HOUSTON -- It's up to Lucas Harrell to keep the momentum going for the Astros.
The right-hander will get the ball Tuesday night when the Astros play the Texas Rangers at Minute Maid Park in the second game of the season, and he will be matched up against Yu Darvish. Harrell will be trying to follow the strong work of Bud Norris and Erik Bedard, who combined to help beat the Rangers, 8-2, on Sunday night.
"I'm excited," Harrell said. "My arm feels good and my leg is feeling good again."
Harrell, who was bothered briefly by a groin injury during spring camp, is coming off a season in which he was named the Astros' Pitcher of the Year after going 11-11 with a 3.76 ERA in 32 starts as a rookie. He led the team in wins, innings pitched and starts.
The sinkerballer doesn't put too much thought into who's throwing for the other team, and that's especially true now that the club is in the American League and pitchers won't hit. Still, Darvish went 16-9 with a 3.90 ERA and struck out 221 batters in 191 innings last year, and he provides stiff competition.
"The way I look at it is I'm not pitching against Yu Darvish, I'm pitching against the Rangers," Harrell said. "He doesn't hit. I have to get out all the other guys -- Nelson Cruz, [Ian] Kinsler and [Elvis] Andrus. I look at it more as I'm facing their lineup. And they've got a good lineup, so I'm going to have to definitely be on my game and working with whoever's catching."
Harrell, 27, was pretty much unknown when the Astros plucked him off waivers in the middle of the 2011 season, and he came to spring camp last year as a long shot to make the rotation. In fact, the Astros ruled him out of the rotation at one point before he got a spot start and pitched well enough to earn a closer look.
All Harrell did was become the team's most consistent starting pitcher last year, becoming the only National League rookie to throw a complete-game shutout (June 27 against San Diego). He ranked second in the Majors in innings pitched by a rookie, and he was second among NL rookies in strikeouts and wins.
"I felt like God really blessed me by bringing me here from a situation where I wasn't in a good situation with the White Sox," he said. "I kind of got buried over there, and for me to get a chance to come here and get the opportunity, I thank [former general manager] Ed Wade for bringing me over and [current GM] Jeff Luhnow for last year believing in me. They believed in me and gave me that confidence."
Luhnow is anxious to see if Harrell can have a repeat performance of last year.
"He's an established Major League starter and that's going to help him build his confidence," Luhnow said. "He's going around talking to guys like Orel Hershiser to pick their brains, and that's exactly what a young pitcher who hasn't been around that long should be doing, getting advice from guys who have been in the game."
Harrell sought out Hershiser, the former NL Cy Young Award winner who's currently a television analyst for ESPN, prior to Sunday's game against Texas, and he has also spent time this spring picking the brain of Roger Clemens.
"He wants to get better," Luhnow said. "I think Lucas has the chance to have an outstanding season for us and be one of our most valuable players, like he was last year."
Harrell is anything but content. He spent a lot of time this spring trying to refine his curveball, but it's still his sinker that's his bread and butter.
"Hopefully I can have a better year than I did last year," he said. "You always have to set high goals, and my goals and my standards for myself are definitely high this year."