Nathan closes out night of surprises

HOUSTON -- It took all of the veteran savvy that Texas Rangers closer Joe Nathan could muster to finish off a Saturday night of surprises at Minute Maid Park.

It started with the roof being opened in Houston. Then, Yu Darvish giving up two home runs to the same hitter for the first time, he recalled, since high school. Then, Nelson Cruz tying another game with a two-run home run, which actually shouldn't be a surprise anymore -- it's the third time he tied a game with a long ball this week -- leading to a six-run inning that seemingly had the game in hand for the Rangers.

The surprises weren't done. Nathan entered the game with a four-run lead, two runners on and no outs in the bottom of the ninth. He had to hang on for dear life for an 8-7 victory, in large part because of a brilliant defensive play by the 38-year-old closer, and his own hunch to get the game's final out.

Manager Ron Washington's hope starting the bottom of the ninth was that Michael Kirkman could get the final three outs with the Rangers leading 8-4. But Kirkman, who has struggled this season, allowed two hits, the second a lefty-lefty matchup with Carlos Pena that ended with a double off the left-center field wall. Kirkman, whose ERA is up to 7.90, just didn't make a good pitch to Pena.

"His stuff is good," Washington said of Kirkman. "He just made a mistake throwing a breaking ball to Pena."

That forced Washington to go to Nathan in a save situation. Like Darvish earlier, Nathan wasn't sharp. The first batter he faced, Trevor Crowe, laced a single up the middle to score Carlos Corporan and move Pena to third to close the lead to 8-5.

The Astros then forced the action as Crowe took off for second base. Nathan threw a wild pitch as Crowe slid in for a stolen base, which allowed Corporan to score and Crowe to get to third. 8-6.

That's when Nathan made what he says was the play of the inning. Astros third baseman Matt Dominguez, who had given the Astros a 3-1 lead with two home runs off Darvish, hit a dribbler down the third-base line. Nathan pounced off the mound, and what first appeared to be a sure infield hit for Dominguez turned into an out. Nathan was somehow able to get to the slow roller and fire a fastball to first base to beat Dominguez by a step. Crowe had to stay at third. One out.

On a night of surprises, even Nathan was surprised he pulled it off.

"Honestly, no, I didn't think I would make it," Nathan said. "I went toward it and I knew it was in the hardest spot on the field to make a play. I was just thinking, 'try to get your feet set.' It was going to be a no-stride throw and heave it as quick as you can.

"That one probably saved the inning. If I didn't make that play, we might be singing a different note right now. That definitely helped settled us down in the inning."

Nathan did allow another run on a sacrifice fly by Marwin Gonzalez that made it 8-7. But Nathan got the all-important second out, setting up a duel with Astros pinch hitter Chris Carter.

Carter, who has been all or nothing this season with eight home runs and 53 strikeouts, got ahead in the count with two balls. Nathan went to work. He threw a slider for a strike. Then, he went with a hunch, throwing a two-seam fastball thinking Carter, a right-handed hitter, would be looking on the outside of the plate for Nathan's out pitch, his slider.

The ball instead came in on Carter and he missed it, popping up to shortstop. Game over.

"I figured his eyes were probably going to be set away," Nathan said. "I'm glad my hunch came through and he was looking out there and I was able to run a decent pitch inside, a two-seamer running in and got in on the hands on him. It worked out."