Falling hard for Feliz
There is something satisfying about a pitch that travels 100 mph, something that tickles the inner Neanderthal. Take ball. Throw hard. Grrrr. Strong man.
The motion that provides triple-digit magic is usually evocative of that barbarism, too, a big, slovenly man with a max-effort delivery. Or: Jonathan Broxton(notes), who, before Neftali Feliz’s(notes) promotion to the Texas Rangers last week, was the hardest thrower on a major-league roster.
Not anymore, not after Feliz’s debut in which he hit 100 mph six times before firing his last pitch 101. Nor the next two games, when Feliz broke triple digits 11 more times, a full quarter of his 72 pitches this week doing so, his fastball averaging 98.77 mph.
How Feliz coaxes such a pitch out of his delivery is the most remarkable part. He is so smooth and refined and easy, such the antithesis of a kid who turned 21 in May – polished and oozing presence – that Rangers general manager Jon Daniels posed an interesting theoretical: “You just wonder what it would be if he really tried to throw hard.”
Daniels would rather not find out. The Rangers, partially to protect Feliz’s arm and partially to fortify their relief corps, swapped him from the rotation to the bullpen at Triple-A in late June. Texas manager Ron Washington threw Feliz out this week, and he became the first pitcher in nearly 50 years to strike out the first four batters he faced. All swinging, by the way, the first two on 91- and 90-mph changeups – really – and the final two on 100- and 99-mph fastballs.
Feliz allowed one hit over 4 2/3 innings, a home run to Adam Kennedy(notes). He didn’t walk any and punched out eight, including Erick Aybar(notes), who has fewer strikeouts than all but five players with as many at-bats. The stuff matched the hype, and the baseball world revolves around him this week with good reason.
1. Neftali Feliz is the new Francisco Rodriguez(notes). Everyone remembers K-Rod’s debut with the Angels in 2002. Quick cameo. Overwhelming stuff. Playoff dominance. He threw 5 2/3 innings in the regular season and 18 2/3 in the postseason.
And now with the Rangers tied for the wild card with Boston, Feliz could be the bridge the Rangers need between their starters (averaging six innings per) and reinstalled closer Frank Francisco(notes). Washington has no qualms about putting Feliz in high-leverage situations and, depending on his pitch count, could throw him back-to-back days.
Whatever the case, Feliz isn’t going back to the minor leagues anytime soon, and Daniels’ heist to get him may well challenge the Cleveland Indians’ steal of Grady Sizemore(notes), Cliff Lee(notes) and Brandon Phillips(notes) for Bartolo Colon(notes) as the deal of the decade. Along with Feliz, Daniels landed starting shortstop Elvis Andrus(notes) (who doesn’t turn 21 until later this month), starting catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia(notes) (thus far a disappointment) and starting pitcher Matt Harrison(notes) (out with shoulder issues) for Mark Teixeira(notes).
Considering what else the Rangers have in their farm system – first baseman Justin Smoak and Johan Santana(notes) clone Martin Perez and plenty more – their year-early arrival is just a sign of things. Especially if …
2. Josh Hamilton(notes) can stay sober. He fell off the wagon hard in January. Instead of trying to make excuses when pictures of the night surfaced, Hamilton came clean. He made a mistake. He felt terrible. He was human.
Seriously, when are performance-enhancing-drug users going to stop with the circuitous, spin-laden, lawyered-up garbage they trot out as excuses. That brings us to …
3. David Ortiz(notes), that sad cheat. Vitamins and supplements. Pharmaceuticals meant for the equine population. It’s all the same when Ortiz can hide behind the union’s reasonable-doubt argument. His season of stink – 2 for his last 28 just the latest in it – speaks for itself. Life is rough for Ortiz. The Red Sox are cratering. Manny Ramirez(notes) continues the best evasive maneuvering since the Red Baron.
But hey. Not all is lost. At least …
4. Jim Leyland believes Big Papi. The Tigers manager is “sick and tired” of all the steroid news, too, and ranted about it Sunday morning.
Guess what? Everyone is sick of it. If the players hadn’t decided to jab themselves with needles, and if the union hadn’t allowed its constituency to operate in a culture where drug use was hunky dory, and if the owners hadn’t turned a blind eye while raking in cash hand over fist, perhaps the problem would not have pervaded the sport as it did. This box ain’t closing, Pandora.
