Scheppers easing into starting role

NEW ORLEANS, La. – With a 1.00 earned-run average and 42 strikeouts in 27 total innings this season, Tanner Scheppers has been nothing short of dominant. Steve Holley caught up with Scheppers and OKC pitching coach Terry Clark after Sunday's game against the Zephyrs.

The bullpen may be where Tanner Scheppers is now, but the hard-throwing right-hander is on a path and plan that will take him to the starting rotation later this summer.

A first-round pick (44th overall) in the 2009 draft from Fresno State, the 23-year-old Scheppers began his pro career at Double-A Frisco back in April, and after just six appearances there, he received a promotion to Triple-A Oklahoma City.

He has been lights out all season, with a 1.00 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 27 innings overall. Opponents are batting just .130 off Scheppers this season.

But Scheppers isn't your ordinary reliever. Rarely has he thrown less than two innings this season (only once in his 13 games). That's because the Rangers see Scheppers' future as a starter, and a move toward the rotation has already begun.

"He'll be starting within a couple of weeks," Oklahoma City pitching coach Terry Clark said. "He'll go four innings (in his first start) and then next month, he'll probably go to five. That's what we all look at him as – a starter down the road."

In the meantime, Scheppers made his seventh appearance for Oklahoma City in long relief on Memorial Day, throwing a season-high 62 pitches in three scoreless innings at New Orleans' Zephyr Field as he continued to stretch his arm.

Scheppers allowed just one hit but walked three batters, a season high, and both he and Clark agreed it was not the pitcher's best performance.

"He couldn't get his breaking ball over very well," Clark said of Scheppers after the game. "He was up with his fastball a little more than he was his last time out, when he was down pretty good, and his curveball was just off. So when you're throwing all fastballs, you're going to get a lot of foul balls and a lot of balls put into play."

"I threw too many pitches out of the strike zone. Simple as that," Scheppers said flatly. "You're going to have games like that."

But even without his best stuff, Scheppers was still dominant at times. His fastball topped out at 98 mph, and he got out of a bases-loaded jam in the eighth inning by sawing off pinch-hitter Lee Mitchell on a 3-1 pitch to force an inning-ending pop-up.

With zero innings at the professional level prior to this season, the southern California native says it has been all about gaining experience in these first two months of 2010.

"It's really been about just getting out there and trying to work on pitches, and trying to keep throwing strikes," he said. "I've struggled a little bit with control (in Triple-A), but now I'm trying to calm down a little bit."

Along the way, he's made strides with the development of a cut-fastball that Scheppers says will eventually become more of a hard slider.

The development of the cutter has been key, Scheppers said, because he hasn't been able to get as many batters out in Triple-A with his slider as he was at Frisco.

"In Double-A, I struck a lot more guys out on my slider, and here in Triple-A, a lot more on the fastball," said Scheppers. "I've maybe been throwing too many pitches and getting deeper into counts. These guys are more patient and aren't chasing that slider, so I've just got to keep pounding the strike zone and trying to get them out on two or three pitches.

"I'm working on the use of my changeup in games and then just focusing on fastball," he continued. "Curveball and slider, I'm still working on them, too."

With the fast start he's gotten off to in the minors, Scheppers could become one of the first players from the '09 draft class to make his big league debut.

But he's being careful not to put the cart before the horse.

"If that's the case, I obviously would be more than happy to do it," Scheppers said. "But I can't worry with that. I just have to go pitch and do what I have to do, and their job is to tell me where and when to pitch. When it is or whenever is totally up to them."

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