A new start for Feliz, in more ways than one
Rangers pitcher puts Series behind him, works toward rotation
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Neftali Feliz is a completely different person when the game is in his hands.
The Rangers pitcher is the guy he always wanted to be. He's somebody you would never have imagined.
Feliz is "Nefi," a left-handed-hitting shortstop with power. Drafted by the Dodgers, "Nefi" shot up through Class A in a hurry and made his way to Double-A in what seemed like a matter of hours. If Feliz can somehow figure out how to keep "Nefi" from running past first base on singles and press the right buttons when trying to throw the ball to a base, he'll be in Triple-A by the end of the day.
That is, if Feliz's teammate and good buddy Alexi Ogando ever stops asking to borrow the handheld video-game console so he can play as "Nefi," too.
Welcome to Feliz's world. It's a world filled with sheepish grins and video games, especially the baseball ones, in part because Feliz can control all of the variables on the field.
In this reality, Feliz can press "reset" and replay Game 6 of the World Series all over again if he wants. If he looks hard enough, he can find a cheat code that would help transform an All-Star closer into an All-Star starter overnight.
Feliz is only 23 years old, and sometimes he acts his age. Other times, he is wise beyond his years. The pitcher has already come to realize that baseball, like life, is not all fun and video games. He's learned the hard way that being a true gamer means you win even when you lose.
"The moments in the World Series last year are things that I will never forget, and they are with me all of the time," Feliz said. "It was incredible. Thirty teams trying to get there and we got there twice in a row. We didn't win, but it was a big accomplishment getting there. It was a life-changing experience, and now I want to experience winning."
The Rangers came close winning it all. They led 7-5 in the ninth inning of Game 6 of the World Series against the Cardinals when Feliz entered the game. The right-hander retired Ryan Theriot before giving up a double to Albert Pujols and walking Lance Berkman. He struck out Alan Craig for the second out and had two strikes on David Freese.
The Rangers were one strike away from the record books. The rest is history.
Freese hit a 1-2 fastball off the right-field fence just beyond the reach of right fielder Nelson Cruz for a two-run triple that tied the score. The Rangers ended up losing the game, 10-9 in 11 innings, and the Cardinals clinched the World Series title the next night with a victory in Game 7.
"I can't explain why things happen the way they did, but that's what happens in life," Feliz said. "You have to learn from it and go forward."
Feliz, who threw 22 pitches in that ninth inning, was devastated when told he would not return to the mound for the 10th. Ogando, Feliz's best friend on the team, watched helplessly and wondered if there was anything he could say to him afterward.
"Feliz understands that a career is something that is very long," Ogando said. "Only God knows why some things happen in your life. We understand that. That was a horrible day. We weren't just a little sad, we were extremely sad. It hurt."
It was Ogando and Rangers Spanish broadcaster Eleno Ornelas who Feliz leaned on the most after Game 6. Ornelas noticed Feliz's nervous body language and unusual breathing pattern before he took the mound. During the broadcast, Ornelas wondered aloud why Feliz's teammates didn't notice the same thing and try to calm him down.
Afterward, Ogando initially thought about offering some levity during the postgame meal but changed his mind. He knew a running joke about the size of Feliz's head were not going to work this time.
The teammates ate in silence. Ornelas approached Feliz twice and asked him to speak to reporters who had gathered around the closer's locker, but Feliz refused both times.
Feliz was shell-shocked. He couldn't speak, and he had nothing to say if he could. He finally addressed the media before Game 7 and said he didn't regret throwing the fastball to Freese.
"When life gives you a difficult moment, you have to overcome it. You have no choice," Ogando said. "I told him that he tried and we did what we could but we go forward and know that's just the way it was supposed to be."
Feliz had never experienced such a low. The previous year, he had been named to his first All-Star team and won the American League Rookie of the Year Award. The Rangers were defeated by the Giants in the World Series, but Feliz chose to focus on the positive results and the fact that he did not allow a run and earned a save in the losing effort.
"To me, 2011 was more important than 2010," Feliz said. "Yes, we lost, but we took it down to the final game and we came so close to winning it all. It was harder, but I learned a lot about what it takes to win."
Rangers manager Ron Washington was criticized at the time for pulling Feliz after the ninth inning, but the move was later justified. Feliz was in no condition to return for the 10th inning, and putting him out there would have gone against everything Washington, a lifelong baseball man, believed in.
The short version: Feliz was too emotional to pitch.
In November, the manager admitted as much to the Dallas-Fort Worth media, although Feliz later insisted he could have pitched in the 10th.
Four months later, Washington believes in Feliz as the young pitcher makes the transition from the bullpen to the starting rotation.
"He might struggle a little bit. But then again, he might not. We don't know," Washington said. "We are going to take the chance, and as long as he is healthy, he will take the ball."
It is Washington's belief that it takes a player five years in the Major Leagues before he is completely developed, understands the game and has come to terms with the expectations placed upon him.
The theory holds true for players like Feliz and Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus. Each is entering his fourth big league season.
"[Feliz] is maturing. You can see that in the way he is working around here, that he is taking it seriously and that's what we want to see," Washington said. "If he stays healthy, his stuff will get better. I was just checking out his work ethic. I am pleased with his work ethic."
Feliz's transition continues. He was hit hard by the White Sox in his first Cactus League start and pitched out of two tough jams in his second start by getting the Rockies to hit into inning-ending double plays.
Overall, he's 0-1 with a 7.20 ERA with five strikeouts in five innings.
"He still learning how to pitch," Rangers catcher Mike Napoli said. "He was able to go in the ninth inning and blow people away, but it's going to be an adjustment. It's not going to be easy, but he got himself into good shape and it looks like he is working hard to be a starter."
Feliz is scheduled to start again Tuesday against the Cubs in Surprise.
"I am very grateful for the opportunities to pitch here and the support everyone has given me," Feliz said. "It has been the best three years of my life. I have shared things I never could imagine."
In between starts, you can find Feliz chatting with his teammates and laughing it up with Ogando. His video-game console is always within reach.
Feliz was asked, given the circumstances, if he would come back as a power-hitting infielder if he could do it all over again. Does he dream of hitting home runs like "Nefi" in the video game?
"No. I'm a starter," he responded.
The young gamer is growing up.
"Sometimes, the tough experiences in your life help you find out who you are," Feliz said. "Maybe the next time you are in the same position, you will be better."