Well-Traveled Colby Lewis Holds Texas' Hopes in Game 3
And with that, Lewis, at 22, clinched a spot on the Rangers roster.
Fast forward to Saturday, and Lewis has been handed the responsibility of saving Texas' chance at its first World Series title as the starter for Saturday's Game 3 against San Francisco.
It was a long trip, literally and figuratively, from hot prospect to a true pitcher who this postseason is 2-0 with a 1.45 ERA in three starts.
In between came shoulder surgery in 2004, being waived twice, released twice and, most significantly, a two-year trip to Japan to pitch for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp.
He came full circle, back to Texas, but as hardly the same person or pitcher.
"It's night and day," said Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, who was just starting out in the team's baseball operations department in 2002.
The Rangers drafted Lewis in the supplemental first round in 1999, 38th overall -- ahead of Jake Peavy, John Lackey, Erik Bedard, Carl Crawford, Brandon Phillips, Justin Morneau and Shane Victorino. In the same draft, the Rangers took, in lower rounds, Hank Blalock, Aaron Harang and Kevin Mench.
That strong spring training in 2002 earned Lewis a spot on a rag-tag Texas pitching staff that included John Rocker, Dave Burba, Rudy Seanez, Hideki Irabu, Chan Ho Park and Ismael Valdes. But by May 2004 Lewis needed rotator-cuff surgery.
Detroit claimed Lewis off waivers after the 2004 season, and after sitting out all of 2005 he spent almost all of 2006 in Triple-A, making two appearances for the Tigers. Detroit left Lewis off the 40-man roster after the season, and he signed with Washington but was released during spring training and signed with Oakland.
After going up-and-down for another year, he moved via waivers again, this time to Kansas City. But he got an offer from Japan -- better money and no concerns about the minor leagues -- so the Royals released him to allow him to sign with the Carp.
In two years for Hiroshima, Lewis was second (2.68) and eighth (2.96) in the Central League in ERA, leading the league in strikeouts both years.
Joe Furukawa, the interpreter for Carp manager Marty Brown (and now Texas' coordinator of Pacific Rim operations), recommended Lewis. And when the Rangers looked at some video of Lewis from Japan -- well, it was like a foreign movie compared to the kid from '02.
"It was a compact, repeatable delivery, much shorter arm action," Daniels said. "He was still using the curveball but it was a third or fourth pitch. He came up with a cutter/slider. He's now throwing 89-93 (mph), a little bit above average.
"He's a completely different guy."
Convinced Lewis was ready to go straight back to the majors and not some sort of project, the Rangers signed Lewis for two years and $5 million and immediately penciled him into their 2010 rotation.
"The biggest thing I just gained was confidence, really," Lewis said. "It's a situation where I felt comfortable and was able to throw my pitches for strikes. When I felt that comfort zone, everything kind of clicked."
Daniels believes the Japanese experience also helped Lewis mature as a person as well as a pitcher.
"Everybody is talking about pressure and postseason and stuff like that," Lewis said before his first playoff start. "I don't know, there's different kinds of pressures, nervousness and all that kind of stuff. But I kind of look at the nervousness as taking my family to Japan. That's nervous. Going to a foreign country, not knowing what to expect."
Now 31, Lewis this year struck out 196 batters, most by a Rangers pitcher since Nolan Ryan in 1991. He was 12-13 but with a 3.72 ERA and 1.19 WHIP, which was ninth in the AL. He held hitters to a .187 average with runners in scoring position, third-best in the AL.
"He has swing-and-miss stuff," manager Ron Washington said. "When he's commanding the strike zone, he's as tough as any pitcher in the game. We've needed him twice so far in this postseason, and he's come through, and that's why we're so confident with Colby tomorrow."
In Game 3 of the Division Series, Lewis held the Rays scoreless for five innings before the Texas bullpen gave away the game. In two starts against the Yankees, he was 2-0 with a 1.98 ERA, pitching eight strong innings in the Game 6 clincher.
"To tell me that I'd be in this situation two years ago when I was thinking that (I was) finishing up my career in Japan, I would have told you you'd be nuts," Lewis said.
"But it's a situation where I'm totally grateful for it, and grateful for the opportunity that the Rangers gave me to come back and continue to prove my talents here in the States."
Lewis said experiencing the Japanese atmosphere has helped him in the postseason.
"It seems like it's always a sellout," he said. "It's a good time, and it's always noisy, it's always loud. I think that's what kind of helps me coming back here with the noise and the celebration and everybody cheering and stuff like that."