Everyone knows that Tampa Bay second baseman Ben Zobrist was right late Monday night.
Plate umpire Marty Foster knows it. Texas Rangers catcher A.J. Pierzynski knows it.
Even closer Joe Nathan knows it.
In the words of Frank Drebin, “Strike?”
Unfortunately for Nathan, the game-ending strike call on a ball well out of the strike zone overshadowed the 300th save of his All-Star career in a hotly disputed 5-4 Rangers victory over the Rays.
Nathan admits that his 3-2 curveball to Zobrist broke wide of the zone, and he even mouthed “Wow” after realizing that Foster had signaled strike three. Nevertheless, he became the 24th major-leaguer to record 300 career saves.
“Zobrist has had his history with me, so I knew to be careful with him and fortunately got a decent call there at the end,” Nathan said. “I threw the pitch where I wanted to. He just didn’t offer at it the way I thought he was going to. I think it’s pretty safe to say we got a very fortunately call, but we’ll take it.”
The Rangers’ bullpen, to put things gently, is a work in progress and will be for some time. Six of the seven pitchers there have no defined role and could pitch at any given time, except in the ninth inning of a close game.
Those situations belong to Nathan, and he was called upon to preserve a 5-3 lead after Michael Kirkman and Derek Lowe had allowed two runs in the eighth inning.
Nathan surrendered a leadoff single to Jose Molina before retiring the next two batters. Sean Rodriguez got Molina home with a single to center, and Nathan fell behind Zobrist in the count 3-1.
Zobrist took a slider for a strike on the next pitch, and thought he had drawn a walk that would have pushed Rodriguez to second and brought Evan Longoria to the plate. Foster, though, saw things differently.
“I saw the pitch, and, of course, don’t have the chance to do it again,” Foster told a pool reporter. “But had I had a chance to do it again, I wouldn’t call that pitch a strike.”
Said Nathan: “The fact that I thought it was ball four … mind-set went more to, ‘OK, let’s concentrate on what we have to do with Longoria now.’ I think I might have been the last guy on the field that realized the game was over.”
Rays manager Joe Maddon was so vexed by the call that he argued as the umpires tried to leave the field, then took to Twitter.
“That can’t happen in a major league game,” Maddon tweeted.
Crew chief Tim Welke doesn’t believe Maddon did anything while arguing that would warrant discipline from Major League Baseball.
Until the final call, the game was a good one. Pierzynski and Mitch Moreland hit back-to-back homers in the fourth, and Elvis Andrus delivered a key two-run single with two outs in the seventh as the Rangers hung on for their fourth victory in the past five games.
Rangers starter Alexi Ogando (2-0) wasn’t at his best, as he struggled to consistently find the strike zone. Only 49 of his 89 pitches were strikes, and he walked one more (three) than he struck out only five days after fanning 10 and walking one at Houston.
But Tampa Bay could only score once against him, as Longoria coasted home in the second on an Ian Kinsler throwing error as he tried to complete a double play. The run tied the game until Pierzynski hit his first homer with his new team with two outs in the fourth.
Moreland followed with a 428-foot blast, and Andrus provided the game’s biggest hit in the seventh with a two-out single to center that scored Pierzynski and Craig Gentry for a 5-1 lead that appeared to be safe.
Left-hander Joe Ortiz had just provided the cleanest work by a reliever, pitching out of Ogando’s one-out jam in the sixth and working a perfect seventh.
Kirkman, though, allowed three of the four batters he faced in the eighth to reach, and Lowe allowed two of the runners he inherited to score.
That set the table for Nathan’s 300th save and a controversial finish that will overshadow it.
“Did I draw it up like this as my 300th? No,” Nathan said. “But, like I said, we’ll take it.”