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Sunday, May 22, 2011
Rangers need this Neftali Feliz

By Calvin Watkins
ESPNDallas.com

PHILADELPHIA -- Ron Washington slowly made the walk from the third-base dugout to the mound Sunday afternoon. He was left with no choice but to pull starter Matt Harrison, who was strong through 8⅓ innings but needed to come out after 117 pitches.

The Texas Rangers manager went for his closer, Neftali Feliz, who hadn't pitched in two days. For as much confidence Washington has in his closer, there is still some uncertainty with the 2010 American League Rookie of the Year.

Feliz
Neftali Feliz notched his ninth save this season on Sunday, after blowing his two previous opportunities.

Feliz was coming off blown saves in consecutive games, the first time that's happened in his brief career. Feliz took on the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday afternoon and in 10 pitches retired two batters for his ninth save of the season in a 2-0 victory.

It was Harrison's effort that salvaged the final game of this interleague series. But on Monday afternoon when many are talking about the return of Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz to the Rangers' lineup from the disabled list, Feliz's status should get attention, as well.

"Hamilton and Cruz are two of our better hitters and we really need them to step up and so do I," Feliz said through an interpreter.

While Hamilton is the reigning AL MVP, it's Feliz jumping into the arms of his catcher on the cover of the Rangers' media guide that tells the bigger story. If you don't have a closer to finish games out, things could get bad for you.

Wednesday and Thursday in Kansas City, things were bad for Feliz. He blew two saves, then wasn't available for Friday night's series opener at Citizens Bank Park.

He was available Saturday but wasn't needed, as the Rangers lost 2-0. Then with Harrison pitching so well in a close game, you got the feeling Washington was going to find out if he could still depend on Feliz.

"He's my closer and pitchers go in slumps just like hitters," Washington said. "The only way he can come out of it is to get the ball every time an opportunity presents itself. He's going to get the ball."

There was nothing wrong with Feliz's velocity. Command of his pitches had been the issue. In the two blown saves against the Royals, only 32 of his 58 pitches were for strikes, and he walked three batters and allowed five hits.

But that changed on Sunday. He threw only one off-speed pitch and nine fastballs that challenged Raul Ibanez, who bounced out to first, and Carlos Ruiz, who flied out to left to end the game.

"I felt like today was a good thing," Feliz said. "But I already had put it out of my mind because I know I can't remember [blown saves]. I moved forward regardless if I pitched today or not."

That type of mindset is important for a closer.

Last season, Feliz held opponents to a .176 batting average, including .096 on the road. And while the Rangers need their sluggers to start hitting on a regular basis, this club also needs Feliz to become his dominant self to stabilize a bullpen that has been inconsistent.

For 10 pitches on Sunday, Feliz was. Now for the rest of the way, as long as he's healthy, maybe the Rangers will feel more comfortable with him finishing games.

"It's great. We need him to get on track and when he's on, he's one of the best in the game," catcher Mike Napoli said. "Hopefully he'll get his confidence back, and he did today what we needed him to do and [that's] get on the right track."

Calvin Watkins covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.