Commentary

Rangers keep faith in Joe Nathan

Texas will be patient with proven closer, who must recover and meet expectations

Updated: April 13, 2012, 12:33 AM ET
By Richard Durrett | ESPNDallas.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Texas Rangers haven't even played their first road game of 2012 and already there are fans wanting a change at closer.

[+] EnlargeJoe Nathan
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezJoe Nathan has a track record of rebounding from poor stretches, but he must show consistency on consecutive outings.
Twitterverse was ablaze Wednesday night and Thursday morning, shortly after Joe Nathan's second loss of the season. This one was ugly. He took a two-run lead into the ninth against the offensively challenged Seattle Mariners and gave up three runs as the Rangers fell for the second time this season.

Calm down, folks. Now isn't the time to change closers. Texas is paying Nathan $14.5 million over the next two years and he has a track record of closing games -- and rebounding from poor stretches.

Rangers manager Ron Washington made it clear Thursday that Nathan's role isn't changing based on one inconsistent week.

"Joe Nathan is proven," Washington said. "He's going to get his opportunity with the Texas Rangers to prove he can close games. I don't want him looking over his back and I don't want him doubting himself. He's my closer. When he's ready to go again, he'll get the ball. And if he goes back-to-back days, I'm going to give it to him."

But things have to improve. This is a club with the highest of expectations, thanks to consecutive trips to the World Series. They'll stay patient because one of Washington's best traits is trusting his players and avoiding a tendency to overreact.

And with Nathan's resume, it's easier to believe the veteran will figure it out despite an inconsistent spring and first-week struggles.

But few things in the game are a bigger momentum drainer than not protecting leads late. A two-run lead against the Mariners at home should be a win. And it wasn't.

The largest concern is that Nathan hasn't had good results pitching on the second of consecutive days. Closers must be able to handle saving games on consecutive nights. Some do it three straight games. They must have the strength and stamina to go out and shut down the opponent for those final three outs, even when the workload increases. And both of Nathan's losses -- one was a home run surrendered in a tie score, the other the two-run blown save -- have come after he earned a save the night before.

The Rangers followed Nathan's second loss with a 5-3 win over the Mariners, with Mike Adams getting the save and Nathan getting the afternoon off. He needed it. He pitched in four of the first six games and was ready to go in Monday night before the Rangers increased the lead, allowing other relievers to finish the win. Nathan admitted he woke up Thursday and wondered "who was driving the truck that ran me over."

[+] EnlargeFrank Francisco
AP Photo/Tim SharpRon Washington insists that Joe Nathan's struggles don't resemble Frank Francisco's, who lost his closer role with the Rangers early in 2010.
"I definitely got a lot of work in, but that comes with it," Nathan said. "There's going to be weeks where we have close games a lot. There's going to be weeks like that. This won't be the last one. I felt strong."

Nathan's opening week would be of more concern if his velocity was down, but it's right where it was before he had Tommy John surgery in 2010.

Washington trusts Nathan. It's time for Nathan to start trusting his stuff, specifically his fastball. The Mariners were sitting on sliders and Nathan fed them a steady diet of the pitch.

"They weren't doing much with the fastball when I did throw it, but I just wasn't throwing it a lot," Nathan said. "It's probably learning how to be myself again before surgery. Last year, I threw a lot of breaking balls because I had to. I don't have to now."

Last year in Minnesota, Nathan tried to get by with what he could. In the process, he was blowing saves. Nathan knew he wasn't as effective as he should have been and said so. Matt Capps became the closer and kept the job. Nathan worked hard and improved his numbers in the second half last season after a brief stint on the DL, landing him the two-year deal in Texas.

"I wasn't ready," Nathan said about 2011. "I needed to pitch but wasn't ready for that spot. I wasn't ready to be that guy at the end to shut a game down when we needed a win. This isn't anything like that."

It's also not anything like 2010. Then, the Rangers started the season with Frank Francisco as the closer and Neftali Feliz in a setup role. Francisco blew two saves in the opening week of the season and Washington made the change. Feliz never relinquished the role and Francisco pitched in middle relief after that.

When 2010 was brought up in the manager's office Thursday morning, the skipper shook his head.

"Let me stop you right there," Washington said. "Frankie was replaced because he was hurting. He wasn't replaced because he blew two games and I decided to do that. Frankie was hurting. He wasn't Frankie Francisco. That's a different situation."

Still, the Rangers have even higher expectations this April than they did two Aprils ago. If things don't improve in the coming weeks, the club needs a Plan B. It's early to speculate, but to me that's not Alexi Ogando. He's too versatile in his current role. Mike Adams has pitched well. He could do it or even split the role with Nathan.

"It's the sixth game of the season," Washington said. "If it's the 36th game of the season and that's been happening four or five times, maybe you think about something …"

Nathan, to his credit, was in front of his locker after Wednesday's struggles and was back there again Thursday, answering many of the same questions. He's not worried and believes he will improve.

"I've worked my tail off and I feel good physically," Nathan said. "I'm going to keep competing and keep pitching and getting better."

Texas will watch Nathan and see what happens. But nothing is changing. And it shouldn't. At least not right now.

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