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Tepesch getting back in rotation race

Rangers right-hander returns to mound healthy, ready to compete for starting spot

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Nick Tepesch had one more minor setback in his recovery from the back issues he has been dealing with in Spring Training.

The Rangers couldn't find any hitters to take live batting practice against him early Friday morning. Tireless catcher Zach Zaneski was there ready to catch a morning BP session for the millionth time of his career but there were no hitters to be found.

Finally special assistant Greg Maddux, Hall of Fame pitcher and all-around gofer, jumped in a golf cart and sped up to the Minor League clubhouse to interrupt somebody's breakfast. Maybe everybody was afraid of facing Tepesch.

"No, I don't think that was the reason," Tepesch said. "I think there was a mixup in the schedule."

Once the small detail of providing batters for batting practice was addressed, Tepesch proceeded to throw for 12 minutes without any issues. It was his first time on the mound in a week while dealing with some stiffness in his back.

"It went pretty good," Tepesch said. "It could have gone better. I felt good and I feel comfortable and my command was there at times. That was probably the biggest part. That needs some more work."

The back stiffness was not a major setback for Tepesch, but it's time to get back in the rotation race. With Matt Harrison not expected to be ready until at least the middle of April, there are two spots in the rotation open behind Yu Darvish, Martin Perez and Alexi Ogando.

Tepesch, who surprised everybody by winning a spot last spring, is competing with Colby Lewis, Tommy Hanson and Robbie Ross. Setup reliever Tanner Scheppers is also a nominal contender but more likely to stay in the bullpen.

Tepesch is scheduled to throw two innings behind Lewis on Monday against the Indians with a chance to kick-start his rotation candidacy.

Tepesch appeared to be the frontrunner for the fifth spot after Derek Holland suffered his knee injury late in January. But that seemed to change when Hanson signed as a free agent two weeks ago. Lewis is also a much more serious candidate since showing up pain-free and throwing well after last year's hip replacement surgery.

"If you worry about that, you just put yourself in a bad position," Tepesch said. "You can't worry about who is doing what or who is going where. You just worry about what you're doing."

Tepesch is concerned with developing his changeup and commanding his curveball. Those were two goals coming into camp and the changeup would be a valuable offspeed pitch to add to his repertoire. The curve is there but he had trouble commanding it last season, too often either missing the plate completely or leaving it down the middle.

Tepesch has a good fastball but is not overpowering. He must be like Lewis and have precise command to be successful, or really improve his secondary pitches.

"It's still the second week of Spring Training," Tepesch said. "I've got time to get that right. I think the changeup is coming good. It feels good coming out of my hand. If I throw it well, it has the right action. It could be a big pitch for me."

Tepesch, after making the rotation out of spring, was 4-6 with a 4.84 ERA in 17 starts and two relief appearances for the Rangers last season. He was 3-4 with a 3.44 ERA in his first 10 starts and 1-2 with a 7.42 ERA in his next six. During that six-start stretch, Tepesch was averaging five innings a start and 17.5 pitches per inning before wearing down from the unfamiliar work load. He was placed on the disabled list on July 6 with elbow inflammation and didn't pitch again until one start and two token relief appearances in September.

"He competed," manager Ron Washington said. "He wasn't scared. There are some things he needs to work on and we're doing that this spring…developing a changeup, learning counts, when the ball should be over the plate and when it shouldn't, things that you learn through experience. I think he gained a lot of experience and know-how and hopefully he can apply it this year.

"You can't help but grow up a lot if you're out there competing at the Major League level. What comes with growth is being able to slow the game down. I think he has an idea now how to go out there and slow the game down and understand you have to deal with what's in front of you."

Washington said Tepesch and Justin Grimm -- since traded to the Cubs -- saved the Rangers rotation early in the season when their veteran starters were hurt or struggling. Now Tepesch may have an uphill fight to win that spot back.

But he is at least back in the running after a good morning session of live practice on Friday that put his early camp back issues to rest.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger.
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