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Joe Nathan's career has taken many unexpected and gratifying turns since he emerged from Stony Brook University as a genuine big-league pitching prospect. In a way, all of that led him to the All-Star Game last night, when he got to close a game for the greatest closer of all time.
Nathan, like just about everyone else, had assumed Mariano Rivera would pitch the ninth inning if the American League was ahead. But manager Jim Leyland wanted to ensure that Rivera got a proper introduction and exit without someone -- such as Nathan -- potentially blowing the lead. So Rivera pitched an unforgettable eighth inning and Nathan followed him and recorded the save in a 3-0 win.
"Outstanding. To be able to hand him the ball that I saved was pretty cool," Nathan, the Rangers closer, said in the visitors clubhouse at Citi Field. "It's no secret how much I look up to him and to be able to do that for him was awesome."
When he was asked when Leyland told him about the juxtaposition, Nathan said: "He still hasn't. I didn't know. That's why my heart is still racing."
This was guaranteed to be a heart-pounding night for Nathan, who grew up as a Mets fan in Pine Bush, N.Y., in Orange County. He had the good fortune of playing high school ball for someone whose college roommate was Stony Brook coach Matt Senk.
"Stony Brook was a perfect fit for me because it's a great school, which is what I was looking for," he said. "As a high school player, I definitely wasn't good. I wasn't highly touted, so it gave me an opportunity to grow as a person and as a player."
The university's baseball field is now named for Nathan, who has appeared in six All-Star Games.