There were a lot of media members over the offseason who were convinced that because the Twins were going to have a young, inexperienced starting rotation in 2008, that it would be silly to give closer Joe Nathan a huge contract, because he wouldn't have too many games to close.
Well, even though veteran starters Johan Santana and Carlos Silva are gone, Nathan has more saves this year through 75 games that he had at this point last year.
Through 75 games last year, Nathan was 3-1 with 14 saves in 16 opportunities and had a 2.43 ERA.
This year, Nathan has no record but is 18-for-20 in save opportunities. His ERA is excellent -- 1.52.
Nathan, who signed a four-year, $47 million contract this spring, is not surprised by the team's rotation.
"It's just a matter of, these guys are throwing with confidence," Nathan said of the young starters. "I think they're really taking it one step at a time and one pitch at a time out there. They're trying to make this -- not simple, because this game's not simple -- but make it as easy as they can for themselves. Trying to put quality starts, really just trying to give our team a chance to win, to stay in the game."
Nick Blackburn was the latest young starter to put up a strong outing, when he pitched seven innings in the Twins' 6-1 victory over Arizona on Saturday night.
The Twins haven't hit many home runs, but they have done a decent job scoring runs, and Nathan gave his teammates credit for generating enough offense to relieve pressure on pitchers.
"Our guys have been swinging the bats great, so that helps take pressure off of our staff and the bullpen," Nathan said. "Anytime you can go out there and have confidence that our team's going to keep you in the game, it helps."
Nathan pitched the ninth inning of Friday's 7-2 victory over the Diamondbacks, even though it was not a save situation. He struck out the side on 12 pitches.
"I was basically the one guy that really hasn't thrown a whole lot, even though I got to throw here the first game [of the homestand, Tuesday vs. Washington]," Nathan said. "It was one of those things where I think they want to keep me as sharp as they can for the time that I do get out there five out of six or five out of seven days."
Earlier this month, the Twins were swept by the White Sox in a four-game series at Chicago, then lost two of three at Cleveland. They weren't playing very good baseball when manager Ron Gardenhire decided to let the players have it in a meeting.
"I think it definitely woke guys up," Nathan said. "It was something where guys were kind of going through the motions. We were coming to the park, warming up, playing a game, if we won or lost, whatever. So, I think it was a good speech that really woke guys up and let them know that they can't just be comfortable up here. They've got to come here, be ready to work, and play this game the right way.
"I think we're getting back to the way we like to play, the way the Twins like to play the game, and win or lose, we're definitely playing a lot sharper now."
Though some people might be surprised that the Twins are sitting in second place in the American League Central, players aren't, according to Nathan.
"It's something where we're trying to not to say surprised, because we're not so surprised by it," Nathan said. "We always knew we could play this game, but we definitely let it get away from us for a little while [earlier this month]."
To those who wondered how many of the football players who signed to play for Gophers coach Tim Brewster would be admitted to the university, there are 18 enrolled in summer school, according to recruiting director Dan Berezowitz. This group included Sam Maresh, the Champlin