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Feliz keeping his head up in face of adversity

Righty still cherishes baseball as he rehabs after Tommy John surgery

Feliz keeping his head up in face of adversity

ROUND ROCK, Texas -- Today is the same as yesterday, and tomorrow will be the same as today.

Neftali Feliz misses his family, which is still in the Dominican Republic. He frowns at the idea of having to eat American food. Again. It'll never stack up to his mom's cooking. Feliz is desperately trying to speak English, but he hardly knows a word.

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It's 2005, and life in the United States for the first time is bleak and confusing for the 17-year-old.

"I didn't know anything," the now 26-year-old said. "Nothing."

Why would he? After all, Feliz had never been to the United States before. But in his world full of change and new daily challenges, he managed to consistently find peace through the one thing that had always been there for him.

"When I was a kid ... I had a good arm, and my mother told me to go and pitch," Feliz said. "And I said, 'OK. That's fine.'''

And that was that. But what the 2005 version of Feliz didn't know at the time was that it wouldn't always be that simple. A few years later, even baseball would betray him.

* * * * *

There was a time when a young Feliz would confidently strut to the pitcher's mound at Globe Life Park as one of the Rangers' most accomplished closers, as a beloved household name.

In 2005, Feliz signed with the Braves as a free agent, and after Texas acquired him in a seven-player trade with Atlanta in July 2007 -- along with Elvis Andrus and Matt Harrison -- Feliz established himself as the closer in 2010. The young phenom was winning awards -- the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 2010 by the Baseball Writers' Association of America, and as the first Ranger to win it since 1974, he was making history in the process.

Feliz became one of five Texas pitchers with multiple 30-save seasons and was the youngest player in history to accomplish that feat at 23 years and 5 months. To date, he's the Rangers' all-time leader in postseason saves, perhaps his most notable one coming in the state of Texas' first win in a World Series game on Oct. 30, 2010. Feliz was 22 years, 181 days, which made him the second-youngest pitcher to pick up a World Series save behind Bob Welch. Feliz stole the No. 2 slot from Nolan Ryan and would go on to pitch in the 2011 World Series, too.

"We had a long season, but physically, I feel 100 percent," Feliz had told MLB.com in 2010 after receiving his AL Rookie of the Year honors. "I could still be going strong if we were still playing."

Just two years later, the former All-Star wouldn't be able to say that.

* * * * *

Neftali Feliz remembers the pain. It started out as right elbow inflammation and a 15-day trip to the disabled list on May 21, 2012.

Then on June 16, it was turned into 60 days. By July, Feliz was still in too much discomfort to make a scheduled rehab start, and it was evident that the problem was something bigger than just irritation.

"I asked the doctor what was best for me ... [and he said] surgery," Feliz said. "I said, 'Let's do it.'"


"I love when I come in to pitch, and they put the music on and the fans make noise. I love it."
--
Neftali Feliz

The surgery the doctor was referring to was Tommy John surgery. It would end Feliz's 2012 campaign, and he wouldn't rejoin the Rangers as a callup until September 2013. The once go-to closer with dozens of saves had posted no record in just six appearances. Gone was his 100-mph fastball.

For at least the time being, the historic Neftali Feliz was no more.

"I lost a little bit of my mechanics," Feliz said. "Before my surgery, I was throwing almost 100. Now, I'm throwing 94, 96-97 sometimes."

Feliz is now playing in Triple-A with the Round Rock Express, where he has a 1-1 record and a 3.65 ERA in 20 games. In 24 2/3 innings pitched, he's notched 27 strikeouts and scattered 17 hits.

Meanwhile, back in Arlington, Joakim Soria has taken over the closer duties.

* * * * *

As Feliz sits at a shady picnic table just feet away from the clubhouse on a windy Round Rock day, he smiles as he begins to talk about his mother. She got him into baseball. She cooks the foods he likes. And she's the centerpiece of his tattoos that cover his left arm. A sketch of her face is in the middle, while the name of his daughter -- Neraly -- is a bit lower, on the forearm.

While Feliz's mother is firm in her transition from soap operas to baseball on their television at home in the Dominican Republic and makes visits to the U.S., his daughter doesn't see her father play in person. For now, she's too young.

That'll change when she gets a little bit older -- she's just 3 now -- and by that time, Feliz could potentially be back in the big leagues.

Express pitching coach Brad Holman said that he thought Feliz could be ready right now if the opportunity were to present itself.

But there are a few things the 26-year-old needs to fine-tune.

"The one main thing that was hard to get him to do was to use his fastball as his main weapon. I think subconsciously, he knew maybe he didn't have his best fastball, so he gravitated towards the other stuff," Holman said. "Just the last four or five outings, he's really started to pitch off his fastball. Mechanically, he has a tendency to get rotational, where he cheats around his delivery and his arm comes low."

Feliz also tends to perform better when the score is tied and the pressure is on the line. While it's important to see him thrive under pressure, both Holman and Express manager Steve Buechele said they hope he performs his best every night, regardless of the score.

Buechele knows the seed of the problem is obvious.

"I think if there's one thing I've seen, it's just, he's inconsistent. And I think he's gotten better. He can't come into a game and walk the leadoff hitter. He has to be able to come into the game, the back end of the game, and get outs," Buechele said. "He's done it. And we've seen him do it, but I think he needs to do it on a consistent basis."

There's a part of Feliz that feels 100 percent again, who feels like he could be the pitcher he once was. He's excited to throw hard again and wants to make another run at a World Series title. Yet there's another part of Feliz that knows his fastball velocity is down, that knows that Tommy John surgery has changed the path of his career forever.

But Feliz continues to smile -- a gentle, patient grin that flashes the confidence the superstar-turned-battler has in himself.

"I love when I come in to pitch, and they put the music on and the fans make noise," Feliz said. "I love it."

Feliz is waiting for that feeling again in Arlington. Now it's just a matter of time.

Grace Raynor is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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