SURPRISE, Ariz. — It’s been exactly two years, four months and three days since The Inning.Not that the Texas Rangers are counting.Two years, four months and three days since closer Neftali Feliz stood on the mound in St. Louis, one strike away from winning the 2011 World Series. Every Rangers fan knows what happened next. And for Feliz, the chapters that have followed haven’t been much of a fairy tale, either. From David Freese to Tommy John. From the World Series to the operating room.Feliz hasn’t pitched in a closing situation for the Rangers since that eventful October night. His old job awaits, but the Rangers want him to earn it. They want him to show them he’s healthy again, after undergoing the Tommy John elbow surgery that cost him an entire year. They want him to show that the hard-throwing right-hander they saw pitch in winter ball is the new Feliz.The reborn Feliz. The Feliz, now 25, who’s come back from major surgery, but more importantly come back from the ninth inning of that World Series Game 6.Manager Ron Washington wasn’t talking about Feliz in particular, but young pitchers in general, when he said that the toughest thing for them to learn is “to not take success for granted.”“It’s not only for a young pitcher in his second year,” Washington said, “but it’s also for everybody. You have to work just as hard as you did to accomplish what you accomplished the first time around.”When Feliz pitches Sunday against the White Sox in his first exhibition outing of the spring, all Rangers eyes will be on him. “I’d like to see him stay on top of the ball,” Washington said. “I’d like to see him drive the ball downhill.“It’s okay for him to pitch, but I’d like to see him stay on top of the ball. Whatever happens after that happens.”Mechanical things, Washington was talking about. Things they would like to see Feliz concentrate on, not only to make him a more dominating 95-mph-plus pitcher, but also to keep him from falling into the arm angle habits that eventually sent him to the surgeon’s table. “We’ve been working him hard, getting him out there early in the morning, making sure we can help him keep his mechanics together,” Washington said. “If we can do that, he’s going to be able to do what we want him to do.”Washington extended his own arm to demonstrate.“We had someone on him all the time in the Dominican,” Washington said, raising his right arm, “and Feliz stayed up here. But now he’s getting back down.“We’ve got to get his muscle memory back to where he’s driving the ball downhill.”Where Matt Harrison’s back and Derek Holland’s knee both remain major concerns, Feliz’s return is nearly as important. He is being counted upon to be the bullpen’s closer. If he can’t confidently handle the role, it will have a ripple impact on others, from Tanner Scheppers to Joakim Soria to Robbie Ross.“The job is out there,” pitching coach Mike Maddux said Saturday. “We’d like for him to earn it, because he’s done a good job for us there in the past.”But as both Maddux and Washington said bluntly, Feliz is not going to be handed anything.“No, there’s other people who want to close, too,” Maddux said. “Guys that have a track record.”Young pitchers often have to be pushed, Washington said. Young heads often have to be reminded to focus.“He’s not young anymore,” Maddux said. “We can’t take anything for granted. We’ve got go out there and earn our keep.”In his only outing of the spring thus far, a one-inning appearance in an intrasquad game, Feliz was rocked for three hits and two runs, including a home run by minor leaguer Brett Nicholas. The shaky performance did not go unnoticed.“We’ll stay on him,” Maddux said. “Some guys you’ve got to keep spurring them, and we’re going to keep spurring him.“We’ve had a productive week since that outing. I look forward tomorrow to seeing what he brings to the table.”There’s a job at stake. The Rangers would like Feliz to start showing that he deserves it.
Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697 Twitter: @gilebreton