Guardado ready for Opening Day

Guardado ready for Opening Day

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Eddie Guardado sat comfortably in the Rangers' clubhouse earlier this week, leaning back in his chair, his feet propped up on the table and his work already done for the day in a Minor League game.

He looked like a man who just needed a cocktail to complete his day.

"That would get my energy going," Guardado laughed affably.

Guardado had just thrown 19 pitches in his first appearance in a game in almost two weeks. A strained knee and a viral infection had held him back, and at one point there was some doubt if he would be ready for Opening Day.

Guardado scoffed at such suggestions. If the Rangers need a left-hander to face Ichiro Suzuki in a crucial situation on Monday at Safeco Field, he's still the one to do it.

"I'm ready to go," Guardado said. "Whatever inning they call me in, I'll be ready. It will be fun, getting the blood going, under the lights ... nothing like it. It separates the men from the boys."

Guardado, 37, is back -- the oldest player on the Rangers -- a veteran of 15 Major League seasons and tied for eighth among active pitchers with 796 appearances. The Rangers signed him to a one-year deal in the offseason to be either the closer or a left-handed setup reliever.

They know now it will be as a setup reliever. C.J. Wilson has been named the Rangers' closer and Guardado, who has 183 career saves, will be part of the setup brigade.

"They haven't said anything to me," Guardado said. "Not a word about it. But whatever helps the team, whatever inning, I'll be ready to pitch.

"If I have to setup, I will. I'm not a guy who complains. Don't get my wrong, I love closing, but if C.J. is doing the job or somebody else, I've got to do my job. If they put the right guys in the right situation and they do their jobs, this team has a chance."

Why balk at your situation when you've been through worse over the past two seasons? Guardado has had to go through much just to get to the point where he could sit back and relax with propped-up feet and not worry about life.

Guardado saved 36 games for the Mariners in 2005, then went 1-3 with a 5.48 ERA in 28 games with them to start the 2006 season. The Mariners traded him to the Reds on July 6 and he made 15 appearances there before going down with an elbow injury. He underwent Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery on Sept. 8, 2006 and did not pitch in the Major Leagues again until Aug. 9, 2007. He made 15 appearances last year and had a 7.24 ERA.

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"It was tough," Guardado said. "It was tough the whole year, even the time when I was pitching the last month. But everything is good now. The more times I get out there, the better I feel. My delivery, I'm staying back more and getting my arm speed back. Let's get the lights on and let's go."

Guardado throws fastballs and sliders to left-handed hitters and fastballs and changeups to right-handed hitters. He can get both sides of the plate out and had a career-high 45 saves for the Twins in 2002. He is not overpowering, but he has struck out 8.45 batters per nine innings in his career, the 21st-best ratio of all active pitchers. He is 17th lowest with 11.34 baserunners allowed per nine innings.

The last two years have been tough and he is no longer in a prime-time role, but Guardado insists the fire is still inside of him. The Rangers pursued him hard this offseason and he appreciated the respect general manager Jon Daniels accorded him. The Yankees wanted him, too, but Guardado preferred to come to Texas.

Besides Wilson, who will be limited to the ninth inning, Guardado is the only left-hander in the Rangers' bullpen. He may not be closing, but he'll still play a critical role. This is the guy who will face the opponent's big left-handed hitters in the late innings.

Guardado embraces the challenge even thought it could cost him some serious money. His incentive-laden contract calls for up to $2.5 million in bonuses based on games finished. That's a category designed especially for a closer, but it doesn't seem to bother Guardado.

"I love the game. I love the competition. I love the atmosphere playing under the lights," Guardado said. "I love big league competition. I love toeing the rubber. I missed it desperately last year, it's in my blood."

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.