Millwood, Lee highlight Rangers-Indians opener

Updated: April 5, 2009, 4:20 PM ET
Associated Press

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Kevin Millwood will start his fourth consecutive season opener since joining the Texas Rangers, yet he has a lot to do this year to guarantee the chance for a fifth.

Cliff Lee was on the back end of Cleveland's rotation to start last season, a year after being demoted to the minor leagues. The left-hander is now the Indians' No. 1 starter after winning 22 games and the AL Cy Young Award.

Millwood, on the disabled list four times the past two years for nagging injuries, begins his pivotal season and Lee assumes a new role after his breakthrough performance when they face each other in the opener Monday.

"I have no concerns about Millwood," manager Ron Washington said. "The past couple of years, he's given what he had. He's had injuries. ... There's no reason why he can't be what people want to see out of him. If he stays healthy, he'll give us 32, 35 starts and I'm looking for over 200 innings."

That would be beneficial for the Rangers -- and Millwood's wallet.

Millwood signed a $60 million, five-year contract after being the AL ERA champion his only season in Cleveland. But the Rangers can void the final year (2010) if the right-hander doesn't pitch at least 180 innings, a mark he last hit in 2006.

Before Millwood or Lee throw a pitch Monday, former President George W. Bush, who once was part of the Rangers' ownership group, will throw the ceremonial first pitch.

Texas opens at home for only the second time in nine years, a chance to show off more than $4 million in capital improvements made to 15-year-old Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. The most noticeable is the 12-foot high and 84-foot wide video board that has replaced the manual scoreboard on the left-field wall.

Rangers president Nolan Ryan, the Hall of Fame pitcher known for his hard work ethic, has emphasized tougher workouts for every pitcher. That included throwing batting practice in spring training, and Millwood had one session when he threw more than 45 minutes.

The 34-year-old Millwood started workouts in November, with extensive cardio work and changes to his diet, and lost at least 15 pounds.

"I lifted more, threw more. I wanted to get in as good a shape as possible," said Millwood, 19-24 with a 5.13 ERA in 60 starts the past two seasons when he had left hamstring and right groin injuries.

Lee's ascension to the top of the Indians rotation was also cleared by the departure of CC Sabathia, the free-agent-to-be Cleveland traded to Milwaukee last summer before the 2007 AL Cy Young winner signed a $161 million, seven-year deal to be the New York Yankees' top starter.

"Every starting pitcher wants to be the No. 1 starter, and it's nice knowing that the organization views me as that," Lee said. "Hopefully, I can go out and get the season started on a good note."

And wipe away memories of a miserable spring training, when Lee was 0-3 with a 12.46 ERA in six starts and the Indians won only 12 of 35 games.

Manager Eric Wedge isn't concerned about what happened to Lee in Arizona.

"He's a tough kid. He's very confident," Wedge said. "I don't think it's fair to assume that anything like last year's going to happen, but I think what we do expect him to do is lead our starting staff and give us a chance to win."

The most notable newcomer for Texas last season was outfielder Josh Hamilton, but everybody knows him now.

Hamilton, the former No. 1 draft pick who has made an inspiring comeback from cocaine and alcohol addiction, was an All-Star starter last season and put on an incredible display in the Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium. He hit .304 with 32 home runs and led the American League with 130 RBIs.

"There's no pressure. I raised the bar a little," Hamilton said. "Everything's a little better. I just want to get going again."

The new player to watch this year is shortstop Elvis Andrus, a 20-year-old with so much promise despite never playing above Double-A that the Rangers made room for him by switching five-time All-Star Michael Young, the AL Gold Glove shortstop last season, to third base.

"Elvis will do fine," Washington said. "He has a lot of support. I don't think he'll be overwhelmed by anything that happens. He'll make some mistakes but we'll stay with him."

In his first home game as the Rangers' shortstop in 2004, Young struck out in his first at-bat and made throwing errors on his first two fielding chances.

But things certainly turned out OK for him.

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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