Rangers no longer on the fence about Feliz

SURPRISE, Ariz. — Texas Rangers pitcher Neftali Feliz was the picture of confusion at this time a year ago. He balked at being extended as a starter early in spring training and then tried to embrace the transition a few days later.

It was never going to work because neither side had made a full commitment to the change. Feliz had become such a dominant closer that he had a difficult time changing his mindset.

A year later, it’s set in stone that Feliz will be in the starting rotation. In his first outing of spring training Thursday, he gave up a three-run bomb to White Sox behemoth Adam Dunn. In case you’re unfamiliar with Dunn’s work, he’s coming off one of the most hideous seasons in the history of major-league baseball (.159 with a .277 slugging percentage). Feliz threw 28 pitches in the first inning, but he made it clear he wasn’t worried about results this early in the process. He hasn’t been afraid to mix in his long forgotten changeup and he threw more off-speed pitches (20) than fastballs (16).

Feliz appears to be much more comfortable in this spring training because he’s had a lot of time to get used to the idea of being a starter, which is what he was in the minors.

“We told him way early in the winter,” Rangers manager Ron Washington told FoxSportsSouthwest.com on Friday. “We made sure he had the right [conditioning program] in the Dominican so he could get in a good frame of mind as a starter. We didn’t protect ourselves last spring, so we had nobody on that back line [to close].”

The Rangers quickly signed 37-year-old former Twins closer Joe Nathan as a free agent to make sure Feliz could focus on being a starter. And the organization continues to insist that Feliz’s blown save in Game 6 of the World Series had nothing to do with this decision. Washington and pitching coach Mike Maddux obviously didn’t think Feliz was in any shape mentally to come back out for the 10th inning of Game 6. That led some folks to wonder if Feliz could ever recover from such a devastating failure. General manager Jon Daniels was the first person to tell me that theory was “dumb.” Washington went up to Feliz after Game 6 and simply said, “We’ll get ’em tomorrow.”

“He was available in Game 7,” said Washington. “I’ve always been that type of guy who looks for the first opportunity to get my players back in the saddle. I was going to him if I had a chance. Remember, it’s not like we lost the series in that game.”

The Rangers kept close tabs on Feliz throughout the offseason to make sure he wasn’t dwelling on what happened in Game 6. But there was a belief at the executive level that the pitcher would respond well.

“He appreciates the gravity of Game 6, but he wasn’t defeated by it,” assistant general manager Thad Levine told FOXSportsSouthwest on Friday. “I think that was the unanimous feeling we had.”

The Rangers are hoping that Feliz can put up numbers similar to what Alexi Ogando had last season. And they like the fact Ogando and Feliz have such a close friendship. Both Levine and Washington said Friday that Ogando’s strong work ethic has had a very positive impact on Feliz.

“They have a great relationship,” said Washington. “And that will help us guide Feliz in remembering how to prepare between starts.”

The Rangers haven’t closed the door on Feliz returning to the closer’s role someday, but for now he’s cemented as a starter. And unlike last year, he seems just fine with that.