With two runners on base and one out in the seventh inning, Texas Rangers starting pitcher Scott Feldman was in a bind. This seventh inning jam was his first and last sign of trouble during his tremendous outing. Tampa Bay Rays center fielder B.J. Upton was up as the potential tying run.
Feldman, a 26-year-old, tall right-hander, had to dig deep and prove his worth as the surprising ace of a surprisingly good Texas team.
In the old days, when pitch counts weren’t limited and relievers weren’t relevant, all pitchers were groomed to be starters. From the dawn of baseball—the late 1800s—to the early 1980s, pitchers threw 250-300 innings per season with regularity. Now, inning limits are placed on young pitchers.
The rotations were shorter, made up of three or four starters compared to the five and six of today. Then, it was an oddity if a pitcher didn’t start and finish a game. Now, the object is to shorten it by using multiple relievers.
Feldman was brought up through the Rangers' system as a reliever. Prior to his late season promotion to the big club in 2005, he made 59 appearances over three-plus minor league seasons and started only four times. He began the 2006 season with Triple-A Oklahoma, where he made 23 appearances, all in relief, then made 36 more in relief with Texas.
He was very successful in his first two stints in the majors, and then after making 50 more relief appearances split between Oklahoma and Texas, it appeared that his major league career would be spent in the bullpen, pitching two to three innings—if that—a week.
Feldman attended the College of San Mateo. He walked on to the baseball team without a scholarship as a freshman and flourished. In his two years there as a starting pitcher, he went an astonishing 25-2 with a 1.30 ERA and a 8-1 strikeout/walk ratio.
After his sophomore season of 2003, he was selected in the MLB Draft’s 30th round and supposedly given sixth round money. It was believed that, given his gift, he was on the fast track to the major leagues.
Elbow surgery in 2004, a surgery that used to derail a pitcher’s career, should have completely halted his chances of making the major leagues at all. But he persevered and was determined to make the Rangers and stay.
Four years later, he made his case. His numbers were unflattering during the 2008 season; he was 6-9 with a 5.29 ERA, but he did have spurts of brilliance and has built off his glimpses of success this season.
He entered his start against the Rays with 12 wins and a respectable 4.04 ERA. His fastball touches 92 miles per hour, which isn’t overpowering by any means, but his intimidating 6′5″ frame makes it look faster. He offsets this pitch with a stellar breaking ball and an above-average slider.
As this outing against Tampa Bay and his at-bat against Upton particularly showed, each pitch in his repertoire was thrown to perfection.
He started off Upton, who entered his seventh inning at-bat fourth in the American League in strikeouts with 133, with an outside curveball, then challenged him with a slider, which Upton fouled off. A fastball missed just off the corner, so, given his impeccable control he flaunted previously, he threw the same pitch, taping the corner for a called strike.
Upton didn’t like the call, nor did he like outcome of the next pitch, a slider that spun on the inner half of the plate. He walked back to the dugout barking at home plate umpire Andy Fletcher.
Upton was Feldman’s 11th strikeout and part of history: Feldman became the first Rangers pitcher to strike out more than 10 batters in a game since 1999.
Feldman wasn’t out of trouble yet, but he soon would be. Willy Aybar, pinch-hitting for Gabe Kapler, hit the fourth pitch of the at-bat, a fastball, up the middle. Feldman, using his height, leaped, caught a glove on the ball, and watched it trickle behind the mound. Aybar, who isn’t particularly fast, sped down the line. Feldman had little time to collect himself.
Alertly, he reached down, corralled the ball, and immediately fired to first. Aybar slid face-first, a bad idea for many reasons, and was narrowly out.
Feldman walked off the mound and headed back to the dugout relieved. His outing—seven innings of four-hit, shutout ball—came to a fitting end.
Darren O’Day, the middle reliever that Feldman once was, having a fabulous season, struck out the side in the eighth, and closer Frank Francisco breezed through the ninth to give Feldman his thirteenth win.
Feldman, who was a better hitter than pitcher in high school and who once changed his delivery from a submarine style to an over-the-top style, not only continued his "I am here to stay" season, but continued his development into an ace for the contending Rangers.