It would be very easy for somebody who had missed last night's extra-inning affair in Kansas City -- which, admittedly, was overshadowed by the violent back-and-forth roundball tussel over in Victory Park -- to flip on the television this morning, catch a passing glimpse of "Kansas City 2, Texas 1 (10 innings)," and logically deduce that it was the Rangers' inability to score more than one run off a very hittable Luke Hochevar that led to their demise. Not a wholly inaccurate conclusion, mind you, but an incomplete one, because for everything that was wrong with the offense, the Rangers were still positioned to walk away with a win going into the ninth inning ... and the reason why they didn't is beginning to feel more and more as though it's beyond rectifying.
Let me see if I can properly convey what I'm feeling on this: When Neftali Feliz was summoned from the bullpen after Derek Holland allowed a lead-off single to begin the bottom of the ninth inning, my heart sank in a very specific and disheartening way -- a way that was keenly reminiscent of how I felt during the final months of Francisco Cordero. You know, the months where it became increasingly clear that he was on the outs because he had become one of the most volatile bullpen quantities in baseball almost overnight, and because he could no longer safely be entrusted with a lead smaller than 5-6 runs. The months where his arrival into a ballgame evoked an immediate and poignant feeling of hopelessness, because you knew things could go terribly wrong at the drop of a hat. That's where I am with Feliz right now, and it's a very distressing feeling.
In just 15 minutes' time, Feliz allowed his inherited baserunner to score by way of a single-fly out-pop out-wild pitch-single-walk sequence on 32 knuckle-whitening pitches, and was ultimately unable to record the third out. That's troubling enough in isolation; in combination with the rest of his season-long struggles, however, it almost screams for some kind of immediate action to be taken. And before I go overboard in rendering praise for his rejuvenated velocity (which averaged a so-fresh-and-so-clean 97.4 mph and maxed out at an even 100 mph, though Mike Fast notes that the Pitch f/x setup in Kansas City is about one mile per hour fast), there are two things that need to be highlighted:
(1) Back on Monday when Josh looked at the Feliz dilemma in exhaustive detail, he and Pras raised the possibility that Feliz was intentionally dialing down the fastball for the purpose of working on command, or sequencing, or repetoire, or some such. I can't disprove that notion, and I think there could very well be something to it, but I also can't throw up this statistic without outwardly wincing: 32 pitches, 32 fastballs. You can't sequence one pitch. You can't work on other pitches by throwing one pitch. And, really, you couldn't really even associate any part of that performance with the term "command."
(2) Using MLB.tv and the helpful slo-mo functionality, I went back and charted the entirety of Feliz's abortive ninth inning. Receiver Yorvit Torrealba was set up low-and-away on each and every one of Feliz's 32 pitches; of those 32, I counted only 9-10 that could objectively be called "remotely close" to the glove/target, with many of those being elevated above and beyond the strike zone and/or missing badly on the horizontal plane. One up-and-away fastball to Billy Butler was flied to right-center field and elicited an immediate slamming of the bat into the ground, presumably because he knew it was coming and just got underneath it; another whistled in at 98 mph and generated a swinging strike that made Tom Grieve happy, but it was on the opposite side of the zone and Torrealba barely got his glove on the ball in time.
The raw velocity is clearly still in there; the fastball command, however, seems completely and utterly shot, as apparently is his confidence in any pitch other than the four-seamer. There is virtually nothing more difficult in the sporting world than hitting a high-90s fastball, and yet the Royals had little difficulty in putting bat to ball because (a) they knew exactly what was coming with each delivery and (b) knew it was very likely to be outside, thus maximizing the Royals' chances of catching up to what was coming.
To couch it all in more digestible terms, Feliz isn't fooling anyone right now. He's not pitching smart. Hell, he's really not pitching at all. He's throwing the ball as hard as he can and hoping for the best, and then looking downright despondent when it doesn't work rather than reticently confident. That's not the Neftali Feliz that we all came to know and love last season, but it's the one we're stuck with right now.
This could still prove to be a case where Feliz works through his difficulties by means of in-game repetition ala Colby Lewis (who snapped out of his funk not very long after I asked the question of what was wrong with him), but I'm running out of confidence that this alone will bring about the necessary revisions to his performance. This could also end up being a case where the Rangers' assurances that Feliz is fully healthy aren't quite accurate; otherwise unexplainable losses of control can be leading indicators of elbow problems bubbling under the surface. Or this could be the Feliz that we get the rest of the way ... and if that ends up being the outcome, then we're irreversibly headed towards our second full-blown closer controversy in the last 18 months.