Neftali Feliz’s last save opportunity is not one that he likes to talk about. Nobody in the Texas Rangers’ organization does.
Game 6 of the 2011 World Series does not produce fond memories, when Feliz came within a strike of sending the franchise to its first World Series championship only to give up the game-tying run in the ninth.
The Cardinals won Game 6 in extra innings, and then the series the following night.
“That’s something that happened in the past and I live in the present,” Feliz said. “I look forward to doing my best job in the future.”
That job, Feliz hopes, is closing. He is the front-runner to reclaim his previous job after a failed attempt to become a starter.
Feliz enters spring training motivated, determined and, as Ron Washington said, in the best shape of his career. It’s been a tumultuous two seasons for Feliz since the World Series heartbreak.
He broke camp in 2012 as a member of the rotation, but 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 Aug. 1 of that year.
Recovering from Tommy John surgery is a mundane task of repetitive exercises and routines, but Feliz embraced it fully. He returned to the big leagues last September with six scoreless outings, and he made 10 appearances in the Dominican Winter League with Los Toros del Este.
Feliz said his velocity touched 97-98 mph this winter, adding: “More is coming.”
Feliz made his big league debut in 2009 as a 21-year-old who could routinely light up the radar gun with 100 mph. He took over the closing role in early 2010 and excelled, posting a 2.73 ERA with 40 saves while being named American League Rookie of the Year and to the All-Star team.
Feliz capped his sensational rookie season by recording the most important strikeout in franchise history, getting Alex Rodriguez to watch a breaking pitch for a called third strike to clinch the AL pennant and send the Rangers to their first World Series.
“I don’t think back then he understood how good he was,” said Rangers first base coach Bengie Molina, the catcher on that 2010 team. “Maybe now, because he’s been hurt, maybe he understands it better. While I’m here, that’s one of my focuses, is talking to him about believing in all his pitches.”
Feliz had more success in 2011, but also went through his share of rough stretches. He had five blown saves by late July and Washington wondered about “the fire” inside Feliz.
Those questions have since subsided with Feliz showing a renewed energy and passion for the game. As stated, he rehabbed aggressively from Tommy John surgery last year at the Rangers’ complex in Arizona and even hung around after his work was done to watch the minor league games.
“He loves the game,” general manager Jon Daniels said. “You don’t put the work in that he put in this winter if he’s not motivated.”
That being said, the Rangers aren’t going to simply give Feliz the closing role. He’ll have to earn it this spring.
Joakim Soria is a legitimate candidate for the job. He was a two-time All-Star closer with the Royals and is fully recovered himself from Tommy John surgery.
Tanner Scheppers also developed into a dependable setup reliever last season and is another power arm at the back end of the bullpen.
“I would like the opportunity to close,” Scheppers said. “Any player would like the opportunity. There are some guys here who have done it longer so the opportunity is probably in their hands. My attitude is to help the team out anyway I can.”
Drew Davison, 817-390-7760