Major step for Rangers Opening Day starter Minor

Sep 4, 2018; Arlington, TX, USA; Texas Rangers starting pitcher Mike Minor (36) reacts to giving up a home run in the sixth inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Globe Life Park in Arlington. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

SURPRISE, Ariz. (AP) — This is the new normal in baseball — pitching not just effectively after Tommy John surgery but even gaining velocity.

Returning to form following labrum surgery is less likely. Just ask Mike Minor.

“I started throwing, it hurt. I shut it down. I start throwing again, it hurt again,” the 6-foot-4 Rangers left-hander said of his two-year rehabilitation.

All the rehab has been well worth it. He will open the season at home for Texas on March 28 against the Chicago Cubs.

“It’s a cool thing, especially when I talk to my family and friends, talk about where I was a couple years ago,” he said. “From not pitching two years in a row and coming back, and having to go in the bullpen and last year trying to re-establish myself as a starter. And having a lot of people belief that I couldn’t do it, a lot of doubters.”

A former Team USA and Vanderbilt star, Minor was selected in the first round (seventh overall) of the 2009 draft by the Atlanta Braves. He made his MLB debut in 2010 and became a reliable starter in 2012 and 2013.

The torn labrum limited him in 2014 and the operation cost him the 2015 and 2016 seasons. Kansas City used him solely out of the bullpen in 2017. The Rangers acquired him as a free agent in 2018 and used him cautiously. He pitched 157 innings in 28 starts with a 4.18 ERA.

“His expectations coming into this year were to kind of set the tone for the rest of the staff,” Rangers manager Chris Woodward said. “And when I told him he was the opening day guy, he was obviously excited. To be given the opportunity to be the ace, he’s not taking that lightly. He’s taken on that responsibility of being the No. 1 guy.”

A quick learner who majored in sociology at Vanderbilt, Minor studies opposing hitters, looking to attack their weaknesses with his four-seam fastball, curveball, slider, circle changeup.

“He’s done it from Day One of spring training,” Woodward said. “That’s why I made him the opening day starter because I see that commitment to bringing that attitude and that idea to the rest of the staff.”

Minor, 31, works closely with catcher Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who turns 24 on Saturday.

“Being a young catcher, he makes my job easier,” Kiner-Falefa said. “I am just trying to get him to pitch his game. He’ll let me know how to get on the same page with him.”

On a team that finished last in the AL West at 67-95, Minor is asserting himself as a leader.

“He brings everything you want in an opening day starter,” Kiner-Falefa said. “He brings fire, he attacks hitters. He’s not afraid. We feel his presence on the mound.”

That comfort level extends to catcher Jeff Mathis, the former Diamondback who signed a two-year free-agent contract during the offseason.

“I have been very impressed with Mike,” Mathis said. “He’s got really good stuff. I mean the slider is devastating. He’s able to locate his fastball.”

They worked together for the first time on Monday, a Cactus League game against the Dodgers. Minor needed 35 pitches to get out of the first inning.

“I had to make pitches in tough spots,” Minor said. “My fastball was off. It was cutting a little bit, and then no curveball. So, I was pretty much pitching with a slider and a changeup.”

On the plus side, he held the Dodgers scoreless in 3 1/3, striking out three, allowing three hits and walking three.

“He’s got great poise on the mound,” said Hunter Pence, the former Giants outfielder whose locker is right next to Minor’s.

“He seems to be the same guy every day,” Pence added. “He goes about his business. Not a lot of talking really, I even asked him about it and he said, ‘Yeah, I like to listen and kind of observe'”