Friday August 28th, 2009

Four years ago Derek Holland was a senior at Newark (Ohio) High School and, like most kids his age, rather clueless about what he was going to do with his life. He was a pitcher, but not a particularly great one -- not even the ace of his high school team. One school offered him a scholarship: Wallace State, of the Alabama Community College Conference, in Hanceville, Alabama. "I went there thinking about going into sports broadcasting," says Holland. "Professional baseball?" He laughs. "Not even on the radar."

Four years ago Neftali Feliz was almost as clueless as a 16-year-old growing up in the town of Azua in the Dominican Republic. Neftali, who idolized Pedro Martinez, was nine years old when he first picked up a baseball. "Playing in major league baseball was just a dream," he says through an interpreter. "A big dream."

Now here they are, the 22-year-old Wonder Boy and the 21-year-old Phenom with the 101-mph fastball. The crown jewels of the top minor league system in baseball, Holland and Feliz are two of the most important players in the AL West and the AL wild-card race. Not only are they here to help carry the Texas Rangers to their first postseason appearance since 1999, but they are also here to change the identity of a pitching-starved franchise. The baby-faced fireballers represent a promising future and a new direction for the Rangers, a franchise long built around pumped-up sluggers.

"We haven't signed a major league free agent in one and a half years," says Rangers GM Jon Daniels. "That's not a way for us to realistically build a ball club. What we must do is build around young players. And Derek and Neftali are two guys that are extremely important to that plan."

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Has there been a rise more improbable than Holland's? Since July 30, the day before the non-waiver trade deadline, he has been Texas' best pitcher, going 4-2 with a 2.93 ERA, including a dazzling complete game shutout over the Angels on Aug. 9. With a fastball that touches the high 90s and an above-average changeup that flutters over the plate in the low 80s, Holland is one of the most promising young starters in the game. But at Wallace State he could barely touch the mid 80s with his fastball. "I really wasn't very good," he says. "I had a fastball that wasn't that fast and a changeup that fooled nobody."

In the 2006 draft the Rangers took a flier on Holland, signing him for $200,000 as a draft-and-follow. In 2008, his first full season in the Rangers system, he went from throwing an 89-92 mph fastball that suddenly, at midseason, began touching 97, 98 on the radar gun.

Says Holland, "The joke around here was, 'Oh, he's on HGH.'" He adds, "But I just credit it all to my trainers. They helped with my workouts. It was about gaining weight. [That year] I put on 15, 20 pounds, and that made all the difference in the world."

That fastball is now a plus-plus pitch for the left-hander, who entered the season ranked second in the Rangers system by Baseball America. But just as impressive as his heater has been his poise. The secret to Holland's cool? The night before every start he makes, Holland puts in a DVD of For Love of the Game, and watches a 15-minute scene that begins with Kevin Costner's character suiting up and ends with him throwing the first pitch of a perfect game in Yankee Stadium. "The umpire yells 'Strike one!' and I turn it off," he says. "I've never even seen the whole movie."

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The first time Feliz hit 100 on the radar gun was three years ago in rookie ball. A year earlier he had been signed by the Braves for $100,000 out of the Dominican Republic. Feliz came out of nowhere to dominate in his rookie ball season, as he K'd 42 in 29 innings in the Gulf Coast League. The morning after one of his starts that summer, his roommate casually asked, "You know you hit 100 on the radar gun?" Feliz was stunned. "I didn't think that was possible," he says through his interpreter, reliever Guillermo Moscoso.

Now Feliz is routinely hitting triple digits on the radar gun. He had this year's most remarkable debut on Aug. 3 in Oakland, when he became the first pitcher since 1969 to strike out the first four batters he faced. He hit 100 mph four times, including 101 on his final pitch. Feliz will join Holland in the Rangers rotation in 2010, but until then he's entrenched in the bullpen, where he is poised to become this year's Frankie Rodriguez and David Price: a late-season call-up that becomes an October star.

"I felt pressure in my first game I pitched in Oakland," he says. "But after that first pitch, there was no more pressure."

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The Rangers are home to the best young talent in baseball -- now starring in Arlington are Holland, Feliz, shortstop and Rookie of the Year candidate Elvis Andrus, and left fielder Julio Borbon (.378 average in 45 at-bats). First baseman Justin Smoak, who's drawing comparisons to Mark Teixeira, and left-hander Martin Perez are on their way.

The Baby Rangers have work yet to do in 2009. If Texas' fearless pitching phenoms can continue to bring it, then the Dallas faithful will have more to root for in October than the Cowboys. "I would have been happy to have played the whole season in the minors," says Holland. "To be here, in the middle of a playoff race, it's just amazing."

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