Twins closer Nathan is unsung -- and that's just the way he likes it
He doesn't make headlines, but Joe Nathan has been a star closer since 2004
After failing as a shortstop, he reinvented himself as a right-hander pitcher
He's averaged almost 40 saves since joining the Twins five years ago at age 29
If Minnesota reliever Joe Nathan seems a little neglected as one of major league baseball's elite closers, it's possible that it is by design.
What people don't know can't hurt him. People in this case being AL hitters, opposing dugouts, guys who think they'd like to or could do his job, and anyone else rooting in some way, shape or form for him to fail.
Been there. Done that. Not in any hurry to go back, either. Like a dog nervous that someone might snatch away his bone, he's fine hitting the corners while working in relative shadows, way off in flyover country, indoors, under a Teflon cover.
Better than fine, actually. An imposing 6-foot-4 right-hander who hits 94 miles an hour on the radar gun, stares down from the mound with little emotion and shakes off a rare rough outing as if it was yesterday's skivvies, Nathan has been as consistent as he's been reliable since joining the Twins in a trade from San Francisco in November 2003.
He had one save to his credit, at age 29, when he took the baseball for the first time for his new club in 2004. He has 203 since, in 224 save opportunities (through Monday). The saves rank him fourth in the majors in that time, the success rate (90.6) second only to the New York Yankees' Mariano Rivera (92.3 save percentage, 204 of 221). He is the only pitcher in Twins history with five consecutive seasons of 30 saves or more, including the 39 he got in 2008, along with a 1.33 ERA and 74 strikeouts in 67.2 innings.
As a degree holder in business management -- a pursuit in which Nathan sought refuge for one year, dropping baseball and working out some powerful emotions about the game he'd loved -- he probably can appreciate how slick his "standard deviation'' has been while maintaining his spot among baseball's best finishers. He saved as many as 44 games and no fewer than 36 from 2004 to 2008. His innings have fluctuated from 72.1 to last year's 67.2, his hits allowed from 38 (2006) to 54 (2007). Nathan gave up as few as three home runs (twice), and never more than five (twice). He has ranked third, third, sixth, sixth and fourth in AL saves.
"Among all the closers, his stuff is as consistently good as anybody over the last several years,'' Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon told me on April 28. "I also believe he's very durable and he's obviously got really good makeup. He likes that particular moment.''
As moments go, Nathan qualifies as one of those overnight sensations about 10 years in the making. As good as his run from age 30 to 34 has been -- before the 2008 season, he signed a four-year, $47 million contract extension with a 2012 option worth $12.5 million -- it was his run from age 21 to about 28 that formed and challenged him, and defines him to this day. Consider the chronology:
Age 21: Nathan, a rangy native of Houston, is told in March 1996 by his bosses at the San Francisco Giants' minor league complex that his dream of reaching the big leagues as a shortstop is effectively over. It's the hardest news he's ever heard on a baseball diamond, then or now.
Age 22: Nathan, crushed, takes time off from the game. He goes back to Stony Brook (N.Y.) University on Long Island to finish his business degree. By May 1997, he gets his head around the idea of pitching enough to ask for, and be granted, another chance with the Giants.
Age 25: Learning his craft while building on his fluid arm action and strength, Nathan splits time in 2000 between the Giants and Triple-A Fresno. But in May he feels a sharp pain in his right shoulder while playing catch. He muddles through the season but undergoes surgery that winter on his rotator cuff and labrum.
Age 26: Throwing 83 miles an hour, Nathan gives up four consecutive home runs in a Pacific Coast League game and earns a ticket down to Double-A Shreveport, where he goes 3-6 with a 6.93 ERA. He begins a routine of arm-strengthening drills under the tutelage of Giants minor league coach Bert Bradley, and catches the eye of the Edmonton pitching coach.
"I had seen him before the surgery,'' said Rick Anderson, who moved to the Twins in 2002. "One of our players knew [Nathan], so I said, 'You tell him, if it doesn't work out, to call us.' I'd seen enough to know it's always the second year after surgery [that a full recovery can be made].''
