Rangers' Neftali Feliz makes start

Updated: March 3, 2011, 8:01 PM ET
By Jeff Caplan | ESPNDallas.com

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Neftali Feliz's spring debut lasted two innings -- 36 pitches. It involved a walk, a hit batter, consecutive singles but no runs and an inning-ending double play to cap it off.

The 22-year-old closer who is trying to crack the Texas Rangers' rotation had his ups and downs in what will continue to be one of the team's most intriguing storylines of spring training.

Feliz pitched his way out of jams with two on in both innings in an 11-9 walk-off win against the Cleveland Indians. In the second, after giving up back-to-back singles to start the inning, he got Cord Phelps to fly to left. Then, Lou Marson chopped a 95-mph fastball to third that Chris Davis turned for a double play to end the inning, and Feliz's day.

He allowed two hits, walked one, hit one and did not record a strikeout. The hard-throwing righty who saved a rookie-record 40 games last season was far more critical of his performance than was his manager.

"It's not like I expected, but I think it went fairly well," Feliz said through an interpreter. "I didn't have control of my breaking ball and I was falling behind the hitters. [My changeup] was not as consistent as I would have liked, but I threw a few good ones."

Manager Ron Washington said before the game that he wasn't interested in the results. He just wanted to see Feliz give his off-speed pitches a chance. Nine of the 26 pitches Feliz threw in the first inning were not fastballs, while nine of 10 pitches in the second inning were.

Of his nine off-speed pitches, six -- four changeups and two curveballs -- were called balls.

Feliz said he went back to his fastball in the second inning to try to get ahead of hitters.

"Maybe he wasn't happy with it, but at least he threw it," Washington said of his off-speed pitches. "That's the key, he threw it. He threw a couple of them for strikes. But that's what we want him to do."

It was a big day for rotation hopefuls. Left-hander Derek Holland started the other split-squad game, an 8-7 win against the Chicago Cubs in Mesa. He allowed one run on three hits and struck out two in two innings. Top prospect Tanner Scheppers followed Holland and had a rough go, lasting 2/3 of an inning.

Scheppers gave up four runs on five hits and two walks. Afterward, he complained of lower-back stiffness and he will be re-evaluated Friday morning.

Eric Hurley, a one-time top prospect until injuries derailed his career in 2008, stole the spotlight with two perfect innings behind Feliz. He threw just 21 pitches and got four ground-ball outs.

The Rangers rallied to win both games. Chris Davis' walk-off homer gave Texas the win over the Indians, and the Rangers scored twice in the eighth and once in the ninth to hold off the Cubs.

Feliz threw to five batters in the first inning. With one out, he walked Asdrubal Cabrera on five pitches and then hit Carlos Santana with a 1-2 curveball that drifted inside and swiped Santana across the chest, putting runners at first and second.

Feliz then got cleanup hitter Travis Buck to fly out to left and Austin Kearns popped out after taking the count from 0-2 to 3-2.

He threw 16 fastballs in the inning with the majority registering 96 and 97 mph. One was clocked at 99. He also mixed in a slider, changeup and curveball. The velocity on his fastball dipped to about 94 in the second inning, Feliz said, to help him locate his pitches better.

It is his secondary pitches that the Rangers will be paying close attention to this spring. His command of those pitches, primarily his changeup could determine if Feliz joins the starting rotation or remains in the bullpen as their All-Star closer.

"I haven't pitched enough to feel like [a starter]. Two innings is nothing," Feliz said.

"I feel fine, but I feel like I need to find my pace to throw longer. I haven't done it in a while so can't tell how hard to go and pace myself like a starter would. I still kind of have that closer feeling, throw hard, throw hard and going to get out of it. I'm trying to find that level."

Washington reiterated his commitment to giving Feliz every opportunity to make the rotation.

"It's going to be a work in progress," Washington said. "Continuous. No doubt about it."

Jeff Caplan is a reporter for ESPNDallas.com.

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