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Monday, October 3, 2011
Neftali Feliz breaks in finishing touch

By Jean-Jacques Taylor
ESPNDallas.com

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- For the three years he's been in the big leagues, the Texas Rangers have been trying to persuade Neftali Feliz to use more breaking balls like the one that froze Alex Rodriguez for the final out in last year's American League Championship Series.

Rangers
Rangers catcher Mike Napoli (left) has the confidence to call a slider when fireball closer Neftali Feliz is on the mound.
Feliz, as you would expect, had been reluctant because his fastball is so good -- and he's had success with it.

On Monday night, Feliz recorded the game's biggest out with a slider.

No way that would have happened a few months ago. He wouldn't have trusted himself. Or the pitch.

Now, he does.

The result: a four-out save and control of the AL Division Series after the Rangers slipped past the Tampa Bay Rays 4-3 in a taut affair that left both managers mentally whipped.

The Rangers own a 2-1 series lead because all the work Feliz did throughout the season to improve his slider gives Mike Napoli the confidence to call it in any situation.

"Hitters in this league can time a freight train," Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux said. "We urge all of our pitchers to use all of their pitches. The more you use it, the more you use it and trust it."

That certainly was evident in the eighth inning, when Feliz entered the game with two outs and runners on first and second after a disastrous outing by Mike Adams.

All you need to know is Adams gave up a leadoff homer to Desmond Jennings that trimmed the lead to 4-3 before walking three consecutive batters. Adams had not walked three batters in a game since 2005, a span of 244 appearances.

Napoli threw out B.J. Upton, the first batter Adams walked, on a pitchout. Mike Gonzalez replaced Adams and struck out Johnny Damon on three pitches, setting up Feliz's entrance.

Twice this season -- once in April and once in July -- the Rangers asked Feliz to record a four-out save. Once he succeed and once he failed.

Three other times, he pitched more than one inning. In the playoffs, pitch counts and appearance trends become irrelevant because players do whatever the team needs.

Feliz started Ben Zobrist with consecutive 81 mph sliders to get ahead in the count 0-2.

Then he threw three consecutive fastballs -- two clocked at 100 mph -- as Zobrist worked the count full. A wild pitch moved runners to second and third, putting the go-ahead run in scoring position.

Feliz refused to panic. Zobrist, fooled by yet another slider, struck out on a checked swing.

"When you're throwing that hard, hitters have to cheat to get [the bat] there on time," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "You have no choice. And if you are able to throw this other pitch -- even if they're not strikes -- it's hard for Zobrist to lay off those pitches.

"So that's one of those moments, man. He has to make a mistake, and you have to be ready for it."

Feliz entered the majors with a 100 mph fastball that blows hitters away with its natural movement. It's the reason he saved 42 of 46 games in his first two regular seasons with 110 strikeouts, 26 walks and a 2.42 ERA in 100 1/3 innings.

He wasn't nearly as effective earlier this season, in part because he refused to trust his off-speed pitches whether he was throwing a slider, a curveball or a changeup.

All Feliz wanted to do was fire fastballs at hitters. Even the worst big league hitters can turn on a fastball, if they're not worried about anything else.

After the All-Star break, Feliz began throwing more sliders. He didn't really have much choice since his fastball started getting whacked regularly and his walks were rising while his strikeouts were falling.

Feliz walked 30 and struck out 54 in 62 1/3 innings this season, but in August and September he looked a lot more like the pitcher who dominated in his first two seasons.

He struck out 27 and walked 10 in 23 2/3 innings.

After the eighth inning Monday, Feliz already had proved he was willing to throw his slider with conviction, forcing Tampa Bay's hitters to respect it.

So Feliz relied on his fastball in the ninth inning.

Kelly Shoppach, the hero of Game 1 with a pair of homers, couldn't handle it and grounded into a game-ending double play.

The maturation of Feliz continues.

Jean-Jacques Taylor is a columnist for ESPNDallas.com.