As they toil here in the desert, their focus fixed upon what they think will be a championship season, the Texas Rangers harbor the highest of hopes for young Martin Perez.
They see a sparkling future for the left-hander. But on Monday, Perez found himself at a familiar fork in the road, trying to see his way out of the fourth inning.
Three good innings, one struggling inning, and suddenly Perez was gone.
The Rangers would have liked him to finish the fifth inning. But Perez couldn’t. He was removed from the game after giving up three consecutive hits and throwing 73 pitches.
The Cactus League exhibition marked Perez’s fourth start of the spring. One other — he pitched in a minor league game two weeks ago — was marked by the same sort of mid-game swoon.
It’s become an unfortunate part of Perez’s pitching DNA. A runner or two gets on base, and the 24-year-old Venezuelan’s focus wanes. He backs off the pitching rubber. Pounds his glove. Tugs at his cap. Pounds the glove again.
And when he does again begin his delivery to home plate, there is a noticeable urgency. His motion has lost its sync.
Trouble instantly multiplies. Suddenly Perez seems to be pitching as if he’s surrounded by little fires that he’s started. What started as a promising day has become a riddle.
The Rangers would like Perez to stop it.
They don’t see Perez as a prized 24-year-old, struggling to regain his pitching form after undergoing Tommy John ligament replacement surgery.
That was last year’s story. Perez came back in 2015, after his 14-month Tommy John rehab, to become one of the Rangers’ most dependable contributors down the division-winning stretch.
This year, however, has brought different expectations. With Yu Darvish sidelined until at least May, the Rangers would like to see Perez acting and pitching like Cole Hamels’ trusty sidekick.
With Darvish out, the interim No. 2 spot in the starting rotation is wide open. Derek Holland, 4 1/2 years older than Perez, also has failed to seize the role.
Admittedly, all the Rangers starting pitchers appear to be going through some sort of cactus flu. The Padres hammered Colby Lewis and the Rangers 17-5 on Tuesday. The Rockies beat Perez on Monday 9-6. The Rangers were outscored by the Mariners and Diamondbacks last weekend 18-2.
It’s spring. It’s Arizona. These kinds of lusty-scoring things happen. And nobody publicly expresses any worry.
But when the swoons appear to be correctable, as with Perez’s anxiety issues once runners reach base, the Rangers would like their interim No. 2 starter candidate to correct it.
Former manager Ron Washington used to deal with it by striding to the pitching mound and giving Holland a few choice colorful words.
Manager Jeff Banister hasn’t done that to Perez — yet. But it might be time.
The Rangers would like to do what the Kansas City Royals did last year, but that’s not going to happen with two gems and three maybes in the starting rotation.
One maybe, maybe. Three maybes, and your team will be losing too many three-game series.
It’s spring. It’s Arizona. These things happen.
But it’s time for one or two of the maybes to start figuring things out.