Texas Rangers' Feliz works on off-speed pitches in first start

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The curiosity factor, at least on the public scale, had plummeted by Thursday afternoon after reaching an all-time high only 24 hours earlier.

Neftali Feliz's first start of the spring couldn't come close to the level of hype generated for Yu Darvish on Wednesday.

But the closer-to-starter move Feliz is making is just as important to the Texas Rangers this season as Darvish's transition from Japan to the major leagues.

And there might be more questions about Feliz, starting with how many innings will he be able to handle and how effective can his off-speed pitches be.

No new ones were raised Thursday against the Chicago White Sox during a half-bad, half-good two-inning performance in which he was too hittable early but finished with a flurry.

Feliz's goal, though, isn't to lead the Rangers to the Cactus League championship. His goal is to put himself in a position to help the Rangers win their first world championship.

"I'm not focused on what happened today," said Feliz, who saved 72 games the past two seasons. "I'm focused on making my pitches. I'm going to stay focused on my goal and not worry about my results."

Feliz concentrated on his off-speed pitches at Surprise Stadium, but saw his fastball hit hard in the first inning. The four-seamer lacked its midseason zip, topping out at 94 mph, and Adam Dunn launched a three-run homer in the first on a fastball that didn't get as far inside as Feliz wanted it.

He needs to be a fastball-first pitcher, even though his role is changing, and he tried to establish it early Thursday. Feliz believes he'll be able to work comfortably at 95 mph in the regular season and knows that he will have more in reserve if he needs it.

"Once he gets his arm strength the way it's supposed to be, they're not going to be hitting a lot of those fastballs that they were hitting today," manager Ron Washington said.

But half of Feliz's 28 pitches in the first were off-speed, including an 86-mph changeup that Kosuke Fukudome took for a called third strike to end the inning.

The second inning featured a quick turnaround. Feliz needed only eight pitches in a 1-2-3 frame, and he threw only one fastball.

Feliz has turned a cutter he worked on last year into a slider, to go with a curveball. But the changeup is the pitch he wants to have perfected by Opening Day.

"I feel comfortable throwing it," said Feliz, who threw 11 changeups in his two innings. "I'm not going to pitch like that [during the season], but I know this is the time to work on that stuff."

He was so emphatic about throwing the changeup against the White Sox that he shook off catcher Mike Napoli until he signaled for it. Napoli saw a pitcher who was working on getting better at something he must have as a starter.

Gone are the days when Feliz can get by with only a 100-mph heater to get just three outs.

"You still want to be aggressive, but you want to go deep in games," Napoli said. "He's going to have to use his off-speed. You can't just blow by people at 97 mph."

Washington liked what he saw, the Dunn homer notwithstanding. Even that pitch came on a ball that was around the strike zone, which will translate better once the spring

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