Under fire, Neftali Feliz closes it out
July, 28, 2011
By Jeff Caplan | ESPNDallas.com
ARLINGTON, Texas --Rangers starter Matt Harrison left Thursday's 4-1 win with one out in the eighth inning, clinging to a one-run lead and being cheered by more than 30,000 fans rising to their feet.
Then the bullpen door flung open and a collective gasp overcame the stadium. With Rangers manager Ron Washington calling for reinforcements in the pen, and specifically calling out closer Neftali Feliz over the last couple days, Harrison's gem was hanging in the balance.
Three Rangers relievers closed out the Minnesota Twins and preserved Harrison's ninth win of the season and the Rangers' two-game lead over the Los Angeles Angels in the homestand finale.
It might be only the end of July, but with the Rangers entering the game just 3-5 since snapping their 12-game win streak and L.A. on the march, Washington didn't hesitate to call this victory exactly what it was.
"Well, it was huge," Washington said. "Simply because you didn't want to lose three out of four. We had a chance to win three out of four and we certainly didn't want to have to hit the road and lose the last game of the series also knowing we let some opportunities get away early in the series."
Washington lifted Harrison after he issued his first walk of the game to Joe Mauer with one out in the eighth. Lefty Arthur Rhodes was the first to warm up, but Washington turned to Japanese side-winding right-hander Yoshinori Tateyama to face right-handed hitter Michael Cuddyer. Tateyama battled Cuddyer for eight pitches, finally getting the clean-up hitter to go down swinging on a third consecutive curve.
The second out set up Rhodes, who hasn't pitched particularly well and hasn't been in many recent critical situations. He got Jason Kubel, who took Rhodes deep in the series opener, to fly out to center on 1-2 slider to end the inning.
"We just got to take it day by day," Rhodes said. "We've just got to go out there everyday and do our job. And if we get somebody new, we get somebody new. But we've just got to go out there and keep playing."
It looked as though Feliz would enter another one-run game coming off his fifth blown save Tuesday night when he couldn't hold an 8-7 lead. But the Rangers' offense, thanks to a two-out triple from Josh Hamilton -- his third hit of the game to raise his average to .304 -- ignited a two-run rally with the aid of a throwing error to give Feliz some breathing room.
He faced Jim Thome first and split a five-pitch at-bat with a third-pitch 79-mph slider for a strike and then got Thome swinging with a 98-mph fastball. Nine of the next 10 pitches he would need to drop the Twins in order were fastballs.
"He probably responded because he's a competitor." Washington said. "I don't think I had much to do with it because I'm not the one out there toeing the rubber trying to get outs. I think all the credit's got to go to Neftali Feliz."
Feliz, the second-year phenom whose switch to the starting the rotation during spring training was aborted because he felt more comfortable closing, was as nonchalant as ever in the postgame clubhouse as he answered questions through the team's translator.
On Wednesday, Feliz said he has the fire and if it doesn't look like it when he's on the mound it's only because of his calm, emotionless exterior, a product of having done the job with great success last season, masks it. After his 21st save Thursday, he said the closer's role is filled with pressure every time Washington hands him the ball, and he's good with that.
"When you are a closer it is different than being a starter, Feliz said. "As a closer you cannot make mistakes, you have to come and throw strikes and try to finish a game. If you're a starter and have a bad inning, you can still come back in the next inning and fix it. But not as a closer. As a closer you have to do your job all the time 100 percent."