The ninth inning: Feliz in, Francisco out, for now.

Apologies for going nearly dark the past couple days.  I wasn’t giving you guys the Milton Bradley Salute.  I was away at a Y Guides campout with Max.

After the kids had finally gone to bed late last night and the dads sat around the campfire, the talk swung around at one point to the Rangers.  I try (with some hope of success) to save most of my corniness for this newsletter, where I can just delete the groans, which explains why I kept my mouth shut when, already exhausted into a trance and watching the (we’re-leaving-in-the-morning-so-might-as-well-burn-through-the-rest-of-the-firewood) flames whip around and shoot sparks in every direction, my thoughts wandered (maybe because of the 1980s rock shuffle playing at the time on Gould’s iPod) to that early-’80s Topps Firemen of the Year card that had the legendary Rollie Fingers and Dan Quisenberry on it – as well as the less established Tom Hume.

Closers are rarely called firemen any more, but there’s still a Hume for every Fingers and Quisenberry, if not two or three Hume’s for every ninth-inning guy you can count on year after year.  It’s a tough job, with perhaps a shorter life expectancy than NFL tailback.

Theo Epstein was seated right behind me on Opening Day 2006, with one member of his Red Sox front office circle next to him and another two or three about six or eight rows in front of us.  Based on how old they all looked, I’m guessing that Jed Hoyer and Ben Cherington and Craig Shipley were among the Boston officials sitting in those two rows.

Boston stepped out to a 5-0 lead behind Curt Schilling and extended it to 7-2 with an eighth-inning Mike Lowell solo shot off Joaquin Benoit.  Schilling’s day was done and Terry Francona sent rookie Jonathan Papelbon to the mound for the bottom of the eighth, and the top of the Rangers order.

Keith Foulke wasn’t quite a Fingers or Quisenberry but between 2000 and 2004 had been among the American League’s most dependable closers, culminating with a dominating 2004 post-season performance that included one run allowed in 14 playoff innings and the final pitch of the season, as Foulke sealed the sweep by tossing a Edgar Renteria comebacker to first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz to give Boston its first title in 86 years.

Foulke struggled with a knee injury in 2005 and lost the closer’s job in June, finishing with an ERA of 5.91.

Still, he came out of spring training in 2006 having regained the ninth-inning post, despite sporadic work in camp (four innings, two runs on four hits, three strikeouts).  And on Opening Day, though it wasn’t a save situation, he was entrusted with the ninth, with Papelbon, who’d gotten a three-start, 14-relief-appearance big league look in the final third of the 2005 season, sent out to get through the eighth.

Stepping in against Brad Wilkerson, Papelbon fired strike one (called), missed with one, then got a strike swinging, a foul ball, and a rollover groundout to second.  

Next up, reigning American League batting champ Michael Young: called strike, ball, foul, swinging strikeout.  

And then reigning American League total bases leader Mark Teixeira: called strike, swinging strike, ball, flyout to left.

From what I recall (and I was especially keyed in because Papelbon was on my Greater Texas Fantasy Baseball Association staff), it seems like the 25-year-old sat 95-97 and pounded the lower third throughout his 13-pitch frame (10 for strikes).  What I remember with 100 percent certainty is that whoever it was sitting six rows down – let’s say Cherington and Shipley – stood from their seats after Teixeira’s fly settled harmlessly into Manny Ramirez’s glove, turned completely around, smiled back at Epstein and (I’m guessing) Hoyer, and both started laughing.  One of them mouthed, “WOW.”  I peeked back and saw the same smile frozen on Epstein’s face.

(My own “WOW” came in the following morning’s report, in which I wrote: “The two guys from yesterday’s game who are going to have bigger years than anyone expects: Laynce Nix and the exceedingly dirty Jonathan Papelbon.”  One for two.)

After Boston went quietly in the top of the ninth, Foulke entered the non-save situation to close things out, and he made the game interesting, retiring Phil Nevin on a fly to left before surrendering a Hank Blalock single, a Kevin Mench double, a Nix sacrifice fly to deep center, and a Rod Barajas groundout to third to end the game.

After Texas won Game Two handily, 10-4, in Game Three the Rangers took a 1-0 lead two batters into their first (Wilkerson double, wild pitch, Young single).  Kameron Loe made it stand up until the seventh, when Ramirez walked and Trot Nixon homered.  Josh Beckett worked seven, and in to pitch the eighth was not Papelbon, but Mike Timlin.  Texas collected two hits in the inning, drew a walk, and advanced on a wild pitch, but could not score.  Scott Feldman threw an eight-pitch ninth to keep the score at 2-1.

Then Papelbon, not Foulke, trotted in from the bullpen for the save.  The rookie slammed things shut, needing just 11 pitches to strike Barajas out swinging, coax a Nix pop to shortstop, and set Wilkerson down swinging.  I wasn’t there that night but can only imagine the looks on the faces of Epstein & Associates, after they’d probably conferred with Francona between Monday evening and Wednesday afternoon to decide that Papelbon, who had worked only as a starter in Red Sox camp (leading the team with five starts and 21.1 innings) and hadn’t pitched all that well (5.48 ERA, .333 opponents’ average) (sound familiar?), was the better bet, right away, to save games than the established Foulke.

Foulke wouldn’t save a game all year.  Papelbon: 35 in 41 chances, 0.92 ERA, 75/13 K/BB ratio.  He hasn’t given up the job since.

The purpose of that story is not to suggest that Frankie Francisco, with fewer skins on the wall than Foulke had, is about to relinquish the closer’s job permanently to Neftali Feliz, who is generally considered a better prospect than Papelbon was (and whose 31-inning debut in 2009 was more dominant than Papelbon’s 34 innings in 2005).

The point is that Firemen of the Year are sometimes not the same the year after.  A lockdown closer can become something other than that before long, and not that infrequently.  You have to have Plan B in place, especially if you’re a team like Boston who expects to win every year – or Texas, who absolutely expects to win in 2010.

Does Ron Washington’s own situation factor in, on the theory that he might feel even more pressure to get his club off to a strong start than any of us could have appreciated a month ago?  Don’t know.  But the Rangers, like the Red Sox, look at their 162-game schedule as a step toward post-season baseball, not toward 2011, and the weekend development following a second straight Francisco blown save and an evident plunge in velocity and location and body language – that Texas would lift the 30-year-old from the closer’s position for now, elevating Feliz to the role and Darren Oliver to the eighth inning, is a move less than a week into the season that gets made by a team planning to win, and needing to fix not only the ninth inning but also the psyche of a veteran reliever who will be needed in 2010.

We can all appreciate, notwithstanding Sunday’s offensive execution (love, love, love seeing all those balls put in play to the opposite field), that, anachronistically, this franchise has become one whose strength is in its starting pitchers.  (Not only does the big league rotation have a 1.67 ERA through six games – best in baseball by more than half a run – but go all the way down through the four full-season farm clubs and the franchise’s starters have a 2.57 ERA in 21 starts, with 7.5 strikeouts per nine innings and just 2.4 walks per nine.)  

having a problem at closer can undo, in minutes, what a starting pitcher has done over a couple hours.  The offense showed some signs this weekend that it might be finding its rhythm.  There’s no such confidence right now with the closer.  The Rangers lost three games out of 80 last year when leading after eight innings.  They’ve already lost three (out of five) such games this season.

While Texas may not have had a decent alternative to Mike Henneman in 1996, there are backup plans here now, starting with Feliz, and possibly including other young arms like Chris Ray, Tanner Scheppers, Alexi Ogando, and Omar Beltre (and less prototypical options like Oliver and Darren O’Day), all of whom figure in only because C.J. Wilson, to his credit, no longer does.  

The problem is that, outside of Ray (three years and an elbow surgery ago), none of them has any real experience closing big league games, and no contender wants to experiment any more than necessary.

But this experiment became necessary after Saturday, and for now Francisco, pronounced physically healthy, will pitch in low-leverage situations, while Feliz will be asked, hopefully with some regularity, to pitch under more pressure than he’s ever been asked to, at least until Francisco is deemed ready to reassume his role, or until Feliz proves not to be ready for this.

Unless Feliz proves he’s more than ready for all of this.

Concerned that Feliz is being thrown into an unfamiliar fire?  He does have two saves as a Ranger (a scoreless two-inning, one-hit, three-strikeout effort against Boston on August 15 and a perfect 2.1 innings with two strikeouts in Baltimore three weeks later), and a couple three-inning saves in the Gulf Coast League as an 18-year-old in the Braves system, less than two months into his stateside career.

Tongue in cheek?  Maybe.  But Papelbon had only one career save before 2006, a season in which he’d make the All-Star Team as a rookie closer for the Red Sox: a three-inning effort in AAA the year before, after he’d already debuted as a starter in the big leagues.

They were both starting pitcher prospects, very good starting pitcher prospects in fact (but coming off rough rotation auditions in camp), and there’s been at least as much talk, if not more so, about Feliz eventually settling in as this team’s closer as there ever was about Papelbon in Boston.  

But Foulke had lost Boston’s confidence in 2005 and was the less effective reliever for one day in 2006 before that club made a change, giving the ball to a key starting pitcher prospect that they thought could give them some bottled lightning.  Is the same thing happening here, with Francisco having struggled since mid-August (9.00 ERA in 20 innings, .329/.389/.529) and contributing heavily to the difference between a record of 5-1 and 3-3 getting out of the gate this year?

Maybe the most fascinating part about the move to Feliz is that Texas, starting Monday, is in Cleveland for that team’s home-opening series, then in New York for three, and in Boston for three after that.  As if the pressure of being The Guy isn’t enough for a 21-year-old who was in Low Class A two years ago, this road trip will probably present the most energetic if not hostile road atmosphere Texas will encounter all season.  And he still hasn’t thrown on consecutive days in the big leagues, and in fact has done it just once as a pro – once in mid-July with Oklahoma City last summer.

But that’s the thing, I suppose.  You see Francisco sitting 91-93, nailing the center of the strike zone when that’s not what he wants to do, and exhibiting the kind of body language you never want to see out of the pitcher who jogs to the mound for those final three outs.  Maybe the Cleveland-New York-Boston gauntlet is one that’s not healthy for Francisco right now.  

The Rangers may need Francisco out of the ninth inning right now, but they’re probably going to need him in some important capacity for this season to turn out the way everyone in the organization believes it should.  There’s no telling right now whether this transition will last a few games or a few weeks or if Francisco, like Foulke with Boston four years ago, has nailed down his final save for the club, supplanted by a younger, more dominant, more reliable option.  

It’s probably too much to hope for Feliz to seize this role immediately and permanently the way Papelbon did in 2006, but Texas believes he gives the club a better chance to hold leads right now than Francisco does, and that Francisco’s season stands a better chance of recovery if he can regain his confidence in a less critical role.

It’s a gutsy move, but it had become clear this week that it would have been even gutsier, at the moment, to keep running Francisco out in the ninth inning of close games.


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(c) Jamey Newberg
Twitter  @newbergreport

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