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Joe Nathan and His Future as the Texas Rangers Closer

The road back to being a dominant closer has gotten off to a rocky start for Joe Nathan. After signing a 2-year, $14.5 million deal with the Texas Rangers in November, the expectation level for Nathan was high entering the 2012 season. Thus far, Nathan has provided mixed results, as he has collected the loss in both of the Rangers defeats this season after blowing his first save of the season Wednesday night in a 4-3 loss to the Seattle Mariners.

Nathan entered Wednesday’s game staked to a 3-1 lead. At this point, the Rangers win expectancy was 90.8%, and the bottom of the Mariners lineup was due up. The first four batters he faced produced a single, double, sacrifice fly, and double, and just like that the game was tied. Then, after a strikeout and a stolen base, Nathan allowed a go-ahead single by John Jaso, and the Rangers rally in the bottom of the 9th fell short.

Nathan struggled with his command within the zone, and the Mariners made him pay for it. The two losses Nathan has tallied this season have both come on the second night of pitching back-to-back games (he will not be available for Thursday’s game). On the flip side, in the two games that Nathan has pitched after a day of rest, he has locked down the save to perfection. In total, Nathan is still strong from a peripheral statistics standpoint, striking out 5 and walking none in 4 innings of work. If you are a fan of the statistic, he is also suffering a .364 BABIP (.300 being the league norm, and .251 being his career average).

Nathan underwent Tommy John surgery in May of 2010, and the 37-year old claims to feel fully recovered from the effects of the surgery. The results seem to say otherwise at this point. Perhaps Nathan feels fine on the mound, but his arm has not yet reached the point of being able to recover from the demands of pitching back-to-back nights. The Rangers never attempted to pitch Nathan in back-to-back games in Spring Training this year.

The Rangers are not unfamiliar with temporary struggles from their closer. In 2010, Frank Francisco began the year by blowing saves in the Rangers 3rd and 5th games of the season. He was subsequently removed from the closer role and replaced by Neftali Feliz, who held down the position for the rest of the season. Feliz himself struggled at times in 2011, blowing 3 saves within 9 games last May.

The Rangers are committed to Joe Nathan, and today Ron Washington has reiterated that he is the team’s closer. The Rangers front office has built such a track record of success that they deserve the benefit of the doubt in signing Nathan. The former All-Star is off to a slow start, but he has shown signs that he can still get the job done. It is frustrating for the fans, the team, and the players to see a mark in the loss column that could have certainly been a win. The Rangers will hope that having just a little bit more patience will be a virtue worth having.