Tejeda's sights set on home opener

Tejeda progressing toward big things

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The scenario is simple.

Kevin Millwood is the Opening Day pitcher and Vicente Padilla is No. 2. That leaves Brandon McCarthy to pitch the third and final game of the Rangers' opening three-game series against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

Then the Rangers fly back to Texas and on Friday, April 6, before 50,000 at Ameriquest Field in Arlington, Robinson Tejeda takes the mound and pitches against the Boston Red Sox in their home opener.

"It all depends on how [manager Ron Washington] wants to do it but that's the way we have it lined up right now," pitching coach Mark Connor said.

As Washington said, nothing is set in stone yet, but Tejeda is all for that scenario.

"That would be great," Tejeda said. "People say players get nervous when he we have a lot of people in the park but I really like that. It makes me feel excited. That's my job and people are there to see what we can do. If I get a chance to pitch in front of that many people, it would be a great opportunity."

Everything suggests that he will get that opportunity unless he falls completely apart this spring. He earned it.

Tejeda earned it by overcoming a lost Spring Training and rough start to the 2006 season by going 4-2 with a 2.32 ERA in his final nine starts. Overall, he was 5-5 with a 4.28 ERA in 14 starts, the lowest ERA for a Rangers starter and also the fifth best by a Rangers starter with at least 14 starts in the last seven years.

There were 71 pitchers who made at least 14 starts in the American League and Tejeda had the 24th best ERA from among that group.

That's why when the Rangers put together their team in the offseason, they did so with the idea that Tejeda would be in their rotation to open the season.

"At our pro scouts meeting in October and at the Winter Meetings, Tejeda's name was always on the board as one of our five starters," general manager Jon Daniels said. "If he continues to improve, I don't see any reason why he can't be a quality pitcher. He pitched well for us down the stretch, he made the adjustments we asked him to make, he threw strikes, he kept us in the game and he worked deep into the game."

Tejeda, who turns 25 in March, is not a finished product and Connor admitted that, "two months does not make a career."

What Tejeda did well last year, especially down the stretch, was work himself out of tight situations. In that regard he was exceptional.

Tejeda held opponents to a .194 batting average with runners in scoring position and that was the lowest among those 71 pitchers who made at least 14 starts. He held opponents to a .103 average with two outs and runners in scoring position, which was the absolute lowest of those 71 pitchers.

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He also cut down the number of walks. He walked 3.9 batters per nine innings as opposed to the 5.4 batters per nine innings as a rookie with the Philadelphia Phillies.

But he also gave up 83 hits in 73 2/3 innings and his 14.42 baserunners per nine innings was the 14th highest in the American League. That was the result of being up in the strike zone too much.

Basically, during his great stretch run, Tejeda overpowered hitters. He came back from the Minor Leagues in August with a fastball that was clocked in the 93-97 mph range.

By doing that, Tejeda was able to get away with pitchers that were up in the zone. But when his fastball is 90-92 mph, then he becomes far more hittable.

If he makes 32 starts for the Rangers this year, there are going to be nights when his fastball does not have maximum life. It happens to all pitchers.

"When he doesn't, those are nights where he needs to compete and give us six innings instead of three or four," Connor said. "That's what becoming a pitcher is all about."

That's why it's imperative that Tejeda work on his location, keeping the ball down and working the corners.

The Rangers also want him to improve his breaking ball. Connor called it a "work in progress" and Tejeda struck out 4.89 batters per nine innings, which was the 24th lowest in the league.

A full Spring Training will help. Tejeda spent much of last spring sitting in the Dominican Republic bullpen during the World Baseball Classic and getting little chance to work on his game. It took him about three months during the regular season -- both in the Majors and Minors -- to work his way back into the pitcher the Rangers expected when they gave up David Dellucci for him at the end of Spring Training.

"Last year was very hard for me," Tejeda said. "Coming back the way I did at the end was a big confidence boost for me after I had problems early. That proved who I am and that pushed me to work even harder. Now, with Spring Training, it will be better from the beginning and I can start off well."

The home opener against the Boston Red Sox would be a good place to begin.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.