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DETROIT -- They approached Alexi Ogando, the lanky outfielder freshly plucked from the Oakland A's for $12,500 in the Double-A phase of the Rule 5 Draft, and asked him if he might consider throwing off a mound.
It was based on a hunch. A.J. Preller, who now serves as the Rangers' player personnel director, had seen the way the ball would shoot out of Ogando's hand on throws from the outfield and wondered whether the kid had been miscast. So he and Scott Servais, the club's farm director, wanted to put Ogando on a mound to see for sure.
On that day in 2006, the Rangers didn't necessarily expect that Ogando would one day become the first pitcher in the live-ball era to win his first two starts in a season while allowing zero runs and two or fewer hits.
Furthermore, they didn't even know if they'd be able to get Ogando into the United States, let alone on a Major League mound. So serious was Ogando's involvement in a human-trafficking ring that multiple governmental agencies had made it clear to the Rangers that the Dominican Republic native would never be admitted into the country.
So, yes, you could say the Rangers were going out on a limb with this one.
Even Ogando felt that way at the time.
"What's going on with these people?" he remembered thinking. "Are they crazy?"
We know now. They weren't.
An injury to Tommy Hunter might have thrust Ogando into the Rangers' rotation, but it's the patience, loyalty and trust this team showed in the hard-throwing right-hander five years ago that really got him here.
Ogando will make Sunday night's start in the Bronx, against that vaunted Yankees lineup, under the glare of the Yankee Stadium lights and in front of the national television cameras. If his first two starts this season are any indication, he's more than ready for prime time.
The 27-year-old Ogando is 2-0, having outdueled highly-touted Mariners phenom Michael Pineda on April 5 and established Tigers ace Justin Verlander on Monday. The next run he gives up will be the first. He's allowed just four hits and three walks while striking out eight over 13 innings. The only thing holding him back has been a blister on his right index finger, which has forced the Rangers to yank him early in each of his starts.
Aside from that issue, which the Rangers believe can be monitored, Ogando is proving right all those who believed he could not only thrive in the big leagues but in a starting capacity.
"This kid," manager Ron Washington said, "is strong mentally."
Ogando has had to be. It wasn't all that long ago that the thought of him not just pitching but merely playing in the States appeared to be a pipe dream.
Before he was a savior to the Texas bullpen in 2010 and the rotation in 2011, Ogando was a pawn in a human-trafficking scheme in the Dominican. He was still an outfielder in the lower levels of the Oakland system back in 2005, when he agreed to be paid to marry a woman to get her into the United States. It was part of a wide-ranging scandal -- Rangers right-hander Omar Beltre, who is currently on the disabled list after spinal surgery, was also involved -- that had caught the attention of the U.S. embassy.
"They didn't know what they were getting involved in and the consequences," said Charisse Espinosa-Dash, who represents both Ogando and Beltre. "They were promised that nothing was going to happen to them. They were promised payments that were never received. They were inexperienced. They thought they were just helping someone."
"When we saw how sincere they were to rectify the mistakes they made, we were willing to stand behind them. We felt they paid for their mistakes appropriately."
-- Rangers assistant GM Thad Levine|
on Alexi Ogando and Omar Beltre
When Ogando tried to apply for his visa, he was promptly denied. He had been blacklisted.
"I got really down," he said through interpreter Pedro Strop.
Undeterred by this hurdle and the unflattering scouting reports about Ogando's hitting, the Rangers took him in the Rule 5 Draft. Preller was adamant in his belief that the kid had a live arm that was worth a look.
"It is one of the best scouting stories of our entire organization," said Rangers assistant general manager Thad Levine.
That first time out on the mound was a bit of an adventure. Ogando's second pitch hit a guy in the head. Still, his fastball was clocked as high as 97 mph.
The Rangers had found something in Ogando, and Ogando had found something in himself.
"It wasn't that hard," he said, "because I was throwing 100 mph against this 16- or 17-year-old kid."
No, what was hard was maintaining that kind of velocity while gaining command, something Ogando would have to work on strictly in the Dominican Summer League and the Dominican Winter League and in international tournaments. For four years, the U.S. and all the promise it offered, both in terms of the level of competition he could face and the money he could make, remained unreachable territory.
At one point, the Rangers considered selling Ogando and Beltre's rights to a Japanese club to give them the opportunity to make real money. Ultimately, though, they couldn't give up on the goal of getting the pair into the States and into the upper levels of their system.
"When we saw how sincere they were to rectify the mistakes they made, we were willing to stand behind them," Levine said. "We felt they paid for their mistakes appropriately."
A plan was concocted. If Ogando and Beltre couldn't use legal means to sway the U.S. into admitting them, perhaps the public relations route would work.
"They affiliated themselves with a group in the Dominican and in the U.S. [called the Polaris Project] that emphasizes awareness of human trafficking," Espinosa-Dash said. "They were able to go out and do a lot of speeches to different teams at Major League complexes within the Dominican Republic. They gained a lot of knowledge and used that knowledge so that no other youngsters would ever go through the same thing they went through."
This angle prevailed. In early 2010, Ogando and Beltre were admitted into the U.S. as ambassadors speaking out against an oft-ignored issue, and their professional careers were reborn when they arrived at the Rangers' Spring Training camp in Surprise, Ariz.
"When they approved my visa, it was the best moment of my life," Ogando said. "I knew that I was getting a new opportunity to get ahead."
With no legal obstacles in his way, Ogando could put all his focus into pitching. He reached the big leagues last June and was a major spark to the relief corps of a Rangers team that ran away with the American League West, en route to the organization's first World Series appearance.
But with Cliff Lee gone and questions aplenty in the rotation outlook for 2011, Ogando made it clear to his club where he felt he belonged. While the possibility of the team converting closer Neftali Feliz into a starter gained national attention and interest, Ogando was the one viewed internally as the best candidate for a starting slot, in part because of his sheer desire for the role.
"I had a conversation with him toward the tail end of camp," Espinosa-Dash recalled, "and he said, 'Please tell them I want to open. I really want to open.'"
Hunter's injury created an opening, and Ogando, despite having little preparation for the assignment and virtually no experience as a starter, was given a shot.
This, unlike that 2006 experiment, was no whim. Ogando showed real signs this spring that his secondary pitches were sharp enough to allow him to work multiple innings and remain effective.
"What we saw in Spring Training was progress every inning," pitching coach Mike Maddux said. "Last year, coming out of the 'pen, it was all stuff. But this spring, he started actually making pitches. That pretty much sold everybody that, 'My God, he's actually kinda getting it.'"
What's notable about Ogando's first two starts -- beyond the obvious eye-catching statistics -- is that his stuff and his focus have been maintained late. He's using his breaking ball effectively, and he's repeating his deceptive delivery.
The Rangers once viewed this as a temporary fix before Ogando goes back to the setup role. But two starts in, it's beginning to look like a long-term fit. Additionally, the loss of reigning AL MVP Award winner Josh Hamilton for six to eight weeks will reshape the offense, and put more focus on the upside Ogando brings to the rotation.
"Will this continue where he ain't gonna lose a game? No way," Washington said. "Will he go out one day and get his butt whipped? Yes, he will. But then, when he gets his butt whipped, all I want to see is how he reacts to it. And knowing him, he's going to come back the next time and do exactly what he did before. That's the character he has."
Besides, no setbacks Ogando endures could be more challenging than the visa issues that once stood before him.
"I never gave up," he said. "I always thought I was going to get the visa to get here and do my job."