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Rangers eager to get pitching healthy, 'clicking' again

As roles take shape, effective arms will be key to competing with A's in AL West

ARLINGTON -- Nobody expected Robinson Chirinos, Kevin Kouzmanoff, Donnie Murphy and Michael Choice to have more home runs combined than Prince Fielder, Adrian Beltre, Shin-Soo Choo or Alex Rios, or that the Rangers would hit fewer home runs in April than they have in the opening month in a non-strike season since 1983.

The .367 slugging percentage for April was also the lowest since 1988 for an offense that was supposed to be improved over last year.

But the Rangers were doing fine until Round 2 with the A's, when the starting pitching gave up 22 runs -- 18 earned -- in 11 1/3 innings. Oakland's starters allowed just three runs in 21 innings while pulling off the three-game sweep, and Texas finished April at 15-13.

Still, manager Ron Washington was happy with the pitching staff, especially considering the Rangers have already used eight starters and 18 pitchers overall, a group that includes Hector Noesi, Seth Rosin and Daniel McCutchen.

"Our staff has done a great job holding it together," Washington said. "We haven't been able to pull our staff together, but there is nothing you can do about it. You have to keep plugging."

The Rangers inch closer to that elusive moment when they have the staff they expected during the winter. Colby Lewis is back in the rotation after his long recovery from elbow and hip surgeries, and the Rangers expect more mound time will help lower a 4.60 ERA. Matt Harrison allowed two runs over six innings in his first start in 13 months after recovering from back surgery.

They join Yu Darvish and Martin Perez, who were outstanding until stumbling against the A's, to give the Rangers 80 percent of their expected rotation. Robbie Ross Jr. has a 3.86 ERA despite two bad starts, while Derek Holland spends his days in Arizona rehabbing his surgically repaired left knee while aiming for a June return. Joe Saunders could be an option again in a week or two, although he may end up as the long reliever in the bullpen so that Martinez can get back to pitching every fifth day in a rotation.

"There have been a lot of guys moving in and out of the rotation, but hopefully I'm back for the long run, and I know Colby feels the same way," Harrison said. "We've got a good pitching staff. It's a matter of clicking every fifth day, getting in a groove and feeding off each other."

The unknown is Tanner Scheppers, who was the Rangers' starter on Opening Day but is on the disabled list with inflammation in his right elbow and only now is resuming his throwing program. Scheppers was terrific as Texas' eighth-inning setup reliever in 2013 before being shut down after four outings as a starter this season.

It's not hard to look at Scheppers with his 95 mph fastball, plus slider and improving changeup and imagine him at the front end of a rotation. Holding up physically is the daunting part, but the Rangers also know they had four blown saves in April, and all four came down in the eighth inning, resulting in four of the 13 losses for the month.

The Rangers still believe right-handers Alexi Ogando and Jason Frasor and left-hander Neal Cotts can keep that from happening as often as it did in April. But with no obvious spot awaiting him in the rotation, it's also not hard to imagine Scheppers returning to the bullpen in the hopes that he can be the same eighth-inning shutdown guy he was in 2013.

Kenny Rogers had a long and successful career as a starter, but only after two aborted attempts to make Texas' rotation. He made just 12 starts against 274 relief appearances in his first four seasons in the Majors before finally becoming a starter for good in 1993.

So a move back to the bullpen now does not necessarily preclude Scheppers from a future as a starter, although eventually taking over as closer is also on the table.

Those are future discussions. Joakim Soria has handled the closer's role without a hitch through the first month and that has prevented even more anguish than what the Rangers may or may not be experiencing right now. There is no fury like that of the backlash against a closer who has blown a game or two, as many around baseball have already discovered this season.

What the Rangers need now is Lewis and Harrison settling back into their routine, Darvish and Perez to keep doing what they're doing and some roles get defined in the bullpen one way or another. Ogando may be as important as anybody on the staff, and it was telling that Texas let him pitch 1 2/3 innings in mop-up relief on Wednesday to get him some extra work.

It was also interesting what Washington had to say about the A's even before Wednesday's 12-1 loss.

"They always pitch," Washington said. "They may be missing guys, but they've always got guys they can bring up. They are a pitching-rich organization. They know how to scout pitching. That's what they do and what they have always done. Even in their lean years, they have always been able to pitch."

The message is obvious for a pitching staff that had a 1.67 ERA in sweeping three games from the A's last week in Oakland. The Rangers could be better offensively, no doubt about it. But if they expect to keep up with the division leaders, they are going to have to match their pitching.

They did that spectacularly in Oakland. They did not in Arlington.

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

Texas Rangers, Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Robbie Ross Jr., Colby Lewis, Alexi Ogando, Martin Perez, Tanner Scheppers