Not even general manager Jon Daniels could announce the Texas Rangers’ season-opening rotation without having a little fun, offering a whole dollar to the media member who could correctly guess the No. 5 starter.
But even the first four Daniels named Wednesday, the club’s last day at the Surprise Recreation Campus, were unexpected as a whole. Only left-hander Martin Perez survived the most injury-ravaged spring training in franchise history, but he’s not the Opening Day starter.
That duty Monday against Philadelphia falls to right-hander Tanner Scheppers, the primary eighth-inning set-up man last season who will become the first major league pitcher in 33 years to make his first career start in a season opener.
Robbie Ross, another 2013 bullpen hand, will start the Rangers’ third game, following Perez. Fellow lefty Joe Saunders secured the No. 4 spot.
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Then there’s Nick Martinez, a right-hander who spent all but one month last season at Class A Myrtle Beach and didn’t make a single Cactus League start. He was the correct answer to Daniels’ single-dollar question.
Right or wrong, the Rangers have their rotation. At least for the first few weeks of the 2014 season. Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Colby Lewis and, eventually, Derek Holland will be coming to the rescue.
“I like where our rotation is,” Daniels said. “We have a lot of confidence in that group.
“We have four guys on our pitching staff that won’t be with us Day One. With the exception of Derek, they should all be back in relatively short order. We’ll get that group back and go from there.”
The rotation is more about what’s missing than what’s in it. The Rangers expect Darvish, who was scratched Tuesday from the opening start, to be back far sooner than later after an exam with specialist Dr. Drew Dossett revealed no structural damage in his neck.
Darvish, who did not receive an injection, is scheduled to play catch this weekend before the Rangers set his course for returning to the mound. Because he hasn’t pitched since March 16, he could open the season on the disabled list and make a rehab start in the minors before making his 2014 debut.
Fellow righty Lewis tossed five scoreless innings in the Rangers’ Cactus League finale Wednesday and could be an April option, and left-hander Harrison is on a schedule that would have him returning toward the end of the Rangers’ second homestand.
For now, though, Scheppers, 27, will be atop the rotation. He is scheduled to pitch an inning Thursday night at Globe Life Park against a team from Mexico, and he will become the first pitcher since Fernando Valenzuela in 1981 to make his first career start in his team’s opener.
“I’m just extremely excited for the opportunity. Let’s get this season started and let’s get things rolling the right direction,” said Scheppers, who learned only last week that he would be in the rotation. “This is definitely not what I expected. It’s unfortunate for Darvish, but … I’m going to go out there and do what I know what to do.”
He got the nod over Perez, who started the Rangers’ do-or-die Game 163 last season, because of his performance in big moments last season. Scheppers went 6-2 with a 1.88 ERA in 76 games, and 67 1/3 of his 76 2/3 innings came in the eighth and ninth.
He went 3-1 with a 3.07 ERA in 14 2/3 Cactus League innings.
“He’s been profiled as the No. 1 guy,” manager Ron Washington said. “He came in in a lot of pressure situations in ballgames, and I feel like he’s the guy. We like the way he’s throwing the ball.”
Ross solidified his bullpen-to-rotation jump Tuesday with seven scoreless innings against Cleveland, leaving him 1-0 with a 1.27 ERA and a .237 opponents’ batting average in 21 1/3 innings.
Despite surrendering nine runs in his final “A” game appearance, Saunders beat out Tommy Hanson, who was released Wednesday. The Rangers, though, like having a veteran who can eat innings in the rotation, and they aren’t worried about him as he works through a dead-arm phase.
Martinez pitched in only two “A” games, covering 2 1/3 scoreless innings. But he impressed last year in Myrtle Beach and over the final month after being promoted to Double A Frisco.
His four-pitch mix and poise, Daniels said, pushed him into what amounts to spot rotation duty until Darvish, Harrison or Lewis is deemed ready to go. The Rangers could even skip Martinez the first time through the rotation, though that decision hasn’t been made.
“I haven’t wavered in my confidence of getting out of here with five,” Washington said. “We feel confident that we will be competitive.”