Publish date:

For Starters, A Heavy Burden

Author:

There are no Gimmes for someone like Kenny Rogers—not when you play one year of high school baseball as an outfielder, then get drafted by the Rangers in the 39th round and told you are a pitcher; not when you need elbow surgery at 22; and not when you pitch in 286 games your first four years in the majors, often with your arm throbbing with soreness. That explains why whenever Rogers is 18 inches away from the hole during one of the frequent golf outings among Texas pitchers, pitching coach Claude Osteen will tell him, "Putt it."

"You can tell he wants you to give it to him," Osteen says. "But I always make him putt. He has to face the pressure. It's the same as having to make a good pitch."

Rogers faced one of those testers last May, only this time it was his new job in the rotation that was on the line. He had allowed a club-record 10 earned runs in his seventh start, on May 16. A day later he met for two hours with Osteen and manager Kevin Kennedy. He was ready to go back to the bullpen. But Osteen said, "He wanted us to make the decision for him. We refused to do that. We told him, 'Go home, come back tomorrow and tell us what you want to do.' " Putt it. The next day-Rogers walked into the clubhouse and said, "I want to start."

He was battered some more after that, partly because he needed to build the endurance in his arm. "There was a period where I would have been better off throwing underhanded and running back to the outfield to help field," he says. His arm and confidence, though, soon came around. Beginning on June 17, Rogers won 12 of his final 17 decisions to finish 16-10, a club record for wins by a lefthander.

It was an impressive turnaround for a pitcher in his first full season as a starter. Now Rogers faces another difficult task: He has to do it again. Rogers enters this season as the No. 2 starter, behind Kevin Brown, on a Texas staff with too many other uncertainties.

Bruce Hurst, 18 months removed from rotator cuff surgery, looked fit early in spring training but suffered a setback when his shoulder stiffened. Now he admits, "I don't know what to expect this year." Roger Pavlik, a 12-game winner last year, has a slight tear in his rotator cull", though the Rangers believe he can pitch later this month. Their other options for the rotation are Jack Armstrong, who is 23-51 since starling the 1990 All-Star Game, and Rick I telling, whose experience totals 31 minor league games.

The starters' burden may grow heavier, too, if the Texas offense turns out to be more style than substance. Despite the big names in the middle of the lineup, the Rangers have no one with a history of a high on-base percentage to bat in front of them. And they start five players who have fanned at least 100 times in a season: Will Clark, Juan Gonzalez, Jose Canseco, Dean Palmer and Manuel Lee.

No wonder the Rangers need another big year out of Rogers. As usual, though, that's not a given. He did have the highest ERA (4.10) of the 28 pitchers who won at least 15 games last year and did receive the fourth-best run support in the league. "Yes, we scored a lot of runs, but I pitched well in those games." Rogers says. "I could have won 20 games easily. This year I don't expect to win just 16. I'd like to do better."

[originallink:10691361:711033]

PHOTO

JOHN IACONO

Can Clark—and a new park—provide the spark?