Over the first two full days of the regular season, several closers around Major League Baseball failed to keep leads in the ninth inning. The Texas Rangers are grateful their 37-year-old closer, Joe Nathan, wasn't among them.
Regaining some of the mojo that made him one of the best relievers in the league before Tommy John surgery sidelined him two years ago, Nathan shut down the Chicago White Sox on Thursday to cap a strong effort for Texas pitching in a 3-2 season-opening victory.
Nathan reached 94 mph twice with his fastball and snapped off a few good sliders to set down Chicago's Alexei Ramirez, Dayan Viciedo and Gordon Beckham 1-2-3 in the ninth. The Rangers got nine strikeouts from starter Colby Lewis and three combined innings of nearly perfect relief from Nathan, Mike Adams and Alexi Ogando.
Even though Nathan came in having logged nearly 730 major league innings, not counting appearances at All-Star Games and in the playoffs with the Minnesota Twins, he copped to being extremely nervous for this appearance. Nathan was quoted by columnist Randy Galloway in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as saying:
"I shouldn't have felt like that, but I did," he admitted. "I can't remember when I've had butterflies like that, and it started in the pregame introductions."
Manager Ron Washington laughed that off, saying with a laugh that "Joe's always nervous. He's nervous when we're betting on the golf course."
Whatever the heck that refers to. Nathan agreed, though, that some nerves come naturally:
"I had all this energy, and, yes, energy is nerves, but I don't care if it's in spring training, I always have nerves when I get the ball. But I had to keep telling myself to calm down, to get the energy under control, because too much energy and you can get the ball up."
Jitters probably had something to do with being the main man in the ninth again.
Nathan appeared 48 times and saved 14 games a season ago for Minnesota, but he lost his closer job in the middle of the season and didn't pitch like he had, pre-surgery, until the Twins were long out of the hunt. After filing for free agency and not getting much interest from Minnesota, he signed with Texas for two years at $7 million per season, plus a team option at $9 million for 2014. Not Yu Darvish money, but a significant commitment. Further, the Rangers moved Neftali Feliz into the starting rotation to make way for Nathan. A little pressure to make good on the deal comes with that.
When the call came to warm up for the ninth, Nathan claimed he was "over-energized," and as the bullpen door swung open, he was already preaching to himself about calming down.
"This was a tremendous scene today, a tremendous crowd that was really into it, and it's my first game for a new team, and I'm now pitching in front of 50,000 fans for a club that has gone to the World Series the last couple of years," he added.
"I needed to get that save. For the team."
Lewis had a 2-0 lead and was making White Sox batters look foolish until Adam Dunn — speaking of reclamation projects — hit a long home run in the sixth inning. Chicago tied the score later in the inning, but the Rangers jumped back ahead in the bottom half.
Then the bullpen took over and didn't let go, ending it with Nathan on the mound. Just like old times for him.