Auditions for the Texas Rangers’ starting rotation continued Thursday afternoon in the West Valley, where left-hander Robbie Ross continued to impress against the Cincinnati Reds and their top hitters in Goodyear.
Back at the Surprise Recreation Campus, amid much less fanfare and against a lower level of hitters, right-hander Colby Lewis found the form that he says can get major league hitters out.
Maybe both pitchers will claim the final two spots in the Rangers’ rotation, though lefty Joe Saunders and righties Tanner Scheppers and Tommy Hanson remain candidates and will pitch this weekend.
But Lewis is the pitcher who continues to pique the Rangers’ interest most and is the one they want to fill one of the two spots, and his work against Kansas City minor leaguers was a step in that direction.
He rebounded from a sluggish start Saturday against Oakland by allowing one run in 4 2/3 innings against the Royals’ Triple A team. He needed only 57 pitches, 38 of which were strikes, and pounded the strike zone down and away, a key to his success.
Lewis is on a track that would make him available the first time the Rangers would need their No. 5 starter, April 9 at Boston. After his latest and best outing of the spring, that seems like more of a realistic possibility.
“I’m still here,” Lewis said. “I want to be able to make the club out of camp. If I’m able to throw all my pitches for strikes, I can definitely be competitive in the big leagues.”
A decision on what to do with Lewis could be coming soon. Rangers officials have a meeting scheduled for Friday and could make final calls on the rotation, general manager Jon Daniels said.
Lewis could be asked to remain in Arizona after the club breaks camp to continue building arm strength until he can handle a 100-pitch load and to work more on his command. He could also start the season on the disabled list or be assigned to the minors with the same goal.
The Rangers want to be flexible with a player who everyone hopes will return to the effective level he showed from 2010 to 2012.
Lewis faced mostly minor leaguers Thursday, though injured Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar batted in every inning, and posted good numbers, which often is no small feat for a major league pitcher getting in his spring work.
Minor league hitters are aggressive. Lewis knew that and threw strikes. Some balls were hit hard, like a double that one-hopped the left-field wall in the fourth and a fly ball to center that ended that inning.
But the fact that he got outs was an indicator that he was working with good stuff overall and commanding his pitches.
“I thought he was better as he went,” Double A pitching coach Jeff Andrews said. “What you asked him to do, he did. It was everything he could do now. He needs to be down and away, and that’s where he wants to be.”
Lewis’ fastball ranged from 86 to 90 mph, which is as good or better than where it had been before he suffered a torn flexor tendon in July 2012 and as he worked with an injured hip that required a resurfacing procedure seven months ago.
Though he was stopped just shy of his pitch limit of 60, he had no issues with returning to the mound after each of the five times he sat as the Rangers’ Triple A team batted.
“I got what I wanted out of it,” Lewis said. “They were making early contact. I didn’t want to get behind in the count. I felt like I was able to throw all my pitches for strikes today, which for me is a good outing.”
The Rangers are now faced with deciding if Lewis has been good enough to help them replace Matt Harrison the first few weeks of the season or Derek Holland over a longer stretch, perhaps until the All-Star break in July.
Alexi Ogando hasn’t put a stranglehold on the rotation spot he was expected to fill, though it’s likely he will remain a starter.
“It’s up to them,” Lewis said. “We’ve got a week left, and they’re going to make a decision and we’ll go from there.”
Lewis kept himself in the hunt, at the very least, Thursday.
“No. 1, he looks healthy,” Daniels said. “It was definitely a step forward. It was encouraging. He’s just got to keep taking steps forward.”