Feliz eager to get started with Brewers

Closer has rediscovered fastball after pair of injury-plagued seasons

Feliz eager to get started with Brewers

PHOENIX -- Rob Scahill remembers glancing up at the scoreboard last season and thinking something along the lines of, "This is the guy I watched in the World Series." Scahill was working relief for the Pirates alongside Neftali Feliz, the one time Rangers closer who had Tommy John surgery in 2012 and took years to rediscover the zip on his fastball.

In 2016, Scahill and everyone else saw that it was back.

"Everybody's road back from Tommy John is just a little bit different," Scahill said. "Some guys get it back right away. Others don't. I think the farther out he got, the stronger he felt, and maybe consciously or subconsciously he started trusting it more.

"So I wasn't surprised when I started to see 98, 99, 100 [mph]. Any time you see 100 up there, it's a really impressive thing."

Feliz's resurgence led the Brewers to target the right-hander from the start of free agency, and they signed him on Jan. 19 for 5.35 million plus $1.5 million in incentives. On Monday, after navigating a visa issue in the Dominican Republic, Feliz reported to Maryvale Baseball Park and officially began his Brewers career. He is likely to serve as Milwaukee's closer.

"It did take a little longer [to come back from surgery], but a lot of hard work and thank God I stayed healthy," Feliz said via Brewers translator Carlos Brizuela. "Now I feel like I'm back where I was."

Feliz's perfect inning

He was the 2010 American League Rookie of the Year, saving 40 games for the World Series-bound Rangers with a fastball that averaged 97.6 mph and reached a maximum release speed of 103 mph that September, according to data from BrooksBaseball.net. Feliz logged 32 more saves in 2011 with a 97.2 mph average fastball, topped 101 mph in three different months, and again pitched in the World Series.

But Feliz developed an elbow injury after converting to a starting role in 2012 and underwent surgery late that season. He missed most of 2013 and spent time on the disabled list in '14 and '15 with various ailments, moving from the Rangers to the Tigers after Texas let him go midway through 2015. In those four seasons, his average velocity dipped below 96 mph, and his max velocity never touched triple digits.

In 2016, that changed. Feliz hit 100 mph on June 16 against the Mets and averaged 96.9 mph fastballs for the season. According to Statcast™, which registered Feliz's hardest pitch as 99.97 mph on Aug. 5 against the Reds, he threw 29 pitches at 99 mph or better.

The entire Brewers staff produced three 99 mph pitches all season, all from Wily Peralta.

"Free agency doesn't always work like that, but this was the guy that we targeted and were able to get him," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. "We felt last year he got back to the form that he had early in his career. He fought through some injuries. It affected him for a while, but the guy we saw last year was the guy that's been a dominant reliever in [the Majors]."

Feliz, who had been keeping his arm in shape in the Dominican Republic, threw a light bullpen session on Monday and will ease into action. Since he is expected only to pitch one inning at a time, there is little urgency to rush him into game shape.

After pitching in a setup role for the Pirates, he is eager to get back into the 9th inning.

"Obviously you miss it," Feliz said. "It's something I got used to from the beginning. I did it for a few years. It was fun. I enjoyed it a lot. I get the adrenaline going. It's a lot of fun when you go in there and close games."

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy, like him on Facebook and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.