With all due respect to the Texas Rangers pitchers the past two decades who have been awarded Opening Day starts, none of them matches up to the guy who will get the ball in the 2016 lid-lifter.
Kevin Brown in 1994 might be the closest, closer than Kevin Millwood (2006-2009), Kenny Rogers (1995, 2000, 2004) and Yovani Gallardo (2015, five others with Milwaukee).
Cole Hamels surpasses them all since Brown and probably even Brown. Teammates consider Hamels to be a true No. 1 starter, a pitcher who instills in them the belief that they will win every time he pitches.
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The Rangers did win every time he pitched last season beginning Aug. 17, a span of 10 straight Hamels starts that resulted in a W. The streak hit 11 in Game 2 of the American League Division Series.
The Rangers lost the first two games Cole Hamels started after being acquired at the July 31 trade deadline but won the last 10, including a complete game in the season finale to clinch the American League West.
The left-hander is a big-game pitcher, and Opening Day is a big game. The Rangers will open the season at 3 p.m. Monday at Globe Life Park against the Seattle Mariners with the ball in Hamels’ hand.
“The atmosphere is always crazy, especially when you’re at home,” Hamels said last month when informed he would be starting the opener. “It’s going to be that playoff experience from Day One. It’s an honor to be able to do that for the Texas Rangers organization, the fans and my teammates.”
Manager Jeff Banister made the easy decision March 23, citing Hamels’ big-game experience. It will be only Hamels’ third Opening Day assignment after coming from a Philadelphia Phillies organization that also had Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee in the rotation.
Hamels hasn’t had much success in his previous season-opening starts, going 0-2 with an 8.10 ERA in 2013 at Atlanta (five runs in five innings) and 2015 against Boston (four runs in five innings).
Hamels, though, has been at his best in his career when it mattered most, cementing his status as a big-game pitcher in 2007 en route to being named the MVP in the National League Championship Series and the World Series.
He was on the mound on the final day of the regular season last year and tossed a complete game to beat the Los Angeles Angels and lift the Rangers to the American League West title. He allowed a two-run homer to Albert Pujols in the first inning, and allowed only one more hit the rest of the game.
Cole Hamels is the first left-hander to start an opener for the Rangers since Matt Harrison in 2013 and would be the first lefty to win on Opening Day since Kenny Rogers in 2000.
“He’s a true ace that has been there before,” third baseman Adrian Beltre said. “We know what we’re getting. We got a glimpse of it last year in the second half. He’s an ace. Every time he goes out there he gives you a chance to win. He knows how to keep the team in the game. It was huge last year. He was a reason we won the West.”
Hamels saved his best spring outing for last, allowing one run on two hits Wednesday against the defending world champion Kansas City Royals in the Cactus League finale.
Banister saw the form that he wanted to see after Hamels honed in on his mechanics and command of all his pitches on both sides of the plate.
“That’s the stuff,” Banister said Sunday before the Rangers’ afternoon workout at Globe Life Park.
Cole’s been a World Series MVP, so I think that puts him in a different category.
Manager Jeff Banister on past Rangers starters on Opening Day
Hamels was pleased with the outing, too, and likes where he is on the eve of his 11th season in the major leagues.
“Physically, I feel really, really good, probably better than I have in a long time,” Hamels said Saturday. “You try to get in a mind frame where it’s game speed, midseason speed ... because once you do get out on that field and you’ve got three decks, a lot of people, a lot of excitement, the games matter. You get a little bit more of that adrenaline rush. You want to know how to control it to the best of your abilities.
“That’s something that I’ve learned in past seasons with a few of the opportunities I’ve had to start opening days. Just the expectations and how it’s going to be and what you’re going to feel at that moment and then trying to control it and backing down and being effective out on the field.”
The Mariners will counter with right-hander Felix Hernandez, who will be making his eighth straight start on Opening Day. Tom Wilhelmsen was in the Mariners’ bullpen for the past four before being traded to the Rangers over the off-season.
He knows the feeling of having an ace on the mound for Opening Day. Wilhelmsen and the Rangers will have that Monday in Hamels.
“You feel like you’re going to win every single time,” Wilhelmsen said. “You know he’s going to go out there, especially on Opening Day, and give us a chance to win a ballgame.”
Opening Day schedule
Parking: Lots open at 10 a.m.
Gates: Open at Noon.
Ceremonial first pitch: Tom Grieve and Bobby Jones.
National anthem: Country music star Neal McCoy, a native of Jacksonville. He will also sing God Bless America during the seventh-inning stretch.
Flyover: F-16s from the 301st Fighter Wing, based out of the Naval Air Station Fort Worth Joint Reserve Base.
Projected Rangers lineup
CF Delino DeShields
RF Shin-Soo Choo
1B Prince Fielder
3B Adrian Beltre
DH Mitch Moreland
LF Ian Desmond
2B Rougned Odor
SS Elvis Andrus
C Robinson Chirinos
P Cole Hamels