Two candidates for the No. 5 spot in the Texas Rangers' rotation were in the spotlight Thursday with one of their final opportunities to secure a spot on the Opening Day roster.
Pre-camp favorite Chi Chi Gonzalez allowed only one hit in five scoreless innings against Cincinnati, and A.J. Griffin was scheduled to pitch a night game against Oakland. Those two, plus fellow right-handers Nick Martinez and Jeremy Guthrie appear to be the Final Four to fill out the rotation.
Gonzalez was coming off two poor outings, including on in a minor league game, but he checked all the boxes against the Reds. He got ahead of 13 of 19 batters, pumped his fastball to as high as 94 mph, and got nine outs on the ground.
"I finally threw more strikes, quality strikes, got ahead, and got a couple punch outs, too," said Gonzalez, who struck out two for his first Cactus League Ks of the spring. "Now, it gives me confidence to do the same thing. Now I have the answer when I am doing bad."
Manager Jeff Banister said that one performance won't win the job and that the body of work will be the main factor.
6 Right-handers still competing for the fifth spot in the Rangers’ rotation, though A.J. Griffin, Chi Chi Gonzalez, Nick Martinez and Jeremy Guthrie have the edge over Phil Klein and Nick Tepesch
Griffin has been the most consistent of the candidates, commanding his pitches early in his appearances before slipping some as his pitch count builds. He has been susceptible to home runs.
Though Griffin has essentially missed the past two seasons because of elbow and shoulder injuries, the Rangers' concerns about his durability appear to be waning.
It's about making pitches.
"It's time to start executing pitches and go out and execute," Banister said. "These guys that continue to battle for that fifth spot need to show us that the execution is there, the conviction, and the ability to be able to maneuver around some major league innings.
"You can pose that argument that Griffin has done exactly that. He's done that before. It's just a length of time since he's done it."
Tolleson still closing
Right-hander Shawn Tolleson was slowed earlier this spring by back spasms and is still searching for his regular-season form, but manager Jeff Banister said that will be given the chance to duplicate his breakout 2015 as the Rangers' closer.
Banister declared in December that Tolleson was the closer, but Banister said on Thursday that the best matchup could dictate who gets the final outs for the Rangers in a particular game. It's too early to tell definitively, he said, with Opening Day still more than a week away.
Tolleson, though, is going to be found often in the ninth inning after recording 35 saves in 2015.
"Shawn Tolleson will close for us," Banister said. "I'm going to give him an opportunity to continue to do that."
35 Saves, in 38 chances, for Shawn Tolleson in 2015 after he assumed the closer’s role May 20
Tolleson pitched a scoreless inning Wednesday in the Rangers' 5-0 win, but it wasn't easy. He allowed a single and hit a batter on a 1-2 pitch, but still escaped on only 15 pitches.
The Rangers don't seemed concerned about Tolleson's spring progress compared to others in the bullpen.
"He's probably an outing behind those guys," Banister said. "There's a different rhythm when you go from pitching on a bullpen mound with no hitter to game speed with hitters. You've got to find that rhythm. I feel comfortable that Tolly will find that rhythm."
Hamilton's five-year itch
Josh Hamilton said that his left knee feels better than it has in five years, but it took another cortisone shot March 14 in Arlington to jump-start the Texas Rangers outfielder's rehab process.
Hamilton was on the field Thursday for baseball activities a third straight day, throwing, taking grounders in the outfield and balls hit directly to him, and taking batting practice. That followed a session of running on a treadmill with ankle weights in a swimming pool.
While the 2010 American League MVP doesn't care for the running — "It sucks," he said — his knee isn't barking, either in the joint or in the inflamed capsule behind the knee.
It's good. Really good. Scary good. ... It's the best it's felt in about five years.
Outfielder Josh Hamilton on his left knee
"It's good. Really good. Scary good," said Hamilton, who underwent stem-cell and platelet-rich plasma injections last month. "It's the best it's felt in about five years. So, it's like, 'Don't get too excited.' Even if I regress and hurt it some, I'm still good. That's how good it feels."
The timeline for Hamilton's return hasn't changed. He will still open the season on the disabled list and isn't expected to be activated until early May. Hamilton will accompany the team to Arlington for Opening Day, but will return to the Surprise Recreation Campus to face live pitching for the first time and build up to a rehab assignment.
After not having spring training last season and rushing to get into the Rangers' lineup, Hamilton is content to stick to the program the Rangers designed for him.
"The experiences of pushing and getting excited and then having a setback is there, so it definitely helps slow me down," he said.
Susie Nelson, who survived a gun shot to the head nearly 23 years ago, will sign copies of her book, The Only Light I Saw Was in Galveston, from noon-3:30 p.m. April 9 at the Baseball Diamonds suite at Globe Life Park. Email Lindy Powers at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.