Gil LeBreton

It’s veteran A.J. Griffin — by a hair — for role as Rangers’ No. 5 starter

The ponytail was let loose Saturday afternoon.

A.J. Griffin let his hair down — way down — and began his quest to be the Texas Rangers’ fifth starter.

Results were mixed, as maybe should be expected in February, in pitcher-vexing Arizona, in a team’s opening exhibition game.

In the Cactus League, the air is thin. Breaking pitches don’t always bite — they’ve been known to hover like hot air balloons.

Still, it was a fat, mid-February fastball that did the most damage to Griffin’s two-inning performance Saturday. Kansas City catcher Salvador Perez sent the pitch rocketing to the back wall of the left-field bullpen for a three-run home run.

Rangers reliever Anthony Bass gave up a two-run homer to Peter O’Brien in the eighth inning and that proved to be the difference in a 7-5 Royals victory.

But as Griffin viewed it, “It’s the first game. I feel good. I feel strong.

“That’s what I’m going to take away from this one.”

Griffin is the unannounced front-runner to earn the No. 5 spot in the starting rotation when camp breaks in late March. Other candidates are scattered throughout the clubhouse.

Pitchers Nick Martinez, Chi Chi Gonzalez, Dillon Gee and Allen Webster all have big league experience.

But it’s the same uphill story that Griffin faced a year ago, when the job was expected to go to one of the two homegrown products, Martinez or Gonzalez.

“I threw 200 innings and had 14 wins for the A’s one year, and I still was competing for a job the next spring,” Griffin said. “Maybe it’s good for me — keeps me humble.”

Griffin doesn’t throw in the high 90s or carry the thunder of a high-round draft pick.

“I don’t know, people like guys that throw hard,” Griffin said after his Saturday outing. “I’ll just lie in the weeds and do my thing.”

His “thing” worked a year ago, and Griffin became a valuable piece in the Rangers’ rotation early in the season. The team won five of Griffin’s first six starts.

But shoulder issues that had knocked out his 2015 season resurfaced — after missing all of 2014 following Tommy John elbow surgery — and Griffin was placed on the disabled list in early May.

He returned to the rotation in late June but pitched inconsistently the rest of the way.

Colby Lewis was a popular choice to be the Rangers’ No. 5 starter as this spring training camp neared. But general manager Jon Daniels signed free agent Tyson Ross, who’s recovering from surgery and not likely to see a major league mound until at least May.

It’s the kind of high risk-high reward signing that Daniels has been known to do before. Ross was an All-Star for the Padres in 2014.

Daniels’ thinking was that in Griffin, Martinez, et al., he had capable enough candidates to hold the fifth spot in the rotation until Ross is fully recovered.

We’ll all miss Lewis. But Daniels couldn’t guarantee him a starting job, not with Ross and Andrew Cashner added to the roster. And at some point, the club has to find out if Martinez and Gonzalez are ever going to be worthy major league pitchers. Signing Colby would have delayed that.

In the meantime, therefore, Griffin has another chance to fill the role like a veteran.

His signature blond locks remain formidable. Griffin said he hasn’t had a haircut since September 2015. After wearing his hair in a ponytail bun during workouts, Griffin let the locks flow for his first appearance on the mound.

He’s also about 10 pounds leaner this spring, by his estimate.

“I don’t care about being fat,” he announced. “When I was on the A’s I weighed 245 pounds and I got everyone out.

“I don’t know if I can feel any difference, but my shoulder feels better than last year. So that’s big.

“I feel good,” he said Saturday. “I’m at the point where I wanted to keep pitching today. I feel like I could have pitched all day.”

That won’t be necessary, manager Jeff Banister said, but he appreciates the attitude.

A.J. Griffin is fighting for a job — again. If the Rangers need him — again — he’ll be in the weeds, doing his thing.

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