Has Neftali Feliz's fire gone out?
Ron Washington, Nolan Ryan question demeanor of Rangers' young closer
"I'd like to see more fire," Washington said Wednesday. "I want him to feel like this is do or die. That's what a closer does."
Washington isn't the only one in the organization who feels that way. Club president and CEO Nolan Ryan agrees with his skipper.
"His body language isn't good," Ryan said of Feliz. "It's bothering me. He just seems too lackadaisical. He doesn't look like he's into his role."
Ryan said he wasn't sure whether that was just a part of Feliz's overall personality or whether there was more fire inside than the outward signs indicate.
The comments came less than a day after Feliz blew a save opportunity in the ninth inning in a 9-8 loss to the Minnesota Twins. It was Feliz's fifth blown save of the season. He blew just three saves in 2010.
Feliz hasn't looked like the same guy who mowed down the American League on his way to rookie of the year honors last season. Then, hitters couldn't catch up with the 100 mph fastball, and after throwing a steady diet of them, he'd mix in some off-speed and breaking stuff to keep them off balance.
He was almost unhittable at times. His command was solid, and he missed a lot of bats. Feliz had 18 walks and 71 strikeouts in 69 1/3 innings in the regular season with a 2.73 ERA. He set a rookie record with 40 saves, and opponents batted just .176 against him.
And Washington said he saw more fire then, too.
But the 2011 Feliz isn't putting up the same numbers. He has 20 walks and 26 strikeouts in 37 2/3 innings, and opponents are batting .216 against him. He has a 3.35 ERA.
He was a starting pitcher in spring training before being moved back to closer. And he spent time on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation. It seemed like his struggles magnified when he blew two save chances in Kansas City on May 18 and 19 after starting the season 8-for-8.
I just don't see urgency. ... I'm not saying it's not there, maybe he's dealing with it in a different manner, but he's not exuding urgency. Maybe that's just his demeanor.” -- Rangers manager Ron Washington on closer Neftali Feliz
By the end of last season, Feliz had an intimidation factor and hitters couldn't touch him. This season, they battle him more and have had more success. And Feliz's lack of command has gotten him into trouble with walks.
Feliz says he's relying on his fastball because that's his top pitch and he'll throw some others only to change the view of the hitters and keep them guessing a little. On Tuesday, Feliz threw 26 pitches, and 23 were fastballs. Twins closer Joe Nathan threw 17 pitches, and nine were fastballs.
The difference in approach isn't what Washington was focused on. For him, Feliz's struggles boil down to what the manager feels is too much of a laid-back approach to the final three outs of the game.
"I just don't see urgency," Washington said. "I just don't see it. I'm not saying it's not there, maybe he's dealing with it in a different manner, but he's not exuding urgency. Maybe that's just his demeanor."
Feliz was told of the manager's comments prior to Wednesday's game and said it might not appear he's got that fire because he's gained more experience as a closer.
"When you say I don't have any fire when I come to the mound, it's because I feel more confident that I can do my job because I've done it already," Feliz said through a translator. "Every time that I come out and I want to give it 100 percent and get the three outs as quickly as I can."
In other words, Feliz feels he has a calm, comfortable confidence that doesn't show up in an outward way. There have been other closers like that, including Mariano Rivera, someone Feliz was compared to by more than a few folks late last year.
"I don't call him laid back," Washington said about the longtime New York Yankees closer. "He may be cool, but when he lets that ball go, you know he means business. He means business when he comes on that mound."
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One issue for Feliz the past two seasons has been focusing when pitching in non-save situations. Washington has had to remind his closer to bear down and get the job done. Maybe that lack of focus has carried over into other outings this season, too.
"Every time I hand him the ball, I try to put him in the right frame of mind," Washington said. "I tell him how important the three outs are."
Finding the right amount of fire might be what Feliz should be seeking. Too much and you can let your emotions affect your outing in a negative way. Too little and you lose the edge and that sense of urgency Washington is referring to.
One thing is clear: Washington is hoping Wednesday's comments become the match Feliz uses to light that elusive fire.
Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.