Young Rangers hurlers a unit on, off the field
Camaraderie key to club's early-season success, big-picture goals
SEATTLE -- The cribbage game in the visitors' clubhouse is going on fast and furious three hours before the Rangers are supposed to play the Mariners on Saturday night at Safeco Field. Robbie Ross, keeping up a steady narration, sees something he doesn't like on the table.
"Who threw the five in there?" Ross said, looking around. "What a moron."
Hopefully he is not talking about the teammate who helped out Ross when he needed a place to park his 6-by-10 foot trailer. Turns out the exclusive neighborhood where Ross and his wife, Brittany, reside does not allow such things hanging around the driveway.
"I was in a panic mode," Ross said. "I thought I would have to go buy a parking space and put it there, or hopefully the Ballpark would let me put it in the basement."
There's no telling what Ross needs with a 6-by-10 trailer, but as pitching coach Mike Maddux pointed out, "You don't see many guys from Kentucky with a Mohawk haircut, either."
Tanner Scheppers came to Ross' aid and allowed him to park the trailer on his more expansive and less exclusive property.
"He has a place where you can park RV's and stuff," Ross said.
That's what a good teammate like Scheppers does, whether it's provide parking for trailers or sitting in for a few hands of cribbage along with Michael Kirkman and Nick Tepesch. Justin Grimm also plays, but he had pitched the night before and had work to do.
These five have much more in common than cribbage and trailer lots. They are five young pitchers trying to establish themselves in the Major Leagues, on a first-place team that several years ago finally pushed winning much higher up the priority list than the simple development and nurturing of young players.
The five pitchers are a big part of the franchise's future, but they are in the big leagues because the Rangers believe they can help the team right now, not in 2015. The trial by fire -- measured against the relaxed congeniality of the Rangers' clubhouse -- seems to have helped tighten the bonds of friendship that really started in the Minor League towns of Hickory, N.C., Myrtle Beach, S.C., Frisco, Texas, and Round Rock. All five were drafted and developed through the Rangers' farm system, and now their powerful arms are throwing 90-plus-mph fastballs through the American League West.
"We all came up together -- a bunch of young guys getting the opportunity to play," Scheppers said. "We all can kind of relate to that aspect, and we all pull for one another. Not that we're not pulling for everybody, but it's a great group of guys."
Just a few years ago, Ross and Grimm were trying to sneak onto a golf course in Myrtle Beach. Now Grimm lives with Ross and Brittany in Northeast Tarrant County.
"We're all about the same age, we're all pretty much rookies or less than two years experience, we all love Jesus," Ross said. "It's just cool to be a bunch of young guys going through the same things together. We're not the least bit established. We have other guys here who have been there and done that. We're all just trying to find our way and hopefully one day get a big contract from the Rangers."
The easy camaraderie of the cribbage game fits in well with the overall atmosphere of the Rangers' clubhouse. While cards are tossed and pegs are moved on the cribbage board, Elvis Andrus is holding court on the other side of the clubhouse with rookie infielders Jurickson Profar and Leury Garcia. They are both laughing and smiling at Andrus' non-stop chatter, having as much fun as the cribbage players.
"That's the nature of the team," Maddux said. "Guys genuinely like each other across the board. That's what makes the team special. The bad apples don't last long. The front office does a good job of scouting character, and when you see the guys they've brought in, you see the results of that character."
It's a different era than when manager Ron Washington first broke into the big leagues with the Dodgers in 1977 as a September callup, and veteran outfielder Reggie Smith delivered a profanity-laced directive for the rookie to turn the television off and start getting ready for a game.
"It's not just these guys," Tepesch said, referring to his cribbage partners. "It's all the guys. They are the main guys that I hang out with, but everybody has been great at helping me adjust to this level and what's expected."
There is another element underneath that goes unspoken. The young pitchers are on a first-place team trying to help the Rangers reach the postseason, but they are also trying to establish a place for themselves, as well. For young players, that can be a tenuous existence, and there are only so many spots on a pitching staff.
The Rangers as a team have worked hard to build pitching depth. That depth also creates competition, which could increase soon as other pitchers get closer to coming off the disabled list. That's not something talked about over breakfast at Seattle's Daily Grill, in the clubhouse over cribbage or while shagging balls during batting practice.
"We're still a team," Grimm said. "We keep it simple. We might talk about something that was on SportsCenter. Last year, I was worried too much about roster moves and had to pitch with extra pressure on myself. What they do is out of your control. You either do or you don't.
"We all pitch for the same team -- Texas. We don't look at it as a rivalry. We don't choose to be like that. There's no need to be like that. We're all up here trying to do the same things. Why not help each other, rather than add pressure and make it harder?"
So Grimm will face the D-backs on Wednesday and try to help snap the Rangers' three-game losing streak. Tepesch is scheduled for Saturday against the Royals. Ross and Scheppers have emerged as the club's primary setup relievers, and Kirkman has taken over middle/long relief with the departure of Derek Lowe.
The Rangers will most likely activate Alexi Ogando off the DL in the next week or so, Colby Lewis will presumably be ready at some point later this month, and then Matt Harrison sometime after the All-Star break. At that point, the July 31 Trade Deadline will be approaching, and who knows what the Rangers' plans will be then.
Maybe another Cliff Lee-like blockbuster trade may present itself like it did in 2010, when the Rangers acquired the All-Star left-hander from the Mariners and came close to sending Derek Holland to Seattle in return. Holland ended up staying with the Rangers, but a year later pitcher Tommy Hunter, who had been the fourth starter on a World Series team, was the one who got traded to Baltimore during a two-day period when two veteran relievers were added to reinforce the bullpen.
Pitching staffs in the Major Leagues are an ever-changing proposition. But all of that is in the future. For now, the Rangers' young pitchers just do their jobs as best they can, soak up as much information as possible and enjoy life at the highest level of their profession. They are friends and teammates, and they prefer it that way. It makes the cribbage game go easier.
"We understand what everybody is going through on and off the field, so we just like to stick together," Grimm said.
"We're all here for the same reason: To get this team to the postseason and the World Series," Tepesch said. "You focus on helping your teammates as much as possible. There's no reason to worry about what everybody's doing. Whatever happens, happens. You just focus on doing what you can to help this team win."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.