Not that Nathan knew of that lifeline. "I didn't really hear that story until later on,'' he said. "So at the time, I was pitching and I was like, 'Man, I don't know if this is ever going to come back.' You start to see little sparks of life and the velocity's slowing creeping up -- from 83 to 86, from 86 to 88 to 90 -- and seeing that, slow as it is, you know they're improvements. That's what kept me going.
"The Giants never gave up on me, but -- it's weird -- I ended up getting traded over.''
San Francisco got a 12-4, 2.96 season of middle relief out of Nathan in 2003 -- 78 appearances, no saves, no starts -- but sent him to Minnesota with starters Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser for catcher A.J. Pierzynski in November. The trade still rankles in the Bay Area; Pierzynski was released after 131 games with the Giants, went to Chicago and won a World Series, while Nathan has become a two-time All-Star as a lockdown closer.
It's a role that suits him, a job he handles well enough to let his manager, coaches and teammates breathe.
"He recognizes hitters a lot,'' Anderson said. "That's a big thing with pitchers, when they don't recognize what they're sitting on or what they're looking for. If he throws a slider and they take it, he'll throw his next pitching accordingly, where now he's throwing the two-seam fastball and backing off the slider. He's making adjustments from game to game, team to team, month to month or year to year, whatever it takes.''
In the process, Nathan has stayed in an elite corps with all the job security and stamina of a typical NFL running back's career. He has become one of the exceptions, like Rivera or Trevor Hoffman.
"To me, it takes a special breed to be a closer,'' said Anderson, after also marveling at the pitcher's workout diligence. "You've got to be oblivious to what's going on. The crowd, the score, the team. You've just got to go out and focus on the one thing. I've had guys that we've tried to make closers, and they can't do it mentally. He just took off with it.
"Stuff is No. 1. But then, it's what you've got inside. If you think, 'These guys have played their butts off for eight innings, if it gets to me, I can't blow it,' you are gonna blow it. You've just got to be fearless.''
The Twins think now that they've got the best of both worlds, a closer experienced and mature enough to handle the job's pressures, yet with relatively low miles on his right arm. Manager Ron Gardenhire sees few similarities in the personalities of the team's past closers -- Rick Aguilera, Eddie Guardado, LaTroy Hawkins -- but a lot in their work routine. "The one thing they can do: If it doesn't work out for them, they're there the next night,'' Gardenhire said. "They can turn the page. That's kind of the makeup you look for, not somebody who will go in and stare at video and say, 'Hey, I did this, I made a good pitch ...' They just walk away. 'They got me tonight. I'll get them tomorrow.' ''
That got tested last Tuesday, when Nathan pitched for only the second time in nine days and got any rust slammed off him by Tampa Bay pinch-hitter Ben Zobrist, who cranked the reliever's first pitch into the football seats at the Metrodome. That erased the Twins' 3-2 lead, though they won it in the bottom of the ninth. But Nathan got right back in the saddle, pitching a pair of scoreless innings since the blowup.
Gardenhire has been like a merchant Marine with a new suit -- this great closer in his bullpen but few chances to use him, as the Twins have had only eight save opportunities (third lowest in baseball). That will change over another 135 games or so, and Nathan will be counted on to smooth out the rest.
Considering where he's been already, that should not be too hard.
"No doubt,'' Nathan said. "I always say that, no matter how tough it gets on the field, having gone through surgery and battling my way through that, and going through the times I went through in the minors and coming back, man, I don't think anything could be as hard as that.
"First and foremost with me is, if my health is OK, everything else is going to fall into place. I think that takes away a little of the pressure as well. If I go out there and have a tough night, I can say, 'But do I feel all right?' If I do, I know I'll be able to come to the park the next day and see if we can get three guys out. The first thing my wife [Lisa] asks me all the time, if I do have a tough outing, is, 'How does it feel?' If I say, 'All right,' she knows everything's OK.''
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