SEATTLE -- Rangers starter Derek Holland was terrific for 7 2/3 innings. Then came the perilous ninth, when Joe Nathan, despite getting one ground ball after another, was in danger of blowing his first save in over three months.But he didn't. "The bottom line is we got the three outs we needed to get off the field," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "Nobody said that 27th out is going to be easy." The Rangers, getting help from a crucial Mariners baserunning mistake, were still able to hold on to a 3-2 victory to open up the second half on Friday night at Safeco Field. The Rangers had a 3-0 lead going into the ninth, but Nathan had allowed two runs and was facing runners at the corners when he struck out Dustin Ackley to end it. "I'll take the 'W,' man," first baseman Michael Young said after the Rangers won their third straight game. With the Angels losing to the Yankees, the Rangers have a five-game lead in the American League West. "It's always nice to generate a little momentum going into the second half," Young said. "We're on a three-city trip, so we'd like to come out and play good baseball right away." Holland helped last year when he opened up the second half with a shutout against the Mariners. He almost repeated that performance on Friday night in his second start since coming off the disabled list. "I'm just happy to be back out there doing something to help my team win," said Holland, who was on the DL from June 6 to July 6. "It's frustrating being on the DL and not being able to help. The main thing is getting back out there and being a part of the team." Holland allowed four hits, walked two and struck out four in raising his record to 6-4 with a 4.57 ERA. He began the night by retiring 10 of the first 11 batters he faced. Then, in a scoreless game against Mariners starter Kevin Millwood, he ran into trouble in the fourth. Getting out of it was the biggest moment of the night for Holland. Casper Wells started the rally with a single to left. Holland then walked Jesus Montero and fell behind 2-0 to Kyle Seager. That's when Washington went to the mound to talk to his pitcher. "I just told him to take a deep breath and do what you have to do to get out of the inning," Washington said. "That was a big, big inning. You never know what might happen if they broke through there." Holland walked Seager to load the bases and bring up Justin Smoak. The former Minor League teammates battled to a full count. Smoak then fouled off four straight pitches before Holland got him to pop out to shortstop. "That was a huge at-bat," Holland said. "Smoak, in my mind, is not an easy out. He can hit pretty good." Smoak entered the game hitting .203 but was also 5-for-15 against Holland in previous encounters. "That was one of the best at-bats I'd had all year," Smoak said. "I got some pitches to hit, hit some balls hard. That was a big at-bat there. Maybe we don't play the bottom of the ninth if I come through there. I just kept battling, battling, battling, but didn't get the job done." Holland then got Miguel Olivo to fly out to right. The Rangers rewarded Holland by giving him a lead on a two-out RBI single by Ian Kinsler in the fifth. Adrian Beltre's two-run home run off Millwood made it 3-0 in the sixth. Millwood had allowed just two runs in 17 innings over three previous starts against the Rangers. Holland responded by setting down the Mariners in order in the fifth and sixth innings. He gave up a leadoff single to Seager in the seventh and left the game after a two-out infield single by Ichiro Suzuki in the eighth. "He just shut them right down," Washington said. "That's what you do when your team puts a run on the board, and he did. Overall, he did an extremely good job." Holland's shutout against the Mariners last season proved to be a portent of things to come. He ended up going 9-1 with a 3.06 ERA after the All-Star break. The Rangers wouldn't mind him doing something like that again. "That's hard to do. ... But he needs to get better," Washington said. "He had some down time, he's a refreshed pitcher. He needs to continue to get better. We believe in him. We're going to keep giving him the ball and hope he continues to progress." Mike Adams got the last out in the eighth, and Nathan took over in the ninth. He retired Montero on a grounder to start the inning, then gave up three straight singles to Seager, Smoak and pinch-hitter John Jaso to load the bases. Michael Saunders then hit a wicked grounder to first that Young couldn't handle, the ball caroming into foul territory. One run scored, but Saunders failed to notice that Smoak was being held at third and Jaso at second. He went too far around first, Nathan hustled over the cover the bag and Young got him the ball to tag Saunders for the second out. "Joe did a great job," Young said. "As soon as I picked up the ball, I saw him there screamming that there was an out to get. We obviously got a big break there." A second run scored on a wild pitch, but Nathan, after walking pinch-hitter Carlos Peguero, struck out Ackley for his 19th save.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.