ARLINGTON, Texas — Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon knew it was ball four to Ben Zobrist, who was already headed toward first base. Even Texas Rangers closer Joe Nathan expected that would be the call after his full-count pitch.
Except plate umpire Marty Foster called a game-ending third strike — one he later admitted was wrong.
Nathan mouthed “Wow!” when the strike was called to wrap up his 300th career save, which along with the Rangers’ 5-4 victory stood despite Foster’s postgame admission late Monday night.
“That kind of call cannot occur. I don’t even want to say under those circumstances,” Maddon said. “The last inning, the last out of the game. I’m not even going to go there. That call can’t be made in a Major League Baseball game.”
The last pitch, a curveball, was low and outside. Zobrist put both hands on his helmet and took it off in disbelief while Maddon quickly came out and argued with the umpires for several minutes, even standing in front of them at the gate where they exit the field.
“I saw the pitch and of course don’t have the chance to do it again,” Foster told a pool reporter after the game. “But had I had a chance to do it again, I wouldn’t call that pitch a strike.”
A.J. Pierzynski, the new Rangers catcher who was once traded for Nathan, said he heard Foster call strike, and went out to congratulate his teammate on becoming the 24th major leaguer with 300 saves.
“Did I draw it up like this for my 300th (save)? No. But we’ll take it,” Nathan said. “I knew I was throwing it there. The fact is I thought it was ball four. I thought he might offer at it. When he didn’t, my mindset went more to concentrate on what we’ve got to do with (Evan) Longoria now. I think I might have been the last guy on the field to realize the game was over.”
Nathan’s milestone save was his second this year, and 39th in two seasons with the Rangers. He had 260 saves for the Twins and one for San Francisco before being traded by the Giants to Minnesota after the 2003 season for Pierzynski.
After the Rays scored twice in the eighth off two relievers, Nathan came on to start the ninth. The 38-year-old right-hander allowed a two-out RBI single to Sean Rodriguez, who was still on base with Longoria (3 for 3 with a walk) on deck when strike three was called.
“Umpires make mistakes just like players do. It was a tough time to have a bad call,” Zobrist said. “I hope it doesn’t ending up costing us playoffs in the end. I know it’s the first week of the season. But every win is important and we might have had a chance to win that one. Everybody makes mistakes. What are you going to do?”
Start fresh on Tuesday in the second game of the three-game set, the only time the teams play until mid-September.
Foster said Maddon was very professional.
“He was frustrated and I understand,” Foster said. “He acted probably the best he can under that situation.”
Umpire crew chief Tim Welke indicated that he didn’t foresee a scenario in which Maddon would be disciplined.
Maddon said he “saw it clearly” when it happened, but looked at a replay afterward “to reaffirm what I’d seen. Again, it just can’t happen in a Major League Baseball game.”
After Pierzynski’s first homer for Texas, a two-out solo shot in the fourth that made it 2-1, Mitch Moreland pulled a 428-foot shot deep into the Texas bullpen in right-center field.
Elvis Andrus, in a 2-for-18 slide before singling in the fifth, added a two-run single in the Rangers seventh for a 5-1 lead.
Alexi Ogando (2-0) allowed only one run on three hits, but needed 89 pitches to get through 5 1-3 innings. The right-hander walked three and struck out two five days after getting a career-high 10 strikeouts in 6 1-3 innings at Houston.
Joe Ortiz, the 22-year-old rookie lefty who is only 5-foot-7, got out of a two-on jam relieving Ogando with a pair of grounders and then worked a 1-2-3 seventh.
Jeremy Hellickson (0-1), starting on his 26th birthday for Tampa Bay, gave up three runs and five hits over five innings. He needed 30 pitches to get out of the first, including a nine-pitch leadoff walk by Ian Kinsler, and threw 98 pitches overall.
NOTES: Hellickson pitched on his birthday for the second year in a row. On his 25th birthday, his 2012 debut, he pitched 8 2-3 scoreless innings in the Rays’ 3-0 win over the New York Yankees. ... Pierzynski became the seventh different player to homer for the Rangers in their seven games. ... Tampa Bay’s first error of the season came in the second when 2B Zobrist was unable to snag Pierzynski’s grounder. ... Longoria has 10 hits this season, all singles. This is the furthest he’s gone into a season without hitting a home run.