<
>

Joe Nathan looks as dominant as ever

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Earlier this month, 37-year-old closer Joe Nathan, two years removed from Tommy John elbow surgery, pitched on four consecutive days and five times in six days.

One thought crossed my mind. Yours too, probably.

Dude, have you and Rangers manager Ron Washington lost your collective minds?

"I've told you age is just a number. It's something people label you with," Nathan said with a grin. "I don't feel like I'm an old man, or I'm losing a step. It's the way I've always been taught. If the team needs it -- other guys had been busting their butts -- then take the ball. It wasn't like we had other arms available."

Well, what if Washington said he needed you to pitch eight straight days. Would you still take the ball?

"I probably wouldn't tell him I need a day off -- even if I need one," Nathan said, laughing.

Just so you know, Nathan picked up two saves while striking out seven and allowing just one run on four hits during that stretch, removing any and all doubt that he's the same guy who's been the AL's best closer not named Mariano Rivera for a decade.

Obviously, the Rangers didn't need him in Wednesday night's blowout loss to Seattle, but the odds are he'll pitch in the Rangers' three-game series against the Los Angeles Angels that begins Friday.

Nathan is 0-2 with 11 saves and a 2.08 ERA, which should make you feel good about any ninth-inning lead he's asked to protect in the postseason. He has 26 strikeouts in 21 2/3 innings, while allowing just 17 hits.

After blowing two saves in his first four appearances in April, Nathan had an ERA of 9.00. Each time he stepped on the mound, the social network world of Facebook and Twitter went crazy as zealous fans urged the Rangers to replace Nathan and his 285 career saves with Alexi Ogando. Another group wished the Rangers had never signed him.

All of that seems so silly these days. No longer do folks get nervous when Nathan takes the mound.

It's more like, game over.

In Nathan's last 17 appearances, he has a 1.02 ERA with 21 strikeouts and one walk.

Washington doesn't just use Nathan in save situations. Five times he's brought Nathan into a game with a four-run lead.

Why?

It's his way of telling an opponent they have no hope for a comeback on this night.

On Tuesday night, Nathan threw 13 pitches in a one-inning appearance during a 10-3 loss to Seattle to give some of his teammates in the bullpen a night off.

See, Nathan began his career with San Francisco as a starter. He has pitched middle relief and long relief, and has been a setup man. He understands the importance of each pitcher's role in the bullpen and its importance to the overall success of the team.

He's about winning games -- not just notching saves.

We all know the Rangers signed him to make sure they don't fall one strike short in the World Series again.

Physically, Nathan felt pretty good from his surgery last season. Mentally, he felt he was back 100 percent in spring training.

That's because he had the same arm strength before the surgery, and he still had good movement on his curveball and slider. Sometimes, when Nathan feels too strong, he loses the touch on his breaking balls.

Only his location was off in spring training. Everything is working right now.

His fastball gets as high as 95 miles per hour -- even on consecutive days. His curveball and slider both have good bite.

His stuff, right now, is as filthy as it has ever been.

He has thrown a team-high 51 swinging strikes, an indication of how difficult he is to hit. Ogando, who has pitched six more innings, is second on the team with 47 swinging strikes.

Impressive.

Washington will tell you he never doubted Nathan in spring training or April, when he struggled. A closer with Nathan's record of success deserves the benefit of the doubt.

But it was Nathan's desire to take the ball on those four consecutive days earlier this month that left a deep impression on Washington.

"All you ever ask of your players, especially your best players, is to give themselves to the team," Washington said. "All we need is your best that day -- whatever it is. You never know, it might good enough to help us win a game."

At some point this season, Nathan will get rocked. Or blow another save. Don't trip when it happens.

He'll be ready in the postseason.