Leyland is a smart man, though he’s apt to the occasional old-guy-shouting-from-the-porch fit. By no means, however, does he own a monopoly on crazy in the American League Central, not by a long shot, not as long as …
5. Ozzie Guillen manages the Chicago White Sox. Oh, Ozzie. His inner monologue escaped once again Sunday morning, when he issued a warning to opponents: Your pitchers throw at my hitters, my pitchers are retaliating. Twice.
Ozzie has a long and distinguished history asking his pitchers to dust hitters. Last year, after D.J. Carrasco(notes) hit Kansas City’s Miguel Olivo(notes) and started a brawl, Ozzie admitted in the past to retaliation. Three years ago, when rookie reliever Sean Tracey(notes) was instructed to plunk a hitter and missed, Ozzie banished him to the minor leagues. He was out of the White Sox organization the next year.
Perhaps this is a grand psychological move by Ozzie, one that would play in the minds of younger pitchers who don’t want to risk getting their veteran players flattened by an inside pitch. The less a pitcher throws inside, the more plate a hitter can cover. And if this move by Ozzie buys the White Sox even an inch, it was worth the suspension that could result from it.
The hit by pitch is making a nice comeback this week. Between Prince Fielder’s(notes) meltdown in Los Angeles and Matt Capps’(notes) planting one on Albert Pujols(notes) following a Skip Schumaker(notes) home run Sunday, it’s evident that stars remain the targets. Which is why …
6. It’s a surprise Alex Rodriguez(notes) didn’t take one in the kisser. He just got popped by Ramon Ramirez in the arm, an action for which Ramirez got booted. A-Rod is out of his slump, and the Yankees are rolling with seven consecutive wins. Their four-game sweep of Boston wasn’t just symbolic of the divide between the teams with eight weeks remaining in the season. It gave New York the biggest division lead in all of baseball, 6½ games, loosening the gap in the AL East while it tightens in the National League’s coasts (Florida sweeping Philadelphia, Atlanta taking three from Los Angeles) to complement a close Central.
Very rapidly, another race has developed, one with as much intrigue as can be mustered …
7. For a kid who was a sophomore in high school last year. The Bryce Harper Sweepstakes is officially on now that Washington stopped playing like a Sally League team. The Nationals’ “lead” on woebegone Kansas City for the No. 1 pick in 2010 – which will almost undoubtedly be Harper, the 16-year-old who enrolled in junior college so he could enter next year’s draft – is down to 3½ games. Other contenders include Pittsburgh, San Diego, Baltimore, Oakland, Cincinnati and Cleveland.
All of this would be moot if …
8. The Nationals remembered how bad they are and didn’t win eight straight games. Should the Royals outpathetic Washington, the blame will cascade on the team’s resurgent offense, particularly third baseman Ryan Zimmerman(notes), who is 17 for 30 in August. He went 3 for 5 with two doubles Sunday and his slugging percentage for the month actually dropped to 1.133. The Nationals are getting on base at a .388 clip and slugging at .548, and excluding their pitchers’ 0-for-19 start to the month, they’re at .411 and .585.
Washington needs good news. Because right now the clock is ticking on …
9. The deadline to sign Stephen Strasburg, and things are mighty quiet. By design, partly, as the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft is on gag order from his agent, Scott Boras, and the team doesn’t want to get into any kind of a public bidding war that could drive up the price.
Already the chasm is like Lauren Hutton’s gap. The Nationals know they need to spend more than the record $10.5 million given to Mark Prior(notes). The $50 million floated by Boras’ camp is equally ridiculous. Where the middle lands no one knows, though the pressure falls squarely on the Nationals to pony up by the Aug. 17 signing deadline. They’re not good enough to pass on perhaps the best amateur draft talent in decades over a few million dollars. Strasburg could well start next season in the Nationals’ rotation, snapping off a nasty slider and trigger pointing a 100-mph fastball, the sort seen …
10. When Neftali Feliz pitches. He introduced himself and his fastball in one of the oddest weeks in memory, one replete with beanballs and steroids and drunkenness and unreal contracts. The only thing missing was a big-name arrest.
Amid all that, Feliz stood out. Everything else is static. Important static, no question, but static nonetheless. Feliz’s arrival was the atypical sort, notable in its own special way.
Sometimes you just want to sit back and watch somebody throw 100.