Some close calls, but Nathan getting it done
Rangers closer is 12-for-12 in save opportunities this season
OAKLAND -- Rangers closer Joe Nathan has been perfect in every save situation this season, but the last two have been precarious. In Houston on Saturday, an 8-4 lead turned into a one-run game with the tying run on first and the go-ahead run at the plate before Nathan could close the door.
On Tuesday night against the Athletics, Nathan entered the game in the 10th with a two-run lead. But the Athletics got one run home and had the bases loaded with one out before Nathan struck out Daric Barton and got Eric Sogard on a grounder to end the game.
"You ever want to know what Joe Nathan is all about, you found out [Tuesday] night," manager Ron Washington said. "That's about as tough as it gets. But, after making it interesting, he gets outs."
Nathan, who threw 31 pitches on Tuesday, shrugged it off as just another save.
"That's the way it goes," Nathan said. "Some are easy, but with a lot of clubs, [the A's] especially, I don't remember many against them that have been easy 1-2-3 innings. They scrap and they know how to put runs on the board, especially in their place."
But Nathan, who turned 38 in the offseason, is still getting the job done. His velocity is down from previous seasons, he is relying more on offspeed pitches and his best assets may be his pure guile built from a dozen years of Major League experience. He is slow and methodical, almost like a surgeon carefully preparing to cut into an anesthetized patient.
But he has been effective, and on a pitching staff built around some terrific 20-something young arms, the last line of defense remains their veteran closer who is moving up the ladder on the all-time saves lists.
"The only thing I care about is him getting three outs and he's doing that," Washington said.
The 31 pitches on Tuesday night were Nathan's most in one outing this season. It's only the fourth time in two seasons with the Rangers that he has thrown 30 or more pitches in a game. He said it did not cause undue stress on his arm. Instead, he was better at the end.
"The last two hitters, I probably had the best stuff of the inning," Nathan said. "Even though it was a pressure situation, I was able to make pitches."
Nathan is averaging 16.9 pitches per inning. That is a little on the high side, but not for a closer. There were 28 pitchers in the Major Leagues with at least five saves entering Wednesday, and only six average less than 15 pitches per inning. Nathan has ranged between 15.7 and 16.9 since becoming a closer in 2004 with the Twins. Teams don't always go down easy in the ninth, and one hard-fought outing can skew a pitch-count average, Nathan said.
"Pitch counts is not something I pay attention to," Nathan said. "For me, it's not pitches thrown in one inning, it's how many consecutive days you pitch or how much you keep getting up and down. Obviously, you don't want to keep having 30-31 pitch innings, but as long as it's 15-17 per inning on average, I don't think that will make a big difference."
Asked Washington, "How many games has he saved?"
That would be 12, tied for the fourth most in the Majors as of Wednesday.
"Wow," Washington said. "Excuse me ... that's all that matters."
Nathan is signed through this season, and the Rangers hold an option for 2014. The Rangers signed former All-Star closer Joakim Soria to a two-year contract this offseason as a contingency plan in case Nathan started to fall off. But the plan has been delayed, and not just because Nathan remains effective.
Soria, who underwent Tommy John surgery on April 3, 2012, was supposed to be close to being ready by now, but suffered a setback when he strained a pectoral muscle in his right shoulder while on his rehab program. He is currently limited to playing catch in Arizona and likely won't be ready until at least the All-Star break.
Neftali Feliz, who was the closer on two World Series teams, is also recovering from Tommy John surgery and won't be ready until late August or September. Tanner Scheppers has the ability to close and has been lights-out to this point as a setup reliever. But the Rangers want to keep him in that role.
"Right now, we want him to have the mentality of getting the ball to Joe," Washington said. "Down the road, he may be a closer, but right now, his mentality is as a setup reliever."
Nathan has the mentality of a closer and he is pushing his way up among the all-time leaders in saves. His save on Tuesday night also gave him 310 for his career, tying Hall of Famer Rich "Goose" Gossage for 19th all-time.
"Obviously, Gossage had an outstanding career," Nathan said. "To reach a number with him is pretty cool to hear."
Next on the list is Tom Henke with 311. A reasonable goal for the season could be to get in the all-time top 10 before the year is over. To do that, Nathan would have to pass Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers, who had 341.
"Right now, I'm hoping to do this for at least a couple of more years before this is all over," Nathan said. "To do something like that, while not a goal, would be nice. But at the end of the day, it's all about finishing off wins and helping the team get to a place [the World Series] that I've never been before."
Feliz was outstanding as a closer in helping the Rangers reach two straight World Series. So far, Nathan has been perfect. Lately, it hasn't been that easy, but the job keeps getting done.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.