By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
First off, let's settle the debate: His name is nef-tah-LEE.
Second, let's identify the pitch: It's not his 100 mph fastball, it's a 77 mph curveball.
Last, let's punctuate the speculation: His talent is as authentic as it is bountiful.
No doubt about it, Neftali Feliz is the most mysterious, exciting thing to happen to your Texas Rangers this millennium.
He's a right-handed pitcher who deals fire (the intimidating fastball) and ice (the knee-buckling curve) and makes Major League hitters look implausibly futile. The kid—he turned 21 in May—is an electric eel, with a smooth-but-lethal delivery that makes him look like a 15-year-old throwing to 9-year-olds. A month into one of the most dynamic pitching debuts in the history of baseball, the batters he faced were 28 times more likely to strike out than to get on base with a walk.
Look, it's September 2, and I'm out at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington for something other than the annual funeral. This might be a special season. This is a special player.
"I've never seen anything like it," Rangers' starting pitcher Dustin Nippert says of the teammate who just helped him and the Rangers beat the Toronto Blue Jays to remain clearly in the American League playoff picture. "His stuff is unreal. To do what he's doing at this level, under these circumstances, is pretty special."
Feliz is generating a pitching buzz rarely heard in Arlington, long the home of high ERAs and low self-esteem. The kid is so putting away hitters and so pushing the Rangers into a meaningful October that his arrival is prompting even more fascination and clamor than when 18-year-old David Clyde's 1973 debut ignited the first sellout in Arlington Stadium history, when charismatic reliever Jim Kern won 13 games as a reliever in '79 and when Nolan Ryan hurled strikeout games of 16 and 15 during his magical summer of '90.
"I tell you what," says now-team president Ryan in between games of the Rangers' double-header sweep of Toronto, "the kid's been a shot in the arm. He's for real."
Feliz's debut was highly anticipated since the Rangers acquired him and starting shortstop Elvis Andrus, starting pitcher Matt Harrison and starting catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia from the Atlanta Braves in the 2007 heist involving disgruntled first baseman Mark Teixeira. He burst onto the season during a late August 3 night in Oakland; his first pitch against the Athletics registered 100 mph. His last, 101. In between, he became the first Major League pitcher since 1969 to strike out the first four batters he faced.
The best part? It wasn't a fluke.
Since then Feliz has maintained, if not somehow improved. On this day against Toronto he enters in the seventh inning of a 3-2 game and protects Nippert's win by striking out four of the six batters he faces. In the eighth, he buzzes Blue Jays' All-Star second baseman Aaron Hill with a 97 mph fastball, then belittles him with a 79 mph curve on the outside corner.
I've heard that devastating off-speed pitch called a slider, change-up or splitter. Feliz, who only arrived in the United States from the Dominican Republic five years ago and speaks little English, is as difficult to understand as he is to hit. But when I ask about his out pitch, he smiles and says "Curve."
It's nasty. And it's not alone.
"I can hit 100 when I want," Feliz says through the Rangers' Spanish radio voice, Eleno Ornelas. "But I can get people out with more than just the fastball. It's nice."
Feliz, who receives a standing ovation after torturing Toronto, has allowed just one hiccup—a home run to Oakland's Adam Kennedy in his second appearance. But overall he has dazzled hitters with the triple-digit heat and demoralized the Minnesota Twins' Michael Cuddyer with four consecutive curves. In his first 22 innings, Feliz allowed only five hits and one walk while striking out 28 and boasting an almost unfathomable ERA of 0.41.
As far as first impressions go, watching Feliz for a month is up there with going on a blind date and having Megan Fox show up in nothing but a smile.
Says manager Ron Washington, "We bring in Neff to stop things before they get started."
Not bad for a kid who grew up in the Dominican town of Azua idolizing Pedro Martinez but didn't pick up a baseball until age 9. Not bad for a pitcher who, at 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, has a leisurely motion that looks like he's playing soft-toss with Dad in the backyard. Not bad for a kid who wears gold chains, white belts and, only in his fourth year of professional baseball, is barely old enough to buy you a beer but will drive opponents to drink. Not bad for a prospect who didn't have a competent secondary pitch until spending time this summer at AAA with Oklahoma pitching coach Terry Clark.
Not bad for a non-roster invitee who at spring training in Surprise, Arizona, was issued inconsequential uniform No. 70.
Craziest thing about this Rangers' season? Feliz is barely—and I mean barely—the biggest shocker.
*Outfielder Josh Hamilton—who last year had 32 homers and 130 RBI—starring in his own God Gone Wild! photo shoot in January, missing games with three different injuries and not hitting his 10th homer until September 1.
*Michael Young currently missing at least two weeks with a pulled hamstring.
The Rangers' past is sucky, and their future is murky. There are frightening skeletons in the closet and financial potholes down the road. The present, however, smells delicious.
Washington—who thought he'd outlast the Mavs' Avery Johnson, the Stars' Dave Tippett and the Cowboys' Bill Parcells?—is a candidate for Manager of the Year. General manager Jon Daniels is up for Executive of the Year. Mike Maddux deserves credit as pitching coach, and Ryan is a primo prez and Feldman—an afterthought banished to middle relief in the spring—has 15 wins and building momentum for Cy Young.
It's Feliz, however, who has Arlington buzzing and baseball noticing. He's teasing the ability to be a workhorse starter like Ryan or perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime closer like the New York Yankees' Mariano Rivera.
"He's quite an asset," Ryan says. "Down the road, we've just to figure out how best to use him—starter, reliever or whatever. For now he's going pretty good where he is."
After his performance against the Blue Jays, a demoralized Toronto sportswriter surveyed the damage and bemoaned an almost trade that would've sent Feliz and other Rangers prospects to Canada for pitcher Roy Halladay.
"So that's the kid?!" the writer said. "You're telling me the Blue Jays almost stole the next big thing?! Fuck!"
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