Joe Nathan questions the conventional wisdom about closers—that pitching the ninth inning requires something special, a gnarly mien or mental fortitude other relievers lack. "The game's under a microscope then," says the Twins' de facto finisher, who has just one save in a four-year career, "but a lot of the time the seventh and eighth innings are when you'll see men on base or face the middle of the lineup. That's when you'll see the guy who isn't the closer getting the biggest outs in the game."
Nathan's contrarianism will be useful this season. After negotiating the late innings as San Francisco's setup man in 2003, Nathan (obtained in November with two pitching prospects for catcher A.J. Pierzynski) supplants closer Eddie Guardado, whose 86 saves over the last two years led the AL. Guardado signed with Seattle, and eighth-inning specialist LaTroy Hawkins is now with the Cubs, depriving Minnesota's bullpen of its most effective weapons. Says rightfielder Jacque Jones, "We lost a lot of heart—those two guys."
A superb pen separated the Twins from middling division competition as they won back-to-back AL Central titles. Last season Guardado, Hawkins and Johan Santana (before his July move to the rotation) combined for a 2.64 ERA, 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings and a 4.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio while throwing 39% of the pen's innings; Minnesota's other relievers had a 4.61 ERA, 6.2 strikeouts per nine and 1.5 strikeouts per walk. Into that breach steps Nathan, a righthander who, healthy last year for the first time since arthroscopic surgery on his pitching shoulder in 2000, excelled in setting up Tim Worrell. But the ninth is a perilous place. "There are a lot of guys that you say, Damn, this guy should be able to close: He's got arm strength; he can pitch three, four, five days in a row; he has out pitches; he holds runners well," says Twins G.M. Terry Ryan. "The thing that separates them usually is their capacity to handle that responsibility. I don't know if Joe can or not. We'll have to see."
After the surgery it took almost two seasons before Nathan could throw pain-free and get consistent velocity on his bread-and-butter fastball. A fireballer who topped out at 97 mph before his surgery, he had regressed to the low 80s when he began the '01 season; with little else to turn to, he was hammered. "It was basically pro hitters against high school pitching," Nathan says.
While he rebuilt his shoulder strength and his heater, Nathan developed alternatives. He learned a hard, biting slider and honed his changeup; after fiddling with grips, he now throws it off the tips of his middle and ring fingers, which allows him to reproduce his usual fastball motion. By the time his fastball returned to the consistent mid-90s last season, he had become a more complete pitcher. "People told me I'd be better off for the experience because I'd learn to throw other pitches," he says. "It was a positive. I'll throw my slider and changeup in 2-and-0, 3-and-1 counts now, where normally I would have said, 'Here it is; hit it.' " Also in the pen are J.C. Romero, nails in '02 but uncomfortable while battling a pulled groin all last season; righthander Juan Rincon; and, before long, 22-year-old righthander Jesse Crain, who has an explosive fastball and what manager Ron Gardenhire calls "a curveball from hell." Crain devoured Double A hitters last season, striking out 56 and allowing just 13 hits in 39 innings. Should Nathan falter, Crain is the likeliest replacement long-term.
Aside from rookie catcher Joe Mauer, who's replacing Pierzynski, the lineup returns intact, since Ryan devoted the bulk of his free-agent bankroll—$18 million over three years—to resigning leftfielder Shannon Stewart. His arrival from Toronto last June coincided with the Twins' dash past Kansas City in the standings, forcing the club's hand. But he's being overpaid: Though he gets on base (.384 with Minnesota), he has below-average power and arm strength for a corner outfielder and at 30 isn't getting better.
Nor is the bullpen, but should Nathan thrive, the Twins have a fighting chance to match their performance of a year ago. Possessed of a cool, relaxed demeanor, Nathan entered games last year not to throbbing Metallica or Guns N' Roses, but to the title track from the forgettable Mark Wahlberg- Jennifer Aniston film Rock Star—forgettable, except that it's about a talented unknown who, given the opportunity, becomes a star himself.
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