SURPRISE, Ariz. -- From all accounts, Matt Harrison and Brandon McCarthy have been two of the more impressive pitchers in camp to this point, featuring altered mechanics and expanded repertoires to deeply impress those watching behind screens and cages.The spring race for the rotation is just beginning but it's clear McCarthy and Harrison have been quick out of the blocks. Now, this weekend, they get their chance to impress on center stage as they make their first appearances in a Cactus League game. Harrison follows Tommy Hunter to the mound on Saturday against the Royals and McCarthy starts on Sunday against the Indians in Goodyear. Time to begin advancing their candidacy for the fifth spot in the Rangers roation. "They've been throwing the ball well," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "But throwing the ball well in an intrasquad game and the bullpen is not the same as a real ballgame." Both face fierce competition for that fifth spot. C.J. Wilson was sharp in his first outing on Friday, holding the Royals to one run in two innings while needing just 24 efficient pitches. Neftali Feliz, hitting 98 miles per hour, had a 1-2-3 seventh before running into some trouble in the eighth. Derek Holland has been set back by a sprained knee but pitches Monday Both Wilson and Feliz were relievers last year. That may work against them, especially if McCarthy and Harrison pitch well this spring. They could easily make it a two-man competition for the fifth spot. It is this simple: Feliz and/or Wilson will not move to the rotation unless they are clearly better than other rotation candidates. Harrison and/or McCarthy could easily squelch that possibility with strong springs. "We can't short the club because somebody wants to start if it makes sense to keep them in the bullpen," club president Nolan Ryan said. Harrison and McCarthy have been starters since they've been in the big leagues and have had some success in that role. Both opened the season in the rotation last year until injuries shut them both down for extended periods of time. The question is if they are all the way back. They were on the verge of breaking through last year until the injuries occurred. Harrison came into camp 30 pounds lighter and throwing the ball with serious authority.
2010 Spring Training - Texas Rangers
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Sights & Sounds
Spring Training Info
"He looks like he's on a mission," catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said."This is the best feeling I've had playing baseball," Harrison said. "A lot of it is due to the competition between the pitchers. There are more guys out here and fewer spots. I'm going out there with my best stuff and see what I can do." Harrison, after a rough start last year, had four straight outings that were as good as any Rangers pitcher in 2009. In those four starts, from April 27 to May 14, he was 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA with two complete games and one shutout. At that point, he was 4-2 with a 4.23 ERA in eight starts and locked into the Rangers' rotation. But in his next start against the Tigers, he started feeling the pain in his shoulder and the numbness and tingling in his arm. He wouldn't be right the rest of the year. He was 0-3 with a 10.61 ERA in four starts before undergoing shoulder surgery to remove a rib bone that was causing his problems. The surgery was on July 27. He made it back in time to pitch in the Arizona Fall League and described the feeling as tremendous. "The best I've ever felt on the mound," he said. He has carried that over to Spring Training with the delivery he used during the four-game winning streak. It is quick and violent to the plate, with more deception. He has added a cut fastball that he can bust in on right-handed hitters. He is hitting both sides of the plate with his fastball and still has a good breaking ball and changeup. "Hopefully I can keep that going with consistency," Harrison said. McCarthy was 5-2 with a 4.35 ERA in his first 10 starts last year. Like Harrison, he appeared to be locking himself into the Rangers' rotation. Then a stress fracture in his right shoulder blade shut him down for three months. It was his fourth trip to the disabled list in three months. He spent the three months reworking his mechanics with pitching coach Mike Maddux. That was a quick fix and he was 2-2 with a 4.05 ERA in six starts in September. "Last year that was just paving over the cracks," McCarthy said. "This offseason I did a complete overhaul for some long-term fixes." His arm angle is lower. He is no longer throwing over-the-top and throwing his fastball straight. He is three-quarters similar to Scott Feldman. He is getting movement on his fastball, sinking it or cutting in on left-handed hitters. "He has a few more toys at his disposal," Maddux said. "I'm throwing strikes and throwing stuff with more movement," McCarthy said. Over the past three years, he has retired more hitters on fly balls to grounders. Feldman gets 1.42 groundouts to flyouts. McCarthy gets 0.84. His goal is a 2-1 ratio, which is in line with guys like Kameron Loe and Akinori Otsuka. "That's what I want to do: ground ball, ground ball, ground ball," McCarthy said. The time has come to get serious results from all his work. The fifth starter spot is open. McCarthy and Harrison are on the clock.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.