Cody Eppley, savior.

There’s something dark within me that wishes I were a Mavs blogger today, working on no sleep since Portland 84, Dallas 82, drawn to the idea that I’d be finishing up a report right now, epic in its sloppy length to match a basketball game that was epic in its Fail.

Instead, I’ll write something smaller in scale and shorter in length, rich in player development-y goodness rather than smelling like a barn.

It was less than an hour before Saturday’s tip-off that the Rangers sent out word that they were deactivating Neftali Feliz for two weeks with right shoulder inflammation, an announcement mitigated by organizational assurances that the move is being made out of an abundance of caution – and I’m certainly all for that given the big-picture implications that would set in with a Feliz that’s less than well – but nonetheless worrisome given how we just got through talking about how troublesome the club’s relief situation looks behind the lockdown closer.

Feliz is expected to miss only two home games against Kansas City and four against Toronto, then four in Oakland and three in Seattle.  That is, the Royals and three mediocre offenses.  The Royals and three teams with losing records.  In the season’s first fifth.  It would probably be difficult to handpick a 13-game stretch on the schedule better suited to be without your best reliever.

But April and May wins count as much as September wins, and there will be situations in games these next two weeks when the absence of Feliz, and the unavailability of certain relievers as they’re being held back for later-inning assignments, will be felt.  How the bullpen responds will be a huge story line during the time that Feliz’s shoulder is given the chance to loosen up and calm down.

Two months ago, had we envisioned this late-April event, we’d have probably guessed the temporary ninth-inning duties would have fallen to Alexi Ogando or Mark Lowe.  But for two wildly dissimilar reasons, neither is an option.

Tanner Scheppers?  Too soon, aside from which he’s on the AAA disabled list for the second time this month, with lower back weakness.

The Rangers pitcher with the most career saves is C.J. Wilson.

The Rangers pitcher with the last non-Feliz save – before last night – is Matt Harrison.

Pedro Strop has the stuff but not the command.

Darren O’Day?  Go back those two months and he’d have been near the front of the discussion.  Not anywhere close to the conversation right now.

I’m not here to suggest that one night’s work was enough to think about entrusting a ninth-inning lead to Cody Eppley to protect, but if he does anything like that three times in his next four opportunities, I’m not sure the seventh inning shouldn’t be his, mixed and matched with Rhodes or Oliver to make sure he’s in there to face key righties in key situations.

I talked to several baseball people in October and March who insisted that Eppley has better stuff than O’Day, the key question being whether it would continue to play up as it had through every step of his meteoric rise through the Rangers system.

It was Day Two of the June 2008 Draft when Rangers pro scout Russ Ardolina, then the club’s amateur scout for the mid-Atlantic region, pounded his fist on the table until Texas spent its 43rd-round pick on the 6’5” Eppley, who had posted an unimpressive 4.91 ERA as a Virginia Commonwealth senior that spring, giving up lots of hits (99 in 91.2 innings) and not striking out a whole lot of batters (63) while throwing from a high-3/4 slot.  He’d yielded more hits than innings pitched in each of his four Rams seasons, and nothing about his career ERA of 4.58 suggested he was a candidate for a minor league audition.

But as quickly as Eppley signed, he produced.  Working as the Arizona League squad’s closer, he gave up earned runs just three times in 19 appearances, saving seven games in nine opportunities, punching out a remarkable 34 batters in 25.2 innings while issuing only five walks and scattering 19 hits (.192 opponents’ average).

Still, that was against largely teenaged competition, and after two season-ending appearances with Low A Clinton, a stint in Fall Instructional, and his first spring training, Eppley was challenged by Rangers minor league pitching coordinator Danny Clark to completely change what he was.  Clark felt the 23-year-old had the makeup and the physical tools to go from that high-3/4 slot to a much lower slot, and that the transformation would give him a better chance to advance in the system.

To say he took to it would be grossly understating things.  Returned to Low A in 2009 (this time in Hickory), Eppley struck out 76 South Atlantic Leaguers in 67.2 innings, and walked six.  Opponents managed to hit .244 off him, but grounded out 2.38 times as often as they flew out, a sparkling number.

Still not quite on the radar (at least externally) given the extraordinary depth of the Rangers system, Eppley was assigned out of camp in 2010 to High A Bakersfield, the natural next step in his development but, as with any pitcher, a challenge given the hitting environment of the California League.  The organization was optimistic that his arsenal would play up in that circuit.  They couldn’t have expected what happened.

Eighteen innings.  No runs.  Nine hits (.143 opponents’ average).  One walk.  Twenty-four strikeouts.  Six saves in six opportunities, a couple wins.  Five times more groundouts than flyouts.  And a mid-May ticket to AA Frisco.

He settled in as the RoughRiders’ closer right away, and was nearly as dominant.  In 22.2 innings, he gave up 12 hits (.154 opponents’ average) and eight unintentional walks, fanning 27 and inducing an absurd 5.67 groundouts for every flyout.  Three runs (1.19 ERA), but no home runs.  Nine save chances, nine converted.

Then it was on to AAA Oklahoma City.  The numbers were a little less extraordinary (4.08 ERA, 32 hits and 13 walks in 28.2 innings, three home runs, 31 strikeouts, 2.38 G/F), but again, this was a kid from Dillsburg, Pennsylvania two years removed from an ordinary senior season in college and a 43rd-round flier.

The Rangers named Eppley their Minor League Reliever of the Year.  While opponents at his three levels managed to hit only .207 collectively, the number shrunk to .147 when looking strictly at right-handed hitters, who collected only three extra-base hits in 150 at-bats and struck out 40 percent of the time.

Off the roster but invited to big league camp this spring, Eppley struggled in Cactus League play in March (seven runs [six earned] on eight hits and three walks in seven innings, with three strikeouts), but he got himself into a good groove with AAA Round Rock as the season got underway and has yet to fall out of it.  In six Express appearances, Eppley blanked his opponents on six hits and three walks in 8.1 innings, fanning nine and inducing three times as many groundouts as flyouts.  Right-handed hitters were 0 for 12 with one walk and five strikeouts.

And then last night, hours after arriving in a big league clubhouse for the first time, Eppley was brought on in the seventh inning of a 3-1 game against one of the league most productive offenses.

Two scoreless innings.  A strikeout of the first big league hitter he faced (Matt Treanor).  The remaining five outs?  Four groundouts and a pop to shortstop.

Thirty-five pitches.

Twenty-seven strikes.

If Feliz hadn’t gotten hurt, Eppley probably wouldn’t have been up here, at least not as quickly as last night.  But if Frankie Francisco didn’t struggle so much out of the gate in 2010, Feliz wouldn’t have been the closer for the World Series team, at least not that quickly.  If the Yankees had agreed to part with Ivan Nova or Eduardo Nunez, Cliff Lee wouldn’t have been a Ranger, and if Justin Smoak had hit a little bit, Mitch Moreland would still be in AAA today, if not traded over the winter.  Things happen.

I don’t know how long Eppley will be up here this time, or if he’ll be as effective the second and third time out on the mound as he was the first, but I can’t wait to find out.

Eppley didn’t save last night’s game, but he saved my sports night.

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