ARLINGTON, Texas -- No one needs to remind Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington or his players about the importance of closing out games.
They got a firsthand dose of it in Game 6 of the World Series. And to their credit, after a month or more of stewing about it and pondering the "what ifs," they put it behind them and moved on.
But if they want to get back to the World Series and win it this time, it won't be just the versatile offense or deep starting pitching that gets them there. They'll need that bullpen to shut things down and hold slim leads.
Right away, a few hours into the 2012 season, that bullpen was put to the test. It passed, getting nine final outs Friday to preserve the Rangers' 3-2 win over the Chicago White Sox.
In front of a lively sellout crowd of 49,085 -- several players said the pregame tailgating looked pretty close to that of Dallas Cowboys games across the street -- Washington got the chance to unveil exactly how he plans to use his bullpen when his arms are rested and ready. And he got results from the trio of Alexi Ogando, Mike Adams and Joe Nathan.
"I'd like for my starter to go seven or eight innings, but that won't happen every time," Washington said. "This is how I want to do it. Everybody did their job. It was awesome."
That included Nathan, signed back in November to be the club's closer and allow Neftali Feliz to move to the starting rotation.
Nathan watched Game 6 on television and, like everyone else, was amazed by what happened. He felt for the Rangers that night, and almost as soon as he signed, he vowed that he'd help them return to the Fall Classic.
Still, no matter how many times Nathan has taken the ball for the ninth inning, he arrived on the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington mound for the first time Friday afternoon and had a chat with himself.
"I tried to stay calm," Nathan said. "I was telling myself to relax a little bit. I was amped. Even though I've been out there quite a few times in my career, it felt like the first time."
Nathan said he felt some pressure to perform well in his new uniform.
"You want to do well for the new fans and new teammates and coaching staff," Nathan said. "I like to get that first one done and do it the right way."
Nathan got all three batters he faced, including a strikeout of Gordon Beckham on a 94 mph fastball to end it. His results were inconsistent in spring training, but he pitched better the final week leading up to the season. And he kept saying he was pleased with his progress and how the ball came out of his hands.
Maybe we all should have listened to him.
Before Nathan could get the ball, though, Ogando and Adams had to get through the seventh and eighth innings, and keep the lead.
Both Nathan and Adams referred to Ogando's stuff as "electric," and marveled at how effortlessly he mowed down Beckham, Alejandro De Aza and Brent Morel. He struck out the side, using a fastball that touched 98 mph (and stayed down in the zone), and mixed in a change-of-pace slider.
Ogando's sequence to De Aza was particularly impressive. He threw a slider at 83 mph and missed, came back with a 96 mph called strike, then an 85 mph slider that De Aza fouled off and struck him out swinging on a 97 mph fastball. Good luck figuring out your timing if you're the hitter.
"If he wasn't so versatile, he'd probably have my job and Joe's job," Adams said. "He's so dynamic. The way we're using him I think it is to our strength."
Ogando's ability to pitch in a variety of situations is a key component of the bullpen, just as it was in the postseason. He can go multiple innings or get key batters. But Washington can't just lean on him constantly. That's where Adams comes in. Even after watching Ogando run right through the Nos. 9-2 hitters of the White Sox lineup, Washington stuck to his plan.
"That was the most important at-bat of the game," Washington said.
Adams said he wanted to stay inside and not let Dunn extend his arms.
"It was a one-run game, and he's one of those guys that can tie it up with one swing," Adams said. "I knew I had to make my pitches and not leave anything over the plate."
Adams is pleased with his role and focused on doing his job.
"The eighth-inning role is one of the most important roles, if not the most important role, in the bullpen," Adams said. "In order to get the ball to the closer, you have to have that guy in between that can get the job done."
Adams got the job done Friday. So did Ogando and Nathan. They'll have to do it many more times this season if the Rangers are to achieve their lofty goals.
"We need those guys," Washington said. "They all know their roles and can excel in them. We need them."