Feliz hopes to find permanent place as closer
After Tommy John surgery, young righty is ready for a return to the 'pen
ARLINGTON -- The biggest moment in Rangers history took place three years ago at the Ballpark in Arlington. On a warm October night, Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez came to the plate with two outs, nobody on and the Rangers leading 6-1 in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series.
With the count 1-2, Rangers closer Neftali Feliz threw a breaking ball that buckled Rodriguez at the knees, and broadcaster Eric Nadel made his legendary call on the radio: "Strike three called! The Rangers are going to the World Series!"
The Rangers ended up going to two straight World Series and Feliz was a huge part of that as their closer. Now, after an ill-fated attempt to move Feliz into the rotation and a long recovery from Tommy John surgery, the hard-throwing right-hander is back in the bullpen with the clear goal of regaining the prominent role he filled so well during the Rangers' pennant-winning seasons.
Feliz, who is only 25 years old and has 74 career saves, is determined to be the Rangers closer again in 2014.
"It is very important for me," Feliz said from the Dominican Republic through interpreter and Rangers broadcaster Eleno Ornelas. "I have been a closer already. Nobody will take it away from me ... because I want to go back to a World Series and win it. I think this is our year to do it."
Technically the job is open after Joe Nathan left as a free agent and signed with the Tigers. There is also potential competition for the job. The Rangers have Joakim Soria, who is a former All-Star closer with the Royals, and they have Tanner Scheppers, who did a superb job as Nathan's setup reliever in 2013.
Rangers manager Ron Washington has been non-commital when asked about who will be his closer next season, preferring to wait until Spring Training before making that decision. But there would seem to be little doubt that if Feliz returns to the level he was at in 2010-11, the closer's job would be his to lose going into the season.
"Well, I can't answer that question right now because we haven't told Feliz he got the job as the closer," Washington said. "So the only thing we're concerned about is he makes it through winter ball healthy. If his arm makes it through winter ball healthy, we'll deal with that in Spring Training."
Feliz had a productive winter season for Toros del Este in the Dominican Winter League. He pitched in 10 games -- the last one on Dec. 18 -- and went 1-1 with a 2.79 ERA. In 9 2/3 innings, he allowed six hits and two walks while striking out 11.
"Thank God, I feel 100 percent after the surgery, finally," Feliz said. "I feel like me again."
When Feliz is 100 percent and feeling like "himself," he overpowers hitters with a fastball that averages 96 mph and can hit 100 on occasion. His breaking ball is also devastating when he throws it for strikes and he was working hard on improving his changeup to become more effective as a starter.
Feliz was off to a good start in the rotation in 2012, going 3-1 with a 3.16 ERA in his first eight games before coming down with the elbow problems that led to Tommy John surgery. The operation was performed on Aug. 1, 2012, and Feliz was out for 13 months. He made eight rehab appearances in the Minor Leagues before being activated by the Rangers at the beginning of September this past season.
Feliz did not allow a run in six appearances, although his fastball averaged 93.6 mph, three mph less than in 2011. Feliz also pitched just twice in the last two weeks as the Rangers tried to stay alive in the Wild Card race. His last outing was on Sept. 20, when he entered a 1-1 game with the bases loaded and two outs against the Royals. He walked Alcides Escobar on four pitches, was replaced by Joseph Ortiz and did not pitch the rest of the season.
"I think I did a decent job at the beginning," Feliz said. "But late during the month, I did not have enough chances to pitch ... because we were trying to make it to the playoffs."
Spring Training will be the next test, but remember Feliz has held opponents to a .178 batting average, the third lowest career average among active pitchers with at least 200 innings pitched. His 1.01 WHIP is the seventh lowest in that group of pitchers.
It's all a matter of regaining what he once possessed when he was the closer for two pennant-winning teams.
"This has been a big test in my career," Feliz said. "I have been working hard. I want to be back as I was. I thank God for being with me every day I've been working to be back. Also I thank all the trainers that have been guiding me in my journey to pitch again -- to be ready and be back and pitch in the World Series and win."
He also wants to do it as a reliever. If it's left up to Feliz, the debate about whether he should be a starter or a reliever should be over.
"Yes, I want to be a reliever the rest of my career," Feliz said. "A closer."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.