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INGTON -- At the 130-game mark, the Texas Rangers have the best record in the American League. That's always an impressive place to be in late August, but in this case, it gets even better.
At one point this season, six of the 12 pitchers the Rangers were expecting to compose their staff were on the disabled list. At another point, three of their five preferred starters were on the DL. Even now, two of those are still on the shelf.
And yet, what strikes the objective observer about the Rangers is how good their pitching is, especially their bullpen. In fact, this is what stayed with Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon from his club's visit this week to Rangers Ballpark.
The Rangers took two out of three here, winning a pair of one-run games; 6-5 and 1-0. The Rays broke out of an offensive slump on Wednesday night, turning a rare sub-standard start by the Rangers' Matt Harrison into an 8-4 victory in the series finale.
This is a high-level pairing. These teams have met in AL Division Series the past two years. The Rangers have won both times, but the competition has been relatively close and consistently well-played. What Maddon and the Rays ran into on this Texas trip was a Rangers bullpen that gave them no baserunners in four innings of the two losses.
"We do not do well against their pitching, and that's what it comes down to," Maddon said. "We have pitched well enough to beat them, in spite of their prodigious offense. We have not been able to overcome their pitching. I think that's overlooked with Texas. I mean, everybody talks about their offense all the time, but from our perspective they pitch pretty darn good. Look at their bullpen. Their bullpen is as good as ours, and that's pretty good.
"They're always given credit for their offense, but their pitching hasn't received enough credit, whereas the reason they've beaten us is that they've pitched really well against us. Their pitching is really what stifled us, more than they've just bludgeoned us."
The Rangers stopped the Rays cold in the first two games of this series with relief performances that were, individually and collectively, spotless. On Monday night, Alexi Ogando, Mike Adams and closer Joe Nathan faced the minimum nine batters over three innings, each pitcher striking out two.
On Tuesday night, Adams gave up a hit in the eighth, but faced the minimum after a double play. Nathan struck out the side in the ninth. The Rangers won this game despite getting only four hits, marking the fourth time this season they recorded a "W" on fewer than five hits. The only other teams with as many victories on fewer than five hits are Washington and Oakland, two pitching-first operations.
The current Texas bullpen has both quality and quantity.
"They're all pretty good," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "That's what it is. They're all pretty good. They got good veteran leadership down there for the young kids. They young guys have gotten better as the year has progressed. And those veterans down there have a lot to do with it, keeping them focused. Mike Adams is what he is, [Alexi] Ogando is what he is, Joe Nathan is what he is. Robbie Ross is trying to find out what he is. [Michael] Kirkman is trying to find out how consistent he can be. Mark Lowe has had success already at the Major League level. They're pretty good."
One bit of good news Wednesday night came from reliever Koji Uehara, who returned from the DL three days ago. Uehara needed only 17 pitches to record five outs. "That's important," Washington said. "He's going to be a big piece for us as we move forward."
Adams has been asked to hold 25 save situations for the Rangers this season and he has succeeded 24 times. Nathan as the closer has been so good that he has moved into the rarefied, historical company and beyond. He has passed Mariano Rivera as the all-time leader in save percentage among pitchers with 200-plus saves. Rivera is at 89.28 percent. But Nathan is at 89.72 percent.
And, after returning from Tommy John surgery, Nathan, at age 37, appears to be as good as ever. He has tied the Rangers' record, converting 25 consecutive save opportunities. Even more recently, he has retired the last 14 batters he has faced, 10 of those on strikeouts.
"I think he's as good right now as he was on his best day in Minnesota," Maddon says. "I'm talking about not only velocity, but command, too. He's throwing his fastball where he wants to consistently. And on top of that, his breaking ball has always been good, but I can see a real confidence about it now. He's on top of his game, as good as he's ever been."
What makes Nathan this good? Washington holds up five fingers. "Five pitches," the manager says. "You can't sit on one. That's what's made him effective. I'm not surprised by anything that Joe is doing. We saw his arm strength in Spring Training. It was just a matter of him getting a feel for his pitches.
"He gave us trouble when we played against him when he was with Minnesota. He's got five pitches. He can throw them all for strikes. He's been in championship runs before. So nothing that goes on out on the field affects him. He's been in this before. So he just goes out there and does what he knows how to do -- get outs. It's not like some closer that hasn't pitched in championships series before. He did it six or seven years in Minnesota. Been there, done that. He doesn't get fazed. And he's got five pitches."
And so the Rangers, a team justifiably known for its offensive prowess, can now stop people cold with a lockdown bullpen. The news does not seem particularly encouraging for the rest of the American League.
Referring to the AL West race, someone pointed out to Washington that second-place Oakland "is not going away."
"Neither are we," said the manager without missing a beat.