Rangers to give Feliz time to grow as starter
Righty feels way through two scoreless; Hurley builds confidence
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Rangers are not going to make a decision on Neftali Feliz and their starting rotation based on what happened Thursday afternoon in an 11-9 win over the Indians at Surprise.Otherwise, Eric Hurley would be the one guaranteed a spot in the rotation while Feliz and Derek Holland would still be battling for a spot, and Tanner Scheppers would be on his way back to Triple-A Oklahoma City. The Rangers also don't know when Brandon Webb will be ready, but his 54-pitch bullpen session on Thursday continues to point him in the right direction. He'll have another bullpen session Sunday, and live batting practice could come soon after that. Webb, the 2006 Cy Young Award winner for the Diamondbacks, did his work in relative obscurity on the back fields. Feliz and Hurley went into the main stadium for their first Cactus League appearance.
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Both threw two scoreless innings, but in a different manner. Feliz struggled with his slider and changeup, as well as his rhythm and pace. He allowed two singles, a walk and hit a batter, although he held the Indians to 0-for-4 with runners in scoring position."It was not like I expected, but it went fairly well," Feliz said afterward. "I didn't have control of my breaking ball and was falling behind hitters. My changeup was not as consistent as I would like, but I threw a few good ones." Feliz ended up throwing 36 pitches, 19 for strikes. He threw 10 in the second inning, including nine fastballs. Singles by Jason Donald and Jordan Brown gave the Indians two on with nobody out in the second, but Feliz got Cord Phelps on a fly to right and Lou Marson to hit into an inning-ending double play. "Once I started falling behind hitters, I decided to go back to the fastball and get it under control," Feliz said. "In the second inning I had to start locating better, so I took something off the fastball." The Rangers are trying to see if Feliz is ready to go into the rotation, and he admits he is still feeling his way into the role. He was an All-Star closer last season, saving 40 games, and grew accustomed to entering the game for one inning and pitching with blast-furnace intensity. "I feel fine, but I feel like I need to find my pace so I can throw longer," Feliz said. "I can't tell how hard to go and how to pace myself as a starter." This is new for Feliz at the Major League level, although he was a starter in the Minor Leagues. The Rangers know that and they know he had a very good changeup in the Minor Leagues. He has also shown a good slider at times. It was mostly fastball, fastball, fastball as a closer. He will need all three pitches to be a dominating starter, and the Rangers will give him that time. They know Feliz will have five more outings this spring, and where his secondary stuff is on April 1 won't necessarily be where it is on June 3. That's when he could have at least 10 starts and 65-70 innings of work, plus a dozen bullpen sessions on the side with pitching coach Mike Maddux that he couldn't do as a closer because he had to be ready to pitch every night. "It's going to be a work in progress, no doubt about it," manager Ron Washington said. "But we're very committed to giving him the opportunity." Feliz is too good and too talented not to be given every opportunity, and Thursday was only the beginning. "Watching him throw is crazy," Hurley said. "Effortless ... the ball coming out of his hand. That's a God-given gift. This was the first time I've ever watched him throw close up ... wow. He was throwing 91 [mph] in the bullpen and then ramped it up." Hurley had his own moments. This was only a Cactus League game, but this was the first time he faced Major League hitters since July 27, 2008. He has missed two complete seasons because of a torn right rotator and a broken left thumb. That's two years he won't get back, but judging by Thursday's outing, he is close to being back to where he once was as a top prospect, retiring all six batters that he faced. "This was definitely a confidence builder to get back out there," Hurley said. "I was able to keep the ball down in the zone. As I progressed in the game, I got more comfortable on the mound. My pitches were working." As opposed to Feliz, Hurley needed just 21 pitches to get through two innings, throwing 13 for strikes. "That was great for him to be back on the mound, great for him personally," Washington said. "He finally got back on the mound. He hit his spots, used the whole strike zone and moved his fastball around. He was able to hit his spots." Across town, in the second game of the split-squad doubleheader, Holland allowed one run on three hits and struck out two in the Rangers' 8-7 victory against the Cubs in Mesa. Scheppers followed later, allowing four runs on five hits and two walks. After Scheppers exited, he complained of tightness in his lower back. The club will re-evaluate him on Friday. The Rangers' rotation competition is just getting started. It was a tough day for Scheppers, a positive one for Feliz and Holland and a huge one for Hurley. There are more to come.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.