Rangers survive Longoria, top Rays to even ALDS

ARLINGTON, Texas – Evan Longoria(notes) can punish a meatball. By the ninth inning Saturday night, every fat fastball fed to Longoria ought have come with a hazmat label. He had done it again two innings earlier, this home run off Koji Uehara(notes), who left an 88-mph (fast)ball in Longoria’s wheelhouse and bore the same expression as all his other victims: stupid, stupid, stupid.

Rangers closer Neftali Feliz delivers a pitch in the ninth inning. He earned his first postseason save of '11 in the 8-6 Texas win.

Another round of self-loathing remained eminently possible in the ninth, when Longoria stepped to the plate with his Tampa Bay Rays trailing the Texas Rangers 8-6, a runner on first and an entirely different pitcher than Uehara on the mound. There stood Neftali Feliz(notes), whose changeup is harder than 88 mph. His fastball was sitting at 99 mph, propelled by an easy arm action and infused by the adrenaline more than 51,000 on their feet at Rangers Ballpark created.

Already Longoria has provided a season’s worth of epic moments in less than a week: the three-run home run that started the comeback on the day’s last season, the 12th-inning homer that night that sent Tampa Bay to the postseason and the one off Uehara that cut a four-run deficit to 7-6. He just hadn’t done so against the unbridled filth that originates from Feliz’s right arm.

The first fastball came at 99 mph, then a slider at 81, and another fastball at 99 before one more slider at 79 that Longoria lifted to shallow center field. He threw his bat in disgust, saw Craig Gentry(notes) cradle it, went to the dugout, got a pat on the butt from his manager, banged his bat once more and watched Feliz finish off the Rays for an 8-6 victory that evened their American League Division Series at one game apiece.

“Neffy’s not the easiest to hit, even if you are hot,” said Rangers first baseman Mitch Moreland(notes), whose solo home run in the eighth gave Feliz a two-run cushion. “When he’s bringing it at you like he does, good luck.”

From Feliz to Alexi Ogando(notes) to Derek Holland(notes), the Rangers unleashed three of the hardest-throwing pitchers alive in one ballgame, a testament to their ability to develop velocity monsters. Whether it’s the throwing program instituted by team president and radar-gun maestro Nolan Ryan, a scouting predilection that trends toward the more-velo-the-better school or some combination therein, the Rangers have two or three flamethrowers for every Uehara.

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And minus the Longoria home run, their pitching excelled the day after Rays rookie Matt Moore(notes) used his very own 97-mph fastball to throw seven scoreless innings. Holland wasn’t quite as good, laboring through five, but the stuff was evident, particularly the fastball. Only one other regular left-handed starter in the major leagues threw as hard as Holland this season: David Price(notes), the Rays’ star who averaged 94.8 mph to Holland’s 94.2 mph.

Holland lacks Price’s control, his fastball as erratic as his mustache, which kindly could be called the worst in the world, and which unkindly could be called the worst in the history of the world. It is little wisps of hair so sparse it might not even take a microscope to count them. He has no plans to shave, even though it might take only one pass with a five-blade razor. Holland grew it out because his friends in Ohio were doing the same thing, only theirs are respectable whereas Holland admits: “I know it’s not good. It’s bad. You can make me feel good and tell me it looks good.”

It doesn’t. His arm did, though, good enough to survive five innings and hold Longoria hitless in three plate appearances. Holland allowed one earned run and two more unearned on his throwing error. That preceded Matt Joyce’s(notes) home run, spotted Tampa Bay a 3-0 lead and gave the Rays an even greater opportunity to close out the best-of-five series during Games 3 or 4 at home.

Then the Rangers scored five runs off James Shields(notes) in the fourth inning and in the sixth turned to Ogando, who two weeks ago was polishing off an impressive first season as a starter with his 13th victory. Already he threw harder than any full-season starter at 95.1 mph. Moved to the bullpen to keep his innings total down, Ogando picked up another four mph for his short stint, overwhelming and overpowering the Rays.

For better or worse, Derek Holland's mustache has become all the rage with Rangers fans.

The clamor for Ogando going more than one inning intensified when Longoria abused Uehara. Fear not: Manager Ron Washington said he does plan to use Ogando in multi-inning stints. Anyway, he could turn instead to Mike Adams(notes), who doesn’t throw quite as hard as Ogando or Feliz but does feature the most wicked cut fastball this side of Mariano Rivera(notes).

When Rangers general manager Jon Daniels built this team, the bullpen was its distinct weakness. Remember, as all the talk in spring training centered on Feliz’s potential move to the rotation, the Rangers were considering using Mark Lowe(notes) in his stead at closer. Lowe isn’t even on the postseason roster.

Deadline trades for Adams, Uehara and Mike Gonzalez, plus the return of Ogando, brings immense power to the back end of the bullpen. Only two other players this postseason will threaten to hit 100 mph like Feliz and Ogando: Detroit starter Justin Verlander(notes) and St. Louis reliever Jason Motte(notes).

Velocity, of course, is overrated in lesser hands than the Rangers’ crew. When Holland, Feliz and Ogando can throw strikes, they devastate opponents. Longoria still can wreck such pitches, as he did Scott Proctor’s(notes) arrow-straight 95-mph cookie Friday; the chance of a piddling fly ball is just far likelier.

“Longoria is becoming a very elite player,” Washignton said, “but even the elite can’t jump the yard every night at will.”

Texas limited him to one jump, thanks very much. Feliz looked back on the at-bat and rejected the idea that nerves accompany every Longoria swing. Feliz is a closer. He believes he owns the ninth inning. Even if some deity is in the box swinging a thunderbolt.

“I want to get him out soon,” Feliz said, and get him he did, much like his teammates’ sneak attack on Shields after playing possum for three innings. Feliz finished the night on a 98-mph fastball with which Ben Zobrist(notes) could do nothing, because, well, how much is there to do on a 98-mph fastball? Those extra few ticks on the radar gun often represent greatness, and the Rangers’ clubhouse is teeming with it. Ogando looked great. Feliz looked great. The Rangers looked great.

Now if they could just do something about that mustache.

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Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Oct 2, 2011