis-like at all, at least that part.
Closer to Sikorski, whose big league debut on August 16, 2000 (10 years to the day before Tepesch signed with the Rangers) covered seven innings of shutout ball against the Yankees, in Arlington.
That was the last time a Rangers pitcher logged at least seven frames in his big league debut.
Only Sikorski was 26, in his sixth pro season and his second organization. Tepesch, 24, is just getting season three underway.
Sikorski’s final year in the Rangers system was 2001, after which he headed to Japan to pitch. That was also the first year on the Texas farm for catcher Dustin Smith, who transitioned a six-year run as a minor league player into a scouting job with the organization. Smith is the area scout who monitored Tepesch in college, pounded his fist on the table until his bosses called Tepesch’s name in Round 14 in 2010, and sat in the crowd last night, flown in for the game as the Rangers do with all of their area scouts whenever one of the players they’re responsible for makes his big league debut.
What Smith and the rest of us saw tells a much more interesting story than the box score can. Look at Tepesch’s line and you see a three in the walk column. But all three free passes came in the second inning, as he threw only three strikes total to Evan Longoria, Yunel Escobar, and Jose Molina before squirming out of the bases-loaded situation with a three-pitch strikeout of Kelly Johnson to keep the game scoreless.
Not rattled. Calm. Sort of unimpressed.
When that inning ended, Tepesch had thrown 43 pitches, and only 21 for strikes. That’s a discouraging two-inning total, and a worse ball/strike ratio.
The rest of the way: 5.1 innings, 61 pitches (cutting the per-inning rate in half), 41 for strikes (jumping from 49 percent to 67 percent).
The other thing you can’t get from the box is the comments from the two managers after the game had ended and Tepesch was still cleaning shaving cream off his face.
Ron Washington: “He showed his maturity. He’s got poise. He never got outside of himself. He just trusted what A.J. [Pierzynski] put down and kept doing it. He got the ball inside on righthanders. It was just great composure.”
Rays skipper Joe Maddon: “He got sharper, command-wise. He was more free with his off-speed stuff, and he was throwing it for strikes. He’s got a nice delivery. He’s got velocity. He’s got other pitches that he commands. That’s something they’ve got to be excited about.”
I can’t resist the thought that last night’s win, aside from the obvious positives, also brings Tampa Bay theoretically a microscopic tick closer to fielding trade offers three months from now, if the season goes in an unintended direction for that franchise. Every loss counts.
And that Tepesch did everything possible to send the Rays away thinking about how he might fit their plans going forward, once it’s time to shop David Price around. There would probably have to be a shortstop in any deal with the Rangers, too, and lots more. Maybe Roman Mendez, a more conventional part of the 2010 Jarrod Saltalamacchia trade, fits in as well. But you have to think Tepesch profiles his way into those talks.
It’s all about control.
That kind, and that other kind, too.
I got chills last night when Wash punched Tepesch in the chest before pointing to the bullpen, sending the rookie on a slow, measured, Colby-like walk toward the dugout, exiting his dominant debut to the roars of 31,000-plus.
During the commercial that followed, I flipped over to MLB Network, and saw a (less-than-capacity) Angels crowd booing in the first inning of the club’s home opener, as C.J. Wilson was surrendering three Oakland runs in a 44-pitch first.
I flipped back to see Robbie Ross, having entered with two men in scoring position, coax a foulout and a comebacker in five pitches to end the Tampa Bay threat and keep Tepesch’s ledger as clean as it was when he left the mound.
Checking back in on Angels-A’s, I saw the Anaheim crowd summon up an ovation as Josh Hamilton stepped up for his first home at-bat, with the bases loaded and nobody out. A chance to turn the game around just as soon as it had appeared to get out of hand.
And then Mark Trumbo grounded into a double play, preserving the 3-0 A’s lead.
Oakland would give the lead back to the Angels before opening a can on the Los Angeles bullpen, eventually winning the game and joining Texas with an AL-best 6-2 record. The fact that the Angels are 3.5 games back in the West, with a 2-5 mark, is fairly meaningless this early, but they all count, and now the Angels have to win several more games than Texas and Oakland the rest of the way.
Tampa Bay’s 3-5 start doesn’t really matter either, but that’s a division in which all five clubs believe it’s theirs to win, and if the first half puts the Rays near the back of that pack, the second half is going to start with their front office thinking about a franchise-defining decision they might have to make.
But my thoughts, for now, return to the first week and a half of baseball, with Texas now 3-0 in series played, losing the first game in the first series, the middle game in the next one, and sitting here today in a position to avoid losing the final game in this series, as a stretch of 14 games out of 17 on the road awaits.
Colby Lewis is throwing now in Surprise, rehabbing on the same fields where Nick Tepesch got his pro career going as Lewis was starting playoff games for Texas. Tepesch may be simply holding a place for Lewis at the moment, and it’s no lock that he’ll hold it all the way until Lewis’s return, but he sure got off to a great start, adding even more extrapolated life to the Mark Teixeira trade, and making me wonder whether there are some folks in baseball thinking about his potential place in a future trade that could be just as big.