SURPRISE, Ariz. — The days leading into Cactus League games can become repetitive and boring. Players go through a steady dose of routines and do their best to keep the mundane drills exciting.Pitching coach Mike Maddux has designed a Wiffle ball game that is an alternative to pitchers’ fielding practice. Bench coach Tim Bogar worked out something similar for situational hitting.Manager Ron Washington has liked what he’s seen and is ready to get the Cactus League season underway.“I’ve seen focus; I’ve seen guys trying to do what the game says has to be done,” Washington said. “Now, once the bell go ding-a-ling-a-ling, there’s no telling what might happen. But I’m pleased right now.”With Cactus League play beginning Thursday against the Royals, here’s a look at five things we’ve learned early on this spring and five things we need to learn by the end of spring.What we’ve learned • Offensive priority: Situational hitting is always something preached by Washington and his staff, but it is particularly important this season. Washington believes situational hitting has been part of the Rangers’ struggles down the stretch the past two seasons.That’s why the players are getting drilled early and often this spring on knowing what has to be done in certain situations. • Staff ace: It didn’t surprise anyone Tuesday when Washington named Yu Darvish the Opening Day starter. Darvish is the leader of the staff and is coming off a season in which he finished second in the American League Cy Young vote.Being named the Opening Day starter does signify the team’s No. 1 starter. Darvish came into camp ready to go and hasn’t disappointed early. • Comfortable clubhouse: Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus love giving each other a hard time. It’s good-natured fun and part of what the Rangers’ culture has become.And it took less than a week for Beltre to poke a little fun at Prince Fielder during fielding drills. Shin-Soo Choo has fit in just fine as well, and there already seems to be a positive clubhouse camaraderie among the players.“Both Prince and Choo have been awesome,” Beltre said. “This is a very easy clubhouse to break into, and it seems like they’ve been here forever.” • Confidence in Wash: Washington received a contract extension through 2015 earlier this week, essentially ending any lame-duck talk about the skipper going into this season.Washington is the winningest manager in franchise history and has been in charge during the club’s greatest seasons, with World Series runs in 2010 and 2011. • Injury concerns: It’s early, but injuries already are playing a significant role. Derek Holland was lost for at least the first half of the season because of a freak accident in January.Then in the first week of camp, Matt Harrison came down with lower back stiffness and is unlikely to be ready by the opening series; Geovany Soto underwent surgery to remove a small bone in his left foot but should be ready by Opening Day; and relievers Neftali Feliz and Tanner Scheppers have experienced minor setbacks.Five questions1 Who is the closer? Neftali Feliz will have some competition with Joakim Soria and Tanner Scheppers.2 Filling out rotation? Tommy Hanson and Colby Lewis have looked good so far, and Nick Tepesch won the job in camp last year. Robbie Ross is another intriguing candidate if he can develop a reliable third pitch.3 Who’s on the bench? J.P. Arencibia is expected to be the backup catcher. Michael Choice appears to be the front-runner as the fourth outfielder but has competition with Engel Beltre and Jim Adduci. The utility infield spot is up for grabs between Adam Rosales, Brent Lillibridge, Josh Wilson and Kensuke Tanaka. And a right-handed bat off the bench would be a nice addition, such as Kevin Kouzmanoff or Alex Castellanos.4 How about the newcomers? The Rangers made significant investments this off-season in acquiring Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo. They have impressive track records, but this is the first time the team is seeing them on a daily basis.5 Is replay worth it? A lot has been made of the new replay system, and the Rangers will have six games during spring training where it is used. Washington and his staff will use those games to figure out strategies for the best situations to challenge.
Drew Davison 817-390-7760 Twitter: @drewdavison