On Neftali Feliz, Game Six, and Growing Up

Last night on Fox Sports Southwest, Dallas Morning News columnist Evan Grant opined that Texas Rangers closer Neftali Felizhas got to grow up emotionally.” Grant’s contention is that because Feliz was so rattled by blowing a two-run, ninth inning lead to the St. Louis Cardinals in Game Six of the World Series, that he was no fit to return to the mound for the 10th inning, when he would have again been charged with protecting a two-run edge.

I wasn’t in the park that night like Grant was, I didn’t see the look of bewilderment that Grant described. But given all the factors that were in play, I wouldn’t have sent Feliz back out there for another inning if I were Ron Washington. And that has less to do with Feliz than it did with how the 10th inning was set-up.

We don’t really need to re-live all the gory details of that gut-wrenching loss; those wounds are far too fresh to do so. But those placing all of the blame at Feliz’s feet are making a mistake. After getting a strikeout to start the home half of the ninth, Feliz faced Albert Pujols. Knowing that a solo homer can’t hurt you, Feliz went right after the future Hall of Famer and Pujols was ready for it. Pujols lined a double into the gap.

That brought the tying run to the plate in the person of Lance Berkman. Berkman is a serious home run threat and Feliz, who has bouts of command issues anyway, was trying to pitch carefully to Berkman. He would up walking him on four straight pitches.

All of a sudden, the tying runs were on base. Feliz was erratic with his command, but got Allen Craig with a called third strike for the second out. To reset the situation, there are two runners on, but the only one that matters is Berkman at first base, who is the tying run. At this point, the outfield for the Rangers should be playing as deep as they can; it should be impossible for Berkman to score on any hit that doesn’t leave the park.

Of course, we know what happened. David Freese‘s long fly ball to right, a direction he’s been going all post-season to that point, sailed over the head of Nelson Cruz and careened off the base of the wall. The first issue was that Cruz was nowhere deep enough in that situation, but he then compounded the problem by attempting to make an impossible catch and taking himself out of position to field the ball off the wall.

Had Cruz simply turned and played the rebound, there is no way Berkman would have scored on the play and the Rangers would have been still up a run with (at worst) runners at second and third. At that point, they would have had the option of pitching to Yadier Molina, or working around him and going after Daniel Descalso.

But, of course, Cruz did misplay that ball (twice, really) and the Cardinals did tie the game. The only thing Feliz could have been reasonably asked to do was to have made a better 1-2 pitch to Freese. This seems more like a command issue than an issue of emotional maturity, however. He wanted the fastball away, but it caught too much of the plate and Freese, who has an opposite-field mindset anyway, was able to put good wood on it.

Now, put yourself in Feliz’s shoes for a second. You just had a world championship slip through your grasp when you needed to make one pitch to seal the deal. No, your defense didn’t help, but in your mind, that probably doesn’t matter. All you can think about in that instant is that you just surrendered a perfect shot to win the series.

By the time Josh Hamilton goes deep and puts the Rangers up by two again, the manager’s decision has already been made. If the game had remained tied, Feliz’s night was done anyway, and with two left handed hitters and a pitcher that was going to have to hit due up, it made sense to go to the left handed Darren Oliver.

Oliver held left handed batters to a .227 average and .269 OBP in 2011. His splits aren’t as wide as many southpaw relievers, but he’s still quite effective at holding down left handed hitters. In addition to that, Oliver is an 18-year major league veteran. There’s very little in this game that he hasn’t done or seen. If Ron Washington had concerns over how mentality tough Feliz would have been in the 10th inning, he should have no such concerns over Oliver.

Couple that with the fact that Descalso, who was the first man Oliver faced, hit a mere .190 versus lefties in 2011, but hit .280 against right handers and the move to bring in Oliver was the right move to make. It just didn’t work.

Not one time in 2011 did Feliz ever throw as many as 20 pitches in an inning and then come back out of the dugout for another frame. In Game Six, he tossed 26 pitches in the ninth. Asking him to go back out for the 10th would have been putting him in a bad situation from that aspect, and seeing as Oliver had the platoon advantage in his favor anyway, Washington did was he should have done.

I pointed to Evan Grant’s comments at the top of this piece and I don’t want to get away from those. Grant is correct in what he is saying, but Feliz is only 23 years old. I think it’s easy to get spoiled by all the success he’s had in his very young career and just assume that this guy has it all figured out, but there are countless numbers of players who flash brilliance and look dominating, but struggle to overcome adversity. There are two kinds of players in baseball, the saying goes, ones who have been humbled and ones who are about to be. It takes time and years to gain the experience, to understand how to come back from a loss an devastating as this one was. To ask a 23-year old kid to instantly grow up is foolish, to demand it is asinine.

If and when Feliz does mature into an elite-level closer or a front-line starter, it will be because he did grow up emotionally. But that won’t happen because Grant or anyone else wants it to. It won’t even happen because Feliz wants it to. It will happen because he’ll take his beatings and learn from them and make adjustments; that’s the only way it can happen. And that’s not going to happen this winter, no matter how much any of us think it should.

Young players, especially those as talented as Feliz, tend to tease. They show the moxie, the swagger, the bravado that helps to make them great. They also often show extreme emotion. It’s just part of what you have to be willing to accept when relying on young players. Veterans have the experience to know that you must stay even-keeled in order to optimize your abilities. Feliz will get there eventually.

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Topics: Darren Oliver, Neftali Feliz, Ron Washington, Texas Rangers

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