Questions have surrounded Neftali Feliz about how much he cares and wants to succeed in the big leagues. His body language on the mound has been confusing and baffling at times.
One moment, he’s striking out Alex Rodriguez to send the Texas Rangers to their first World Series in 2010. The next, he’s blown five save opportunities in late July 2011 and has manager Ron Washington wondering aloud about “the fire” inside his closer.
Then came the fateful night later in October 2011 when Feliz gave up the game-tying run in the ninth inning of Game 6 of the World Series. Washington didn’t feel like Feliz had the right mindset after that to go back out for the 10th inning, even though the Rangers had regained the lead.
Feliz headed to the rotation for the 2012 season. But he made only seven starts before landing on the disabled list in mid-May with right elbow inflammation, which eventually led to Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery on Aug. 1.
Feliz is on the road back to the big leagues, though, and is trying to quiet the skeptics along the way. He took his rehab seriously, and the 25-year-old is on track to add another live arm in the Rangers’ bullpen for the stretch run.
“There’s a misconception about his body language,” assistant general manager Thad Levine said. “I definitely think the game came easier to Neftali. … He could roll out of bed and throw 100 mph. That gift alone gave him the ability to get big-league hitters out.
“But if a player is easygoing with steely nerves, we say they have ice water in their veins when things are going well. When they’re not going well, then there are questions about how strong of an effort he gave.”
How much Feliz cares can be seen in how he went about the mundane tasks of rehabbing from Tommy John surgery in Arizona. Every day has a similar routine, with some combination of working out in the gym, stretching, playing catch, conditioning, working on pickoff moves and going through pitchers’ fielding practice.
Feliz embraced it and even stuck around after his day was complete for the extended spring training and rookie league games when most big leaguers, especially former All-Stars, would have bolted.
Keith Comstock, the Rangers’ rehab pitching coordinator, has been in his role for five seasons and estimated about 5 percent of rehabbing big leaguers would have done what Feliz did.
“There’s no question about his commitment … he’s very committed, very excited to get back,” Comstock said. “His attitude throughout the whole rehab process has been good, especially in the weight room and training room.
“A lot of guys down here [Arizona] have their families with them, but Neffy’s family became baseball. He just came to watch baseball and watch the young guys play every night. Those guys are few and far between.”
Feliz said it was a no-brainer to spend time with the young players and hang around the Surprise Recreation Campus longer than he had to. After all, sitting around in a hotel room wasn’t that much better of an option.
“I love baseball, love to watch the game,” said Feliz, an All-Star and the American League Rookie of the Year in 2010. “I just love the game and am trying to get back to playing it.”
Feliz is in the early stages of getting back to the majors. He made his third medical rehabilitation appearance Thursday, his first for Triple A Round Rock, throwing two-thirds of a scoreless inning.
He gave up a single and walked two batters over his 22-pitch outing that had him sitting in the 91-94 mph range with his fastball. He will make another rehab appearance with the Express on Saturday.
If that goes well, he’ll take two days off and then throw two innings Tuesday. He’ll then have another two days off then pitch on consecutive days. At that point he could be ready to return.
The 91-94 mph range is about where Feliz sat in his first two rehab appearances in the rookie league in Arizona, and his velocity is likely to get into the 94-96 mph range by the time he’s ready. It probably won’t rise into the high-90s or occasionally touch 100 mph, as it did in the past.
“The velo probably won’t come back like that until next year, which is normal,” Comstock said. “But he still has enough to get outs by sitting in the 94-96 range.”
The lower velocity could be offset, however, by Feliz rediscovering a feel for his changeup by throwing it more often during the early parts of his rehab. He still has a slider in his repertoire, too.
That’s a good three-pitch mix that had the Rangers believing he could make the jump to the rotation last year. He had some success in that role but is coming back as a reliever because it gives him a chance to make an impact this year.
The starter-or-reliever debate for Feliz’s future role surely will resume this off-season, but Feliz isn’t worried about that. He cares about other things right now.
“I want to try to be ready and help the team win and get to the playoffs this year; that’s my mindset,” Feliz said. “I’m not thinking about next year.”