Loose but serious Tommy Hunter set

NEW YORK -- Mitch Moreland and Tommy Hunter were drafted in 2007 by the Texas Rangers. They roomed together during short-season ball in Spokane, Wash., and again this year when Hunter was sent down to Triple-A after recovering from an injury. They're good friends with high hopes for long big league careers.

Moreland knows Hunter will be ready when the Rangers' rotund right-hander makes his ALCS debut tonight against the New York Yankees with a chance to give his team a commanding 3-1 lead.

"Tommy won't feel any pressure. He’ll be ready to go. He’s a competitor," Moreland said. "When he steps on the mound, he’s going to go out and pitch his game. That’s just the way Tommy is."

Hunter won 13 games during the regular season, and he's 22-12 in his first two years as a starter. One has to wonder what those numbers would be like if he pitched a full season in 2009, when he went 9-6 with a 4.10 ERA, and if he hadn't suffered a left oblique strain during spring training that delayed his first 2010 start until early June.

Hunter, though, dwells on only one number: 16.36.

"That’s something you don’t forget," Hunter said of his 2008 ERA in three starts with the Rangers. The club kept Hunter on the move that year, jumping from Bakersfield, Calif., to Frisco, Texas, to Oklahoma City and finally to the big club, where he went 0-2.

"When you get knocked down, you remember the times you get knocked down," Hunter said. "You also remember the times when you come back from that. I think I was pretty good in July [2009]. I don’t know exactly the stats, but I don’t think I lost. Those first five starts I think I was 4-0, something like that."

Once he got back to the Rangers in 2010 -- and he was not thrilled to start the season in Triple-A -- he went 8-0 over his first 10 starts to become the first Texas pitcher ever to begin a season 8-0 exclusively as a starter.

While this will be Hunter's first career start at Yankee Stadium, he faced the Yankees in Arlington on Sept. 11. He struck out a career-high eight, incluing Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano in succession in the third inning.

Despite that stat, Hunter is not a strikeout pitcher. Hunter doesn't have dominating or overpowering stuff, but when he's on he has tremendous control. He mixes between fastballs, curves and cutters. When he's not totally on or when he starts to lose control, Rangers manager Ron Washington said it's easy to spot.

He spotted it in the fourth inning of Hunter's lone postseason start, the Game 4 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALDS. Hunter didn't return for the fifth inning, although he didn't pitch badly, allowing three runs (two earned) on six hits, striking out seven and walking none.

"He got to the point where he started elevating the baseball," Washington said. "You can’t elevate against good teams. His game is not power. His game is command. If he can command the baseball, hit his spots, I think he’ll be successful."

Hunter is something of the clubhouse clown. He jokes around, has fun and sometimes maybe puts his maturity level to the test. Washington called him "loosey-goofy" but then stated, "At least he’s not tight. I’d rather have loose and goofy than tight."

Don't think he's not serious when he needs to be. Just like he remembers 16.36 more than his 22 career victories, Hunter is almost consumed by making sure he sticks in the big leagues. He was in competition for a rotation spot in spring training until the oblique injury. It hit him hard when the team sent him to Oklahoma City instead of keeping him with the big club when he returned from the injury.

"Anytime you go from green pastures to mud, you’re not going to like it," Hunter said.

And despite his 13 wins and 3.73 ERA this season, he remembers the nickname most people don't know rather than the one that everyone knows: Big Game.

That nickname, Hunter said, has no real basis. It's just a convenient tag to put in front of his surname.

"My nickname in the training room is 'Spot,'" Hunter said. "Yeah, I’m a spot starter, every fifth day. That’s the way I’ve looked at it. It kind of creates a challenge for me personally. I am at the end of the rotation. I’m not a front-line guy. Would I like to be? Yeah. Anybody that plays this game wants to be in the front, wants to be a go-to guy. But right now, it’s just you got to fight for a job every fifth day and that’s what I try to do."

Washington said he gave thought to starting lefty Derek Holland instead of Hunter for Game 4, which would seem to feed Hunter's belief -- real or imagined -- that his place in the Texas rotation is not a certainty. That seems strange for a pitcher whose winning percentage (.765) was the best in the American League this season and whose 13 victories after the beginning of June were tied for fourth-most in the majors behind CC Sabathia (17), Trevor Cahill (14) and Roy Halladay (14).

"I’m still fighting that battle right now," Hunter said. "I don’t know if it's with anybody or me personally. It’s one of those things."

He'll take his internal struggle to the hill tonight against one of the most feared lineups in baseball in front of a vocal, sold out crowd in one of the game's most intimidating parks. And that's when the loosey, goofy Hunter re-emerges.

"We have been doing this since 5 years old," Hunter said. "I had moms screaming at me when I was 12. That's probably more intimidating than people I don't know. Just another game really. That's how I'm going to treat it at least."