Mike Minor will now do for the Rangers what Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish did the past three seasons in Texas.
With those former Rangers aces in the visitors’ dugout, Minor starts the season opener for Texas against the Chicago Cubs on Thursday. The left-hander’s first career opening day start comes only a year after his return to a rotation following shoulder surgery that led to him missing two entire seasons and then being a full-time reliever.
“From being hurt for two years and not thinking I was ever going to throw again, pitch again in the big leagues, or pitch at all, to being the opening day starter, yeah it feels pretty good,” Minor said. “I even doubted myself because of the way I felt, and then once I was healthy, I didn’t doubt myself.”
The opener also marks the managerial debut for new Rangers skipper Chris Woodward, the 42-year-old former utility infielder who spent the past three seasons — and the last two World Series — as third base coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
It will be the final opener at the Rangers’ current ballpark, which is going into its 26th season. A new retractable roof stadium is being built across the street.
Joe Maddon starts his fifth season with the Cubs. The 65-year-old manager enters the final year of his contract after four consecutive playoff appearances and the 2016 World Series title.
Jon Lester makes his third consecutive opening day start for the Cubs, followed by Darvish and Hamels in the other two games of the opening series.
Darvish, who began his big league career with the Rangers after coming from Japan, started their 2017 opener before getting traded later that season to the Dodgers and then going to the Cubs in free agency last year. Hamels was the opening day starter for Texas in 2016 and 2018 before getting traded to the Cubs last summer.
“Now it’s go time, get in front of the big crowds and big stadiums and everything starts to matter,” said Hamels, 38-21 with a 3.90 ERA in 88 starts for the Rangers, who acquired him from Philadelphia during the 2015 season.
Minor is the only rotation holdover from last season for the Rangers.
Edinson Volquez, who made his big league debut for Texas in 2005 and returned as a free agent last year while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, will start the second game Saturday. Right-hander Lance Lynn, who signed a three-year deal as a free agent during the offseason, goes Sunday.
The 31-year-old Minor was the seventh overall pick by Atlanta in the 2009 amateur draft, and started for the Braves from 2010-14 before surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. He missed all of 2015 and 2016 and then made 65 relief appearances for Kansas City in 2017 before turning down a $10 million player option because he wanted the chance to start again.
The Rangers offered that opportunity with a $28 million, three-year contract and he led them last season with 12 wins and 157 innings, even while the team was cautious with him in his return to starting. He made 22 of his team-high 28 starts on extended rest, and at times didn’t get the opportunity to go deeper into games.
“There were some games last year I thought they were overly cautious. Maybe it worked out, maybe it paid off,” Minor said.
After adjusting last spring to starting again, and then making it through the entire season, Minor said this spring felt normal.
“I knew what to expect again. Last year was a new team … I had to learn all new coaches, all new teammates, had to be comfortable with myself, being around the team and everything,” he said. “This year feels a lot different. I feel way more prepared and know exactly what to expect out of my arm and what I used to feel really being a starter in Atlanta.”