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Ron Washington, Neftali Feliz, and Ranger bullpen usage

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Howard Bryant has a piece on ESPN that follows the Rangers through their time in New York in the ALCS, and I think it is a must-read.

However, there was part of it that jumped out at me, because it corresponds to an issue of much controversy in regards to Ron Washington's bullpen usage and Neftali Feliz.

Rob Neyer took Washington to task, and quoted Joe Sheehan doing the same, when Wash used Feliz in Game 3 of the ALCS, with a big lead:

Joe reserved his real ire for Girardi's counterpart in the other dugout ...

 


Ron Washington, bless his heart, raised. Up 8-0, eight relievers at his disposal, he brought in Feliz, who threw 20 pitches in retiring the side. So in three ALCS games, Washington has not used Feliz in the eighth inning as everyone else was blowing a 5-0 lead; used him with a 7-2 lead in the ninth; and used him with an 8-0 lead in the ninth. It was terrible decision, putting 20 pitches on Feliz's arm in a spot where Pedro Feliz could have gotten you out of the game with a win. Using Rivera would have made sense because of the importance of getting three outs without allowing a run, and because you don't know whether the next two days will present a higher-leverage spot. Neither was in play for Washington last night; there was zero leverage and any pitcher alive could get you three outs there, and if they didn't, you'll have plenty of time to fix the problem.

The defense proffered by Washington was nonsense ending with, "We wanted him to continue to feel good about himself." Feliz saved 40 games this season, has pitched at Yankee Stadium, has pitched in postseason games, has closed out two other blowouts in the past week. Whatever invented rationale for the move, it introduced far too much risk to be justified; what happened last night was actually about the best-case scenario for Feliz, throwing 20 pitches and having no one reach base. What if the Yankees had gotten a couple of hits, and Feliz's pitch count had trickled up to 30? 35? At what point do you have to take him out of the game? At what point is he clearly not available for both of the next two? Or even tonight? Washington risked his best reliever's availability in high-leverage spots for some silly notion of "comfort".

Christina Kahrl leveled much the same criticism:

But if Girardi's choice wound up making sure this game ended a Rangers win, Washington generously rewarded his foe with a gesture that might endanger the odds of a third or fourth win in this leg of the ALCS. Why Washington would turn to his closer, Neftali Feliz, with an 8-0 lead and a bullpen that has provided its share of scares in the last two weeks, defies the easy explanation offered: "We wanted him to feel good about himself." Swell, give him a hug, but don't burn him on 20 pitches he didn't need to throw in a series where you're going to need him today or tomorrow. Now, whatever Self-Esteem shares he's accrued, he might only be good for one game or the other. Much like the failure to go to Feliz in the eighth inning of Game One, you are left wondering if some god watches over fools, Irishman, and the Texas Rangers, because they're up in the series despite trying very hard to blow these kinds of critical decisions. 

Bryant's column, meanwhile, helps explain where Washington was coming from with Feliz, and the whole issue of getting comfortable:

The day before Lee is to take the mound, Washington is talking about belief, about the game against Tampa Bay when his closer, Neftali Feliz, seemed as though the moment of playoff baseball was devouring him. Feliz was faltering badly in Game 3 against the Rays. The pitching coach, Mike Maddux, began to walk the stairs to talk to the pitcher. Washington intercepted him and went to the mound himself.

 

 

"I told him, 'Belief is an extraordinary thing. And you can achieve amazing things if you believe. Now, I believe in you. These guys behind you believe in you. But that's not important. Here's what's important: do you believe in you?'

 

 

"When I touched his shoulder, he was stiff as a board. He was tight. He was nervous. When I got done talking, he calmed down. He relaxed. And then he went out and got the next guy. He didn't get the results, but he wasn't afraid anymore."

Feliz, of course, also faltered in Game 2 of the ALCS, walking a pair of batters and being so upset with himself on the mound that he didn't see Bengie Molina through the ball back to him, letting the ball hit him and drop to the ground.

Given Washington's description of Feliz's issues in the ALDS, given the Game 2 episode, I think it at least isn't unreasonable for Washington to decide it is worth getting Feliz -- who had already warmed up -- an innings worth of work in Game 3.  

Clearly, Washington had concerns about Feliz's mindset and confidence -- concerns that anyone who had watched Feliz this offseason could understand -- and I think the dismissive notion that he'd be better off giving Feliz a hug, rather than letting him get his feet wet in a meaningless situation, giving him the opportunity to get grounded and get his confidence back, is shortsighted.