I found it somewhat telling that with the Athletics still joyously celebrating their abrupt Monday evening walk-off victory and the Rangers still smarting from the fresh sting of a rare ninth-inning defeat, a small contingent of high-profile Rangers was huddled not on the bench bemoaning the game's unfortunate outcome, but rather huddled around their hobbled right fielder, with the immediate concern for their teammate's welfare clearly overpowering the disappointment on the emotional seismograph.
I've long maintained that, from the perspective of a Texas Rangers fan, there are few things quite so infuriating to watch as a well-pitched loss, but it recently struck me that well-pitched games -- previously unusual phenomena which are now largely ascribable to a still rock-solid bullpen and greatly improved defense -- have become increasingly commonplace with this franchise; that is to say, they're no longer as infrequent as a full moon.
Now, that reality may not soften the blow of that catastrophic final frame, but as sub-three-runs-allowed contests have become increasingly prevalent with Texas, the offense has regressed, and there presumably isn't one person in the Rangers clubhouse who doesn't recognize what Cruz has meant to this ballclub in 2009, both with the bat and with the glove. It's a marathon, not a sprint, and his physical well-being is, in the long run, of greater importance than any single win or loss.
[Cruz, incidentally, incurred a sprained left ankle while attempting to track down Rajai Davis's game-winning RBI triple and required a helping hand from head trainer Jamie Reed as he gingerly limped off the field. His injury status is currently listed as day-to-day, although Ian Kinsler's day-to-day ankle sprain ultimately required a stint on the 15-day disabled list, and post-game reports indicate that Cruz's ankle "was swollen [...] and heavily taped," and judging by the severity of his limp, it's hard to fathom Cruz being ready before Friday evening's series opener in Anaheim at the very earliest.]
Five years down the line, however, we're not going to remember this game for the gutwrenching finish or the freakish ninth-inning injury. In a ruthless sport that is inherently predicated on failure, 21-year-old fireballer Neftali Feliz eschewed the very notion of failure in his first-ever major league appearance through his utter domination of a badly overmatched Athletics lineup ... and that, my friends, is what we're still going to remember five years down the line:
[Direct link available here.]
Spectacular. Awe-inspiring. Transcendent. Frankly, I'm not sure his 30-pitch effort could be over-hyperbolized even if somebody were to futilely attempt to do so; he was that brilliant and that poised and that effortless and that downright nasty. In his two perfect frames of work in relief of a still-steamrolling Dustin Nippert, Feliz hurled 23 fastballs -- averaging 98.8 mph and peaking at 100.5 mph -- and brandished a steady low-90s change-up, a pitch so inducing of disbelief that Pitch f/x classified the offering as a two-seam fastball.
The speed differential between these two similarly breaking pitches was the real key to the change-up's filthiness; two months ago, Dave Allen of The Baseball Analysts published a Pitch f/x-centric study which suggested that the optimal speed differential between a pitcher's fastball and change-up is, in terms of run prevention, between 5-12 percent. Feliz's extremely potent one-two punch falls within those parameters, boding particularly well for his chances of neutralizing left-handed opponents with his change-up and embarrassing right-handed foes with the power low-80s curveball -- and, of course, both dexterities with his fastball, a legitimately devastating pitch that he hurls with virtually inexplicable ease and improving command.
It has assuredly already been mentioned elsewhere, but there was a fleeting moment after Feliz notched his fourth consecutive strikeout -- one which cemented his place in the annals of baseball history as the first pitcher to strike out his first four batters faced since Pete Richert whiffed six to begin his Dodgers debut on April 12th, 1962 -- when he nonchalantly walked towards behind the mound and, with a very placid expression, ever so slightly cocked his head to one side, as if to say, "Hey, this isn't so tough."
It's going to get exponentially tougher the moment he toes the pitching rubber against a legitimately decent offense in front of a legitimately respectable crowd, and even tougher still the first time he plys his high-velocity craft within the friendly confines of Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, but Feliz is, by all indications, uniquely equipped to handle these challenges by virtue of his talent and makeup, and if this Rangers squad somehow overcomes the 4.5-game division deficit to taste October glory, it seems abundantly clear that Feliz will have played a relatively big part in helping Texas get there.
If you're not on board yet, it's time for you to get on board.