ARLINGTON, Texas -- Do the Texas Rangers have a closer problem?
They say no. Neftali Feliz's performance in two appearances in this suddenly tighter best-of-5 ALDS might give another impression: Three walks, two runs allowed -- one charged -- and a Carl Crawford dinger in 1 1/3 innings.
"You got to understand, this is the kid’s first time in playoff situations," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "I’m not saying that had anything to do with that out there. Where he made his mistake is he walked [Jason] Bartlett; threw a breaking ball to [John] Jaso and Jaso hit it. I think you got to give Jaso credit."
Jaso knocked in the go-ahead run and then Feliz gave up the ninth-inning homer to Crawford, what turned out to be the winning run in the Rays' 6-3 comeback victory in Game 3 of their ALDS.
The hard-throwing Feliz has yet to enter a game in this series in an actual save situation. He came on in Game 1 to start the ninth inning with a 5-1 lead. In Saturday's Game 3, Washington went to him with two outs in the eighth, the game tied 2-2 and the rare situation for the rookie closer to come into with a runner on base.
Feliz faced the No. 9-hitter Bartlett and took hom to a full before walking him to move the go-ahead run to second base.
"He was trying to blow it by him," catcher Bengie Molina said of Feliz's approach to Bartlett. "And in that situation I think all he had to do was throw a strike and make him put it in play."
That didn't happen and it brought Jaso to plate with a chance to give the Rays their first lead of the series. Feliz got ahead of him 0-2 and Molina trotted to the mound for a brief discussion with Feliz. Molina said they discussed pitch selection, deciding on a slider that needed to dive into the dirt in hopes Jaso would chase it.
"We decided to bury the slider. It just didn’t happen," Molina said. "It was supposed to be in the dirt, but it didn’t happen. Sometimes he throws too hard. He throws really hard."
The slider floated on Feliz and Jaso seized the opportunity, dropping it into center field for an RBI single, and the Rangers, who entered the eighth inning leading 2-1 and just six outs away from a series sweep, now trailed, 3-2.
"He didn’t even have a good swing on it," Molina said of Jaso's single. "He hit a jammed shot up the middle."
The run was charged to Darren Oliver, who found trouble earlier in the inning. Darren O'Day relieved Oliver and pitched to one batter, recording a strikeout. Then Washington turned to Feliz to face the right-handed Bartlett even though the game was tied.
After Elvis Andrus, Michael Young and Josh Hamilton went down in order in the bottom of the eighth, the 22-year-old Feliz, the rookie who saved 40 games this season, came out for the ninth. He lasted one batter. Crawford pummeled Feliz's full-count fastball into the Rangers bullpen for a 4-2 lead.
Feliz will need to have a short memory. After Tampa Bay went on to blow it open in the ninth and post a 6-3 victory, Sunday’s Game 4 is slated for a noon start. Feliz, who often answers post-game questions through an interpreter, did not make himself available in the clubhouse after the game. But, former reliever C.J. Wilson said he believes that the young All-Star will clear his head and be just fine.
“He had 40 saves this year. He knows what he’s doing. He throws 100 mph,” Wilson said. “That’s only his second game he’s pitched in the playoffs. He’s not going to be perfect. Nefty, physically, has all the tools. He just doesn’t have the experience yet.”
In fact, if Feliz gets his first postseason save he will become the fifth-youngest pitcher in the majors to ever to post a save in the playoffs.
“He’s a very confident guy,” Wilson said. “He’s got all the stuff in the world. He’ll probably think about it and once he gets done showering he’ll probably be ready to pitch tomorrow.”
Still, some of the signs are troubling. His back-to-back walks to the first batters he faced in Game 1 matched his most walks in any career regular-season appearance and the most since June 12.
Crawford’s homer was the first Feliz has allowed since Aug. 22. He went his final 16 appearances of the regular season without giving up a long ball.
Of course, if the meat of the Rangers’ order could have done some damage, Feliz might have found himself in the more familiar save situation, coming on to start the ninth with the bases empty and firing to preserve the lead and end the game.
“He’s resilient,” outfielder David Murphy said. “You’re never going to be perfect as a closer. There’s a lot of games that go on his shoulders that don’t go on other peoples’ and so it looks that much bigger each time he’s out there. He’s a young kid. He hasn’t been in the league that long, but obviously he’s got great stuff. He’s our closer so everybody’s going to stand behind him.”
Including Washington, who said Feliz’s struggles do not concern him.
“It was just one of those nights,” Washington said.