Is Neftali Feliz mentally ready to close?

February, 17, 2014
Feb 17
3:00
PM CT
Neftali FelizAP Photo/LM OteroNeftali Feliz says that he's preparing for one job -- to be the Rangers' closer once again.

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The last time Neftali Feliz trudged up a big league mound in a save opportunity was Game 6 of the 2011 World Series in St. Louis.

I’ll spare Texas Rangers fans any details beyond that. Google "David Freese" if you want to be reminded.

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But while Feliz is out to prove this spring that the reports of his physical condition in winter ball are accurate -- he says his fastball velocity is at 97 or 98 mph now -- it’s also fair to ask whether he’s mentally ready, too.

Feliz vows he's not thinking about that World Series moment.

"That’s something that happened in the past, and I live in the present," Feliz said.

Does the general manager think Feliz is still haunted by being a strike away from a title only to see it slip away?

"No more than the rest of us," Jon Daniels joked Monday.

If body language counts for anything -- and I believe it does after seeing the way Feliz walked back to the bus following that Game 6 meltdown -- Feliz seems different this spring. He’s still "supremely relaxed with a slow pulse," as Daniels says, but there’s a determination underneath, too.

Feliz talked constantly about confidence Monday. He seems to have built a stockpile of it, thanks to finally feeling completely healthy after rehabbing from Tommy John surgery in 2012. Feliz went to the Dominican Republic this winter to continue to build arm strength. By the looks of it, he’s in great shape. Feliz returned with a focus on winning the closer’s job, for which he’s the front-runner, even though manager Ron Washington has been careful not to anoint him as such.

"I felt very comfortable," Feliz said. "I felt strong. I’ve done this in the past, and having the experience in the Dominican league gave me more confidence to pitch."

In the past, Feliz waffled between wanting to start and honing his craft in the bullpen. After the 2011 season (and not because of that one fateful October night), the Rangers wanted to see if Feliz could start. It didn’t work out, and, after the injury, he’s now a reliever and is preaching that he wants the ball again for the final three outs.

"I know I’m preparing for one job. I’m preparing to be the closer, and that’s it," Feliz said.

One big letdown more than two years ago shouldn’t obscure the fact that he was one of the dominant closers in the game in 2010 and 2011. He was the AL rookie of the year in 2010 after 40 saves, which didn’t include a big save in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series on a strikeout of Alex Rodriguez to send the Rangers to the franchise’s first World Series berth.

That final pitch to Rodriguez was a breaking ball, called by catcher Bengie Molina. It should help Feliz that Molina is back with the Rangers as the first-base coach and someone he can bounce ideas off and be there to push him. And Molina feels that Feliz has moved on from Game 6.

"It’s very difficult at that moment and maybe a couple of months afterward, maybe five months afterward, but you move on," Molina said. "I bet you anything that when he’s on the mound and facing [Evan] Longoria or somebody, that he’s not thinking about 2011."

Right now, Feliz is focused on winning his old job back, and he knows he can’t do that by dwelling on the past. Molina wants to see Feliz do more than buzz his fastball by hitters.

"I don’t think back then he understood how good he was," Molina said. "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. If I can help, I will."

But Molina can’t go out to the mound for Feliz. The young pitcher must find the ability to bear down and do what’s necessary -- mentally and physically -- to get the job done. Proof as to whether Feliz has put Game 6 of the World Series behind him can’t happen this spring. He has to be consistently saving games in the regular season and postseason to do that.

All Feliz wants is the opportunity. Earning that starts now.

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