Surprise positional outlook: No. 4 starter

Here’s our look at Tommy Hunter, who goes into spring training as the No. 4 starter. It’s his job to lose after a solid 2009 season.

SURPRISE, Ariz. – Tommy Hunter remembers a conversation he had with Michael Young on a quiet plane ride back from Boston in August of 2008.

Hunter started against the Red Sox at Fenway Park and couldn’t get out of the second inning. He gave up nine earned runs on seven hits and was pulled in a 10-0 loss.

“He told me that stuff happens and you have to come back next time and try to improve,” Hunter said. “He told me I couldn’t give up.”

Hunter used the troubling start as motivation.

“It’s one of those things that you can’t do any worse than what I did the year before,” Hunter said.

He was 0-2 with a 16.36 ERA in 11 innings (three starts).

Hunter had a conversation with his dad before spring training last year, telling him that if he got five consecutive starts, it would determine whether he had the stuff to make it in the major leagues.

He was called up for a spot start in May and pitched well, but was sent back to the minors for a month. When he returned, Hunter knew he was going to get his chance to show if he was worthy of staying in the Rangers’ rotation.He allowed just three combined earned runs in his first three starts and then faced Boston and Josh Beckett in late July.

“It was one of those hurdles that you’ve got to get over,” Hunter said. “I was sitting there thinking, ‘This could be a good turning point.’ I got a win and the start went pretty well. Things went from there.”

Hunter allowed one run in six innings in a 4-2 Rangers’ win.

It was during that stretch that Hunter’s cutter became a topic of discussion. His fastball delivery had a natural cut to it at times, but he said if he threw one it was “by accident.” He and catcher Kevin Richardson experimented with it in a bullpen session before he was called up last season and Hunter tried to throw in a game a few days later.

The pitch, along with an improved changeup, added another dimension to Hunter’s game. His confidence continued to increase as the season progressed. He ran into some fatigue issues, which contributed to his final few starts (he gave up 13 runs in eight innings in two of his last three starts). Hunter worked this offseason to get his strength up and be prepared to pitch well for the entire season.

“I have to keep it going and keep working,” Hunter said.

The 23-year-old is another example of a young pitcher showing steady improvement for the Rangers. The club wants to see if he can take the next step and become an integral part of the rotation from start to finish in 2010.