ST. PETERSBURG -- Joe Nathan wouldn't come right out and say Tuesday that he signed with the Rangers in November 2011 for a shot at pitching in the World Series. It may be true, but he knows it's not that simple.
Nathan got a taste of the postseason with the Giants in 2003 and the Twins in '04, '06 and '09, but he's never pitched past the Division Series. Texas bowed out in the Wild Card Game last year. That's the unpredictable nature of the playoffs, and that's why Nathan's focus remains squarely on reaching the tournament itself.
As much as the Rangers have struggled lately -- sliding from atop the American League West down into the Wild Card fray -- they're still in position to get where Nathan wants to go.
"It's all about getting to the playoffs. From there, I'm smart enough to know anything can happen," Nathan said. "That's why we're still in a great position, as bad as we've been the last two weeks. I think what we all need to realize is we're still in a spot to make the playoffs. Once you get there, it's a flip of the coin. ... It's all about playing meaningful games in September. That's why I came here."
The 38-year-old closer certainly has done his part, putting up some of the best numbers of his 13-year Major League career, including a 1.43 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 39 saves. Nathan is still striking out nearly 10 batters per nine innings. He's given up only two home runs in 56 2/3 frames, and opponents are hitting a mere .169 against him.
Nathan laughs off the success, saying that his numbers are a product of "a lot of luck," but he's not entirely joking. He's held opposing hitters to a .228 batting average on balls in play -- the league average usually hovers around .300 -- and stranded about 88 percent of his baserunners, both numbers well above his career averages.
But Nathan's dominant season has been about more than some well-positioned defenders turning a couple hits into outs and shaving a few points off his ERA. It's been about the evolution of a veteran reliever tweaking and refining what he's always done.
"I know I can't just reach back and rely on throwing it by guys or just pounding it through three pitches. Now, I need to locate better, change speeds better," Nathan said. "I have a better feel, a better understanding for my offspeed stuff and being able to use it in big situations where guys tend to sit on fastballs and can do a lot of damage, even if you throw a good fastball.
"I think pitching is something that you're never going to be perfect at. It's something you can try to fine-tune and get better each day. That doesn't mean you're going to go out and improve your numbers every time out there, but as far as being comfortable and knowing what you want to do when you get out there, that's something that evolves as you continue to play this game and get out there more."
The six-time All-Star has done it as effectively as anyone, recording 337 saves despite having only one prior to 2004. Nathan is the eighth pitcher with a 35-save season at age 38 or older. His 90.11 save percentage is the best in baseball history among players with more than 200 saves, higher than even the legendary Mariano Rivera (89.06).
Nathan is an unabashed fan of the retiring Yankees closer. He said they've often discussed the subject of longevity -- how to maintain success like Rivera has for such an extended period of time -- and one thing Nathan learned was the importance of an even-keeled personality.
"I think that allows you to go out and not beat yourself up on tough days, not get too high on the big days," Nathan said. "I always watch the way [Rivera] got the third out, shook hands and got off the field, came back and did it again the next day. I wanted to go out and do that. That's why he's lasted so long."
Nathan also emphasizes the importance of keeping his body fit and strong and of "at least allowing myself to go out there and perform." He grinned Tuesday as he said he feels as good as a pitcher can in September. Nathan hopes that will hold true in October, if the Rangers can overcome a rough start to this month and a crowded Wild Card field.
What comes after that remains to be seen. Nathan turns 39 in November, and his two-year deal with the Rangers expires at the end of the season. Texas holds a $9 million option on him, but he can have that voided by finishing one more game.
But Nathan has made two things clear with his words and his pitching: He's got plenty more left in the tank, and he wants another shot at pitching in the World Series.
"For me, continue to go as long as I can do this and do it at a high level and as long as my body holds up. This year has been great," Nathan said. "My body's held up a lot better than I expected. I feel great. If you ask me now, I'd say I still have a bunch of years to go. So we'll see."