Relievers see closing carousel as a strength
Ninth-inning role could shuffle depending on use and injury
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Rangers gave closer Joe Nathan two days off last week, and they still won both those games. Both victories required a closer for the ninth inning, and Mike Adams and Alexi Ogando showed they could get the job done, with back-to-back saves.
Nathan applauded their work.
"People ask me if that puts pressure on me, knowing there are other guys that can close," Nathan said. "If anything, that takes pressure off of me. We have lots of guys who can do a lot of different things if we need a rest or we're not as sharp as we need to be. If you play 162 games, you're not going to be sharp every single day. I think it's a good situation."
The Rangers understand that. They already saw Nathan lose two games during the opening homestand. However, he also saved three games and manager Ron Washington stands by him as his No. 1 closer.
"Joe is going to be fine once he gets settled in and gets comfortable," Washington said.
Yet recent history shows contingency plans are a must, even if for one or two days. John Wetteland held down the ninth inning during a four-year run as the Rangers' closer from 1997-2000. But in seven of the 11 years since, Texas' closer going into Spring Training was not its closer at the end of the season.
Francisco Cordero was the Rangers' closer in 2004-05, and Neftali Feliz held the job all of last season despite an early two-week stay on the disabled list. There was also the tandem of Frank Francisco and C.J. Wilson in '09. But in the other seven years -- either because of trade, injury or ineffectiveness -- the Rangers have had to change closers at some point during the regular season.
That's why Adams, Ogando and Koji Uehara are just as important as Nathan to the overall effectiveness of the bullpen. The Rangers understand the volatile nature of the 'pen, and having depth can be just as important as having a dominant closer.
That may be especially true this season with Nathan, 37, taking over as the Rangers' closer two years removed from Tommy John surgery.
"We've got to watch Joe, no doubt about it," Washington said. "But Joe is here to help us win ballgames. If Joe has a few outings where he's thrown a ton of pitches and we've got to stay away from him until he builds up strength and stamina, we've guys who can do that. But he's our closer, and he's here to help us win ballgames."
Wilson served as an effective "backup" closer for the Rangers in 2009. Francisco had the job and led the team with 25 saves. But he also went on the disabled list three times that season and Wilson finished with 14 saves. As a team, the Rangers still led the American League that year with a 77.6 percent (45-for-58) conversion rate.
This season, the Rangers don't have one designated "backup closer." Washington said he has three of them and will use all three. That's why Adams closed on Thursday and Ogando on Friday, while Uehara, who has five career saves, also remains a possibility.
"They all need the chance to be in that situation, because you never know when we'll have to put them in that situation," Washington said.
Adams, who has four career saves, would likely be second in line since he is currently a one-inning reliever whose job is to lock down the eighth. That's the role he had behind Heath Bell in San Diego, and so far, he has allowed one run on seven hits, no walks and three strikeouts in seven innings.
"I don't see any difference pitching the ninth, other than it's the last three outs," Adams said. "After that, you get to shake the catcher's hand, but I don't see any difference. A lot of times in the eighth inning, I'll get the heart of the order, the 3-4-5 guys rather than the 7-8-9 guys. I'm used to that situation. In San Diego, every game was a one-run game.
"I understand Joe is the ninth-inning guy. For us to be successful, he needs to be in that role. I take a great deal of pride in my job. My goal is to be the best reliever in baseball. In order to get to the ninth, they have to come through the eighth. Any time Joe needs a break, I'll make sure I'm ready."
Ogando was a setup reliever for the Rangers in 2010 before switching to the rotation. Now he is back in the bullpen, and Friday's 4-1 victory over the Twins marked the first time he has been asked to close a game.
"It was good ... it was the same, there wasn't any more pressure," Ogando said. "I liked it. I'm there for wherever they need me."
That is mainly going to be the sixth and seventh innings. Washington views Ogando, Scott Feldman and Robbie Ross as the three main relievers who can pitch multiple innings in an outing.
Ogando had the day off on Sunday. Ross pitched two scoreless innings to get the victory. Adams, facing the top of the Twins' order, pitched a scoreless eighth. Nathan, pitching back-to-back games for the third time this season, set down the Twins in order in the ninth for his third save, opening the inning by striking out Justin Morneau.That's Plan A for the bullpen this season, and Washington does not want to deviate from that very often. The Rangers just want to make sure they have alternatives in case something happens. Recent history shows that happens more often that not.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.