Nate Lowe's idea of competing to be the everyday first baseman for the Texas Rangers was to take pitches on purpose early in spring training, even if three of them were strikes.
Ronald Guzman felt the urgency of something to prove from the start after failing to win the job in manager Chris Woodward's first two seasons and entering this camp out of minor league options.
The competition in Surprise, Arizona, might be closer than the Rangers thought when they acquired Lowe from Tampa Bay in a swap of mostly minor leaguers during the offseason.
Guzman has three spring training homers to go with his elite defensive skills as Texas also tries him in the outfield as a way to keep him on the roster. Lowe is actually swinging the bat now, as shown with a two-run homer, his first of spring training, and RBI single when the Rangers rallied to beat Seattle 6-5 last weekend after trailing 5-0.
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"I know it's kind of tough-looking sometimes and definitely difficult maybe as a teammate or a fan to watch all three strikes," said Lowe, who started camp 2 for 21 while getting caught looking on seven of his 10 strikeouts.
"If you don't have plate discipline, you don't have the ability to see the ball, then you can't hit it. The most important part is that you're ready for opening day."
Lowe and Guzman can't really share the job because both are left-handed hitters, and that's why Guzman has played left field in camp.
The Rangers brought Guzman up out of necessity in 2018 because of injuries, but he never hit enough for the club to stop exploring other options. The 26-year-old has a .230 career average with 30 homers and 232 strikeouts in 236 games.
Guzman came to camp with the morale boost of being the Dominican winter league MVP after hitting .360 with five homers, 13 RBIs and 17 walks in 111 at-bats over 30 games.
"I definitely feel like I'm a totally different player from last year," Guzman said. "I feel like I've shown that everything I've worked on in the offseason is definitely different and I'm going the right direction. I feel like I've earned some opportunity."
Woodward still sounds slightly skeptical about Guzman showing the consistency he lacked in his first three seasons. Recent case in point, a swinging strike on a 3-1 pitch out of the zone against Cleveland ace Shane Bieber with the Rangers threatening.
"I feel like it's a week left, 10 days left, and he's trying to continue to make an impact and you have to control your at-bats," Woodward said. "You've got to control your energy. You've got to control your emotions and not try to hit one 800 feet every time."
Lowe is probably the favorite to be the opening day first baseman, but the Rangers will always remember Nelson Cruz being out of options in 2008. Cruz cleared waivers, was the Pacific League MVP before a late-season call-up and has hit 411 of his 417 career homers since.
"I think he's riding a lot of confidence obviously from the winter league performance he had," Woodward said. "I want to make sure mentally he stays in that frame of mind and maintains what he's got going so he can somewhere down the road still be even more consistent than he is right now."
Woodward wasn't sure what to think when he first learned of Lowe's plan to take plenty of strikes. Even Lowe was a little unsure when it first came up with someone he works with in Tampa a few years ago.
Lowe came into this camp committed to it, even though he knew he was competing for a job, and the conversations with Woodward and the rest of the coaching staff have been plentiful.
"It was definitely something that I was kind of wishy-washy with in recent springs just because it's uncomfortable sometimes to go out there and take good pitches to hit," said Lowe, who hit .251 with 11 homers and 30 RBIs in 70 games of part-time duty with the Rays over two seasons.
"But if you can't see them and you can't commit to that, then how are you going to commit to being on you're A-game for 155, 162, hopefully 185 games?"
Woodward has since come around.
"I don't think he was going up there literally taking a ball down the middle on purpose. I hope not at least," Woodward said. "I appreciate Nate's philosophy on it. He does control the strike zone really well. There's a calmness about his at-bats. He never panics. That's a quality that a lot of really good hitters have."
With the regular season closing in, Lowe's not on the take quite as much as he was.
The Rangers will have their alternate training site at Triple-A Round Rock. A group of 20 to 28 players not on the opening day roster will report there to prepare for the delayed minor league season, which is scheduled to open May 6. The Round Rock franchise and the Rangers are working with MLB to allow limited fans to attend the workouts, scrimmages and potential exhibition games at the alternate site.
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