ARLINGTON, Texas -- Joe Nathan closing out a game shouldn't come as a surprise, but the last pitch he threw in Monday in the Texas Rangers' 5-4 victory left the Tampa Bay Rays in a state of disbelief.
Facing Ben Zobrist with the tying run on second and a full count, Nathan recorded the game-saving strikeout on a pitch that appeared to be low and considerably outside. Zobrist immediately challenged plate umpire Marty Foster, who then got an earful from Rays manager Joe Maddon.
"That cannot happen in a Major League Baseball game," Maddon said. "That kind of call cannot occur. I don't even want say under those circumstances, the last inning, the last out of the game, I'm not even going to go there. That call cannot be made in a major league baseball game."
Foster understood Maddon's frustration.
"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 it a strike."
However, he already had, and the Rangers took it. Texas improved to 5-2 by taking the opener of the three-game series between clubs that faced each other in both the 2010 and 2011 AL Division Series. The Rays, playing their first road game, dropped to 3-4.
The Rangers hit two home runs, giving them eight in the past three games after they opened the season with two through four games. Texas' power surge coincided with a sluggish start from Tampa Bay, which found life late one day after losing 13-0 to the Cleveland Indians.
Texas starter Alexi Ogando (2-0) didn't have his best stuff, exiting after 89 pitchers with one out in the sixth and two runners on. Left-handed reliever Joe Ortiz got out of the jam, keeping Texas' 3-1 lead intact.
"He wasn't himself tonight, but he was able to keep us in the ballgame," Rangers manager Ron Washington said of Ogando. "There are nights when you don't have your best stuff and you have to figure it out."
The Rangers bullpen ran into trouble in the eighth and ninth but held on. Michael Kirkman and Derek Lowe combined to allow two runs in the eighth. Nathan gave up a run in the ninth before securing his 300th career save in controversial fashion.
"We won the game," Washington said of the last called strike. "Of course I liked it."
Maddon asked Foster what he saw on the final pitch.
"(Rangers catcher A.J. Pierzynski) caught the ball poorly," Maddon said of Foster's explanation. "It wasn't as bad a pitch as it appeared. I disagreed."
Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson (0-1) gave up three runs on five hits in five innings on his 26th birthday. He walked three and struck out one during his 98-pitch stint.
The Rangers pulled ahead 3-1 on back-to-back solo home runs to right with two outs in the fourth. Pierzynski hit his first in a Texas uniform, and Mitch Moreland followed up with a blast over the Rangers bullpen. It marked the first time Texas hit home runs in successive at-bats this season.
Elvis Andrus provided the Rangers with insurance on to a two-run, two-out single in the seventh off Rays reliever Kyle Farnsworth.
Tampa Bay took advantage of a botched potential double play ball to tie the game 1-1 in the second. Evan Longoria and Matt Joyce got on to open the inning before Yunel Escobar hit a sharp grounder to short.
Texas second baseman Ian Kinsler got the out at second, but his throw to first was wide and short. Moreland couldn't handle the short hop and Longoria scored.
The Rangers struck in the bottom of the first to take a 1-0 lead. With two outs, Adrian Beltre's blooper fell under the glove of diving left fielder Sam Fuld. Lance Berkman, who drew the second of Hellickson's two walks in the inning, motored around from first to score.
NOTES: The Rangers and Rays pulled off a trade going into the series, as C Robinson Chirinos was dealt from Tampa Bay to Texas for a player to be named or cash considerations. To make room on the 40-man roster for Chirinos, Texas designated LHP Jeff Beliveau for assignment. Chirinos was optioned to Triple-A Round Rock. Chirinos, 28, was designed for assignment on March 31 when the Rays set their Opening Day roster. He did not play in 2012 after suffering a concussion in spring training when a foul tip struck his mask. ... Texas OF Julio Borbon, out of minor league options, likely will be designated for assignment Tuesday when RHP Nick Tepesch is called up from Triple-A to start. The Rangers would have 10 days to outright, release or trade the 27-year-old Borbon if he's designated.