When Ron Washington paid a visit to Alexi Ogando with two on in the third inning Wednesday, the Texas Rangers manager had some clear instructions for his pitcher who was struggling with his command.
“He told me to have no fear,” Ogando said.
And why not? The flyswatter Astros aren’t exactly instilling much trepidation into opposing staffs and don’t really figure to the rest of the season.
So the 29-year-old right-hander scared the daylights out of the Astros, retiring Carlos Pena on a grounder to escape harm in the third after Washington’s visit and retiring nine straight batters en route to a 4-0 victory Wednesday.
Ogando struck out a career-high, but didn’t every Rangers pitcher? For the record, he fanned 10 and threw six-plus scoreless innings in yet another shutout of Houston. There are more where those came from.
Texas may have nothing to fear except for the fact it has only 19 games with its new divisional rival. Otherwise, the coast is clear as the Rangers rallied after their opening night loss and took two of three from the Astros before heading home to play a fellow contender, the Los Angeles Angels.
In fact, the Rangers pitching staff broke a 47-year-old major-league record for most strikeouts in a season-opening, three-game series, punching out 43 Astros. Not since 1966 when Hall of Fame lefty “Sudden Sam” McDowell and the Cleveland Indians retired 42 Senators and Red Sox by strikeouts in their first three games — a series that included rainouts and two extra-inning games — has a staff so overpowered an opponent.
The Astros look so inept that every Texas starter in this series set or matched his career-high in strikeouts. They’re on a pace to strike out 2,322, which would just eclipse the major-league record by Mark Reynolds and his free-swinging 2010 Arizona Diamondbacks. Say, by 793. Or Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison and Ogando are so good they’re going to finish 1-2-3 in this year’s Cy Young voting.
Not likely, but Ogando looked strong with all three of his pitches — the 95-mph fastball, wicked slider and outstanding curve ball — in his return to the rotation after last year’s work as a setup man.
Both Ogando and Darvish needed interpreters to explain their exploits against the most hapless team in baseball, but the simple translation is this: The Astros are going to strike out a lot. And whichever AL West team can dominate the Astros could well win the division.
“They’re young, they’re aggressive,” Washington said of the Astros. “They’re going to do some striking out, but they’ll figure it out.”
The Rangers won 93 games last season, but lost the division race to Oakland by a single game, so as Bud Selig will tell you, every game does count. So teams need to make hay against Houston.
“You can’t tell,” said new Ranger (and former Astro) Lance Berkman, who had six hits in 10 at-bats in his old ballpark. “They’ve got pretty good pitching and a powerful lineup if they make contact. You have to respect that. They might be all right.”
The Rangers, of course, figure to be more than all right. And this first series, while a very small sampling, should show that the first three guys in their rotation are highly capable and that the offense should be good if not Josh Hamilton-great, at least once Adrian Beltre and Ian Kinsler get untracked after a combined four-for-25 road trip with only two RBIs. The Rangers scored only 13 runs in the three games and had just one home run, but that doesn’t figure to last.
Texas might have a slight advantage since it plays 10 games against Houston in the second half of the season, when the Astros may have dealt away some of their better — it’s all relative — pieces like Bud Norris, Carlos Pena and Erik Bedard by then. Plus, the last six of the season are in Arlington from mid-August on.
However, the A’s also play Houston 10 times after the All-Star break, seven of them in Oakland, and have a loaded pitching staff that might actually finish a perfect game against the Astros. The Angels catch the Astros just six times after the break and might have to outhit them.
For their part, the Rangers seem to take the Astros seriously.
“We’ve got to bring our A game when we play them,” Rangers closer Joe Nathan said after striking out the side in the ninth. “Their starting three pitchers will keep ‘em in every series. We have to come in here thinking this is a major-league team we’re playing.”
Just not a very good one.