SURPRISE, Ariz. - Neftali Feliz closed out the ninth inning of the Rangers' 8-2 victory over the Reds on Monday afternoon.
The inning was scoreless but not smooth. After left fielder Brad Snyder made a terrific catch on Jason Bourgeois' deep drive to start the inning, Feliz gave up singles to Skip Schumaker and Brayan Pena. Feliz was then able to get the game over by retiring the next two hitters on fly balls.
After four outings, Feliz has a 4.50 ERA and opponents are hitting .333 off him. He has walked one, struck out one and not reclaimed the Rangers closer's role. Manager Ron Washington said that role remains open with three weeks to go in Spring Training and even suggested the Rangers could go to a committee if necessary.
"We haven't made a decision," Washington said. "You'd always like one guy to do it but if I have to use all three to help shut down a game I'll do it."
Feliz is one of the three along with Joakim Soria and Tanner Scheppers. Soria is off to a good start this spring and Scheppers is still competing for a spot in the rotation. The focus right now is on Feliz. The Rangers want to see more than he's shown so far this spring.
Feliz averaged 96 miles per hour with his fastball when he was the Rangers closer in 2010-11. That was before he underwent Tommy John elbow surgery and right now he is 92-93 miles per hour.
"He's worked out his mechanics but we'd like to see his velocity get better," Washington said. "It doesn't have to be 98-99 but we'd like to see it get better and sustain it. His mechanics are better and he's using all his pitches. I believe his velocity will spike. He is a power pitcher, not a finesse pitcher.
"I'd like to see it get better sooner than later."
Feliz did hit 94 twice in Monday's game. He did so after allowing the two hits as he appeared to increase his intensity with runners on base.
"You could see him getting more aggressive," Washington said. "I'd like to see him get ready before the first pitch, not when he gets guys on the bags."
Soria, a two-time All-Star as the Royals closer in 2007-11, is also coming back from Tommy John surgery but is further along than Feliz. Soria had his surgery on April 3, 2012 and pitched in 26 games for the Rangers last year. Feliz had his surgery on Aug. 1, 2012 and wasn't activated until Sept. 1 last season. He pitched in six games for the Rangers and 10 more in winter ball.
Soria has pitched three scoreless innings this spring, allowed two hits and a strikeout and not walked a batter. He is not overpowering hitters but never did while saving 160 games for the Royals.
"He's filling up the strike zone with strikes," Washington said. "All different kinds of strikes, not just one kind of strike. What you need in the closer's role is a guy who can get three outs. Soria didn't have a power arm when he was the closer in Kansas City but he still got three outs. Joe Nathan didn't have a power arm. You'd like to have a guy who has everything but if we don't, we'll live with it if they can get three outs."
Scheppers has a 96-mph fastball and a sharp slider to go with it. In 4 2/3 innings, he has allowed three hits, two walks and two strikeouts over two outings. But he is still being auditioned as a starter.
"Scheppers is getting in shape to be a starter," Washington said. "That's all I've got on my mind with Scheppers. When we make our decisions on who will be starters, we'll make it so that those who are not going to be starters will have time to make adjustments."
The Rangers are off on March 19. That's just eight days away. By then the Rangers want to make decisions on who will remain in the rotation competition and who needs to go back to the bullpen.
Beyond that, the Rangers don't need to put Scheppers through any tests to see if he can close. He had a 1.88 ERA as a setup reliever last season and held opponents to a .214 batting average.
"We know he can get three outs if it comes to that," Washington said.
It hasn't come to that yet. Scheppers is pitching for a spot in the rotation and Soria is quietly pitching well away from the spotlight. Right now the spotlight is on Feliz and how much progress he can make in the final three weeks.
That could be the biggest factor in who ends up as the closer.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less