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The Strike Zone

Good news for Rangers overshadowed by Dempster's rough debut

Ryan Dempster struggled early and often in his Rangers debut, giving pitching coach Mike Maddux much to discuss with his new pupil. (ZUMApress.com)

On Thursday evening, fresh off perhaps their most exciting win of the season – against the division-rival Angels, no less — the AL West-leading Rangers unveiled a new look, debuting three recent additions in starting pitcher Ryan Dempster, catcher Geovany Soto and and first baseman Mike Olt. Soto and Olt collected hits — but then so did 13 of the other 16 players in the two starting lineups, not to mention two of the four players who came off the bench. Indeed, it was that kind of night in at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, with temperatures soaring above 100 degrees at first pitch for the sixth straight game, and scores in the stratosphere as well. Lined up for a pitchers' duel, Dempster and his opposite number, former Ranger C.J. Wilson, were instead burned for eight runs apiece, but escaped with no-decisions. Aided by key misplays by the Angels' defense, the Texas hitters pummeled Los Angeles' bullpen for seven more runs en route to a 15-9 win, boosting its record to 61-43 and expanding its division lead over the Angels to 4 1/2 games.

Dempster's first foray into the American League after 15 years in the National League yielded unsettling results, particularly for a Texas team that hoped his acquisition would help hold off the surging Angels as it seeks its third straight division title and AL pennant. In addition to those eight runs (all earned) -- the most he's given up this year -- Dempster surrendered nine hits and three walks with six strikeouts in only 4 2/3 innings.

This was not, remember, a match made in heaven. The Rangers had been said to be considering either Cole Hamels, Zack Greinke or bust when it came to adding a starting pitcher before the July 31 trade deadline and only secured Dempster minutes before the 4 p.m. EDT bell. For his part, Dempster preferred to be traded elsewhere -- specifically, the Dodgers -- and used his 10-and-5 rights to veto a trade to the Braves before agreeing on deadline day to accept a deal to the Rangers.

The not-quite-reluctant Ranger gave up two runs in his first inning, including a welcome-to-the-AL solo homer by Mak Trumbo, then couldn't hold the 6-2 lead he was staked to after two innings. He allowed a run in the third and four more in the fourth; even after the Rangers tied the game at 7-7, Dempster gave up another run in the fifth before getting pulled. The eight runs he gave up were one more than he had allowed in his previous seven turns, a stretch that included not only a 33-inning scoreless streak but also a three-week stint on the disabled list for strained lat, while the .500 batting average on balls in play he yielded was more than double the .244 mark he compiled with the Cubs, helping him to a 2.25 ERA.

He'll need better luck and better results for the Rangers, who were more desperate for frontline pitching than they appeared in the runup to the deadline because they hadn't announced the loss of Neftali Feliz to Tommy John surgery. Feliz was the second Rangers pitcher in two weeks to see his 2012 season end on the surgeon's table, with Colby Lewis having succumbed to a torn flexor tendon earlier; meanwhile, midseason pickup Roy Oswalt was pummeled yet again after skipping a turn due to his perennial lower back woes. With Hamels re-signed, Greinke traded to the Angels, and their next tier of choices, Josh Johnson and James Shields, both staying put with their Florida teams, the Rangers instead added Dempster for a pair of low-level prospects. He joins a rotation that includes righties Yu Darvish and Scott Feldman, and lefties Derek Holland and Matt Harrison. The acquisition allows swingman Alexi Ogando to stay in the bullpen in a multi-inning setup role, with top pitching prospect Martin Perez returning to Triple-A Round Rock to remain stretched out if another starter is needed.

Soto fared better than his fellow Chicago emigré, going 2-for-5 by adding a two-run double in the eighth inning. Once ranked among the NL's top-hitting catchers, he was hitting just .199/.284/.347 with six homers in 197 plate appearances at the time of the trade, though that included a more respectable .241/.323/.398 in 93 PA since returning from surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. He's slated to serve as the backup to Mike Napoli, replacing Yorvit Torrealba on the roster.

As for Olt, he went 1-for-3 on the night, robbed of a second hit by an outstanding diving catch of a line drive by Angels shortstop Andrew Romine in the third inning, and then removed for pinch-hitter Mitch Moreland in the seventh against righty reliever David Carpenter; Moreland drove in what proved to be the go-ahead run via a single. Such usage may be a portent of things to come for the 23-year-old righty, who rates as the Rangers' second-best hitting prospect behind Jurickson Profar. A third baseman who offers both power and patience at the plate, Olt was hitting a beefy .288/.398/.579 with 28 homers at Double-A Frisco when he was called up. His future with the Rangers isn't at the hot corner, at least for the moment, because Adrian Beltre is in the second year of a five-year, $80 million deal that has a vesting option for a sixth year. Beltre is a lineup centerpiece, batting .307/.341/.499, with 18 homers and his .301 True Average both second on the team behind Josh Hamilton. He's also one of the game's elite defenders, winning three Gold Gloves as well as three Fielding Bible awards.

For the moment, manager Ron Washington will carve out time for Olt at first base, rightfield, and designated hitter, primarily against lefthanded pitching. The lefty-swinging Moreland just returned to the lineup following a six-week stay on the disabled list; he has hit just .219/.288/.284 against southpaws in his career, but he has worn out righties at a .273/.343/.483 clip overall, and .297/.342/.538 this year (all stats prior to Thursday's action). Righty-swinging rightfielder Nelson Cruz pulverizes lefties (.324/.400/.529 this year, .287/.354/.515 career) but given his defensive shortcomings and his history of leg injuries, he could stand to DH more often. DH/1B Michael Young is perhaps the player most vulnerable to the arrival of Olt; he's hitting a thin .268/.296/.345, with the latter two numbers representing career lows.

Offsetting Dempster's sour debut, the most important development for the Rangers on the night might prove to be the return of Josh Hamilton. The Rangers' slugger, who has made cryptic comments about the nature of his recent struggles, went 2-for-6 with four RBI via a two-run single in the second and a two-run double in the seventh. Hamilton hit just .177/.253/.354 in July, but he's 6-for-19 with three extra-base hits over his past four games, compared to 10 hits and four extra base hits in his previous 20 games.

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