If you've ever gotten a blank tile in Scrabble, you know it can be the best or the worst thing that happens to you in the game. Either you use it with the right word for a game-changing triple-word score, or you hold onto it for too long hoping for that perfect eight-letter word to magically appear.
Alexi Ogando is the Texas Rangers' blank tile, and from opening day they have employed him perfectly.
Presumptive Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander had a fascinating American League Championship Series, not pitching particularly well but delivering just enough for the Tigers to win one of his starts. The Rangers' C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison continued to be reliable, giving Texas a chance to win in every game of the series.
When the Rangers stormed the field on Saturday night to celebrate their victory and their second straight trip to the World Series, though, a glance at the boxscore revealed for the millionth time this season the real pitching hero for the Rangers in 2011.
The pitcher who delivered the most victories for either team in the series wasn't Verlander, Wilson or even Lewis. It was Ogando, a regular season starter turned postseason reliever who has been nothing short of huge for Texas.
As the Red Sox, led by their stuttering rotation, collapsed in September, quite a few observers insisted Boston should move rock-solid middle reliever Alfredo Aceves into the rotation temporarily. The Red Sox resisted, preaching stability when it was clear the staff was as unstable as it could get.
Should Aceves, who is arbitration eligible, return to Boston in 2012, the Red Sox could take a page from Rangers manager Ron Washington's book and employ Aceves, if needed, in the starting rotation.
Aceves and Ogando are different people, but similar pitchers. Both are big, durable, 28-year-old right-handers (Aceves is 6-foot-3, 220 pounds; Ogando is 6-4, 200) with the mentality and arsenal to succeed in a variety of situations. What worked for Ogando and the Rangers could work for Aceves and the Red Sox.
With the departure of Cliff Lee in the offseason, Ogando, a 27-year-old right-hander from San Pedro de Macoris, D.R., became one of the organization's five best pitchers. Washington, concluding that the five best pitchers belong in the starting staff, plugged in Ogando, who made 44 relief appearances in 2010 but had never started a major league game, as his No. 4 starter.
All Ogando did was go 5-0 in April and May, and 9-3 while allowing just 34 earned runs in 104 2/3 innings before the All-Star break. He slowed down in the second half but still finished 13-8 with a 3.51 earned run average and 1.14 WHIP.
In the postseason, where more than three starting pitchers is extraneous, Ogando shifted to the bullpen. It was exactly the type of situation Boston actively avoided with Aceves. If the Rangers were concerned about Ogando adapting to the 'pen overnight, he dispelled their concerns.
If anything, Ogando was better in relief. He made three appearances in the division series, holding Tampa Bay to one hit in 2 2/3 scoreless innings. He blew a save in Game 4 of the ALCS on a home run by Brandon Inge, but his two innings of otherwise no-hit ball earned him the victory in an eventual 7-3 Rangers win.
Ogando, like Aceves, is not a perfect fit in any role. Both are too versatile to restrict to a single, defined job. They're like blank tiles in Scrabble. The tile itself doesn't hold any point value, but if it allows you to build a high-scoring word like "quetzal," then you've got to put it on the board.
Ogando isn't Nolan Ryan, and "quetzal" isn't "antidisestablishmentarianism," but one is retired and one is way too many letters, so you might as well maximize what you have.