Nathan continues to be masterful in ninth inning
Veteran closer perfect in nine save situations for Rangers this year
MILWAUKEE -- The numbers say that when the ninth inning comes, Joe Nathan has been as good as anybody.
No other closer with 200 or more saves has a higher career percentage of converted save opportunities than Nathan.
No, Nathan is not likely to have the acclaim that has belonged to the Yankees' Mariano Rivera, who has a career stocked with postseason highlights and the all-time saves record with 620. But the save percentage numbers cannot tell a lie.
Rivera has converted 89.5 percent of his save opportunities. Nathan, who has 307 career saves, has converted 89.8 percent of his save opportunities.
That is just how good Nathan has been. The Texas Rangers are asking him, at age 38, to be that good again in 2013.
This has not been a problem for Nathan, who is 9-for-9 in save opportunities this season. The ninth came Wednesday night at Miller Park in a 4-1 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers.
Carlos Gomez legged out a double to lead off the ninth against Nathan, advancing to third base on a wild pitch. But against Nathan, none of the next three Brewers got the ball out of the infield. The Rangers, leading the AL West by 3 1/2 games, improved to 21-13.
Nathan's numbers do not look markedly different than the ones he has been putting up since moving into the closer's role with the Minnesota Twins in 2004. He has an ERA of 1.50. He has given up 10 hits and two walks in 12 innings while striking out 13.
But this is a slightly different Nathan than the younger version. His average fastball velocity has decreased from 94 mph last season to 91 this year. He topped out at 92 Wednesday night. But, Nathan's command of his craft has certainly not lessened. And his effectiveness has certainly not decreased.
"I think you just learn to try not to do more than you're capable of," Nathan said Wednesday night. "I know my fastball is not the same as it was, but I've learned to get comfortable with a two-seam fastball and kind of move things around a little bit.
"It's still the same old game about getting ahead [in the count] and stay ahead. It puts them more on the defensive. So throw strikes, don't give them an opportunity to sit on one pitch and get comfortable. That hasn't changed.
"I think after being in this game awhile, you hope you learn things along the way, so when your arm is not as strong, you can get guys out other ways."
This is what the best ones do, making the necessary adjustments, when the stuff changes. They rely on other approaches, other pitches.
"I've got a really good feel for both of my breaking balls," Nathan said. "I've gotten a really good feel for a changeup even though I haven't used it. I'm really comfortable with it, throw it a lot down in the 'pen. I just haven't gotten to a spot where I'm like, 'Let's go with a changeup here.' And I've got a really good feel for a two-seamer. That's been a huge pitch for me, especially behind in the count, being able to throw something up there with a little more movement, not just lay a fastball that may be 91, 92, 93. A lot of these hitters see that velocity quite often.
"So I just try to give them a different look. You know, these guys are used to me throwing mid-90s and probably a little straighter. I was able to throw hard and then mix in breaking balls with that. That's what made me tough then. Now, I just want to move it around a little bit, keep them guessing."
Nathan has been a closer for postseason teams in Minnesota and Texas. He came back from Tommy John surgery to post another fine season in 2012. He is still pitching the ninth inning, still pitching for a genuine contender.
"I've been incredibly fortunate to play on winning teams, basically my whole career," Nathan said. "I think I've had one year where we've struggled and that was my last season with the Twins . Other than that I've been on very good baseball teams that have won a lot of games. Good clubhouses, good guys around the clubhouse."
The bottom line is that Nathan has justifiably retained the confidence of his team, his manager, his organization. When Rangers manager Ron Washington was asked if he thought Nathan was as good as ever, he responded: "He still gets outs. He's what, 37, 38 years old? Joe Nathan knows how to get outs. I certainly feel comfortable when he comes in the ballgame."
The Rangers have become an operation rich in pitching. You could take the Texas pitchers on the disabled list and form the core of a very nice pitching staff: Matt Harrison, Colby Lewis, Neftali Feliz, Joakim Soria and more.
But the impressive organizational pitching depth has more than compensated for the Rangers, who lead the American League with a 3.22 ERA.
And in the ninth inning with a lead of three runs or fewer, there is Nathan. The velocity has dropped but the results remain remarkably consistent. The record of the last decade, including the first six weeks of the 2013 season, says that the Rangers' closer situation is still in excellent hands.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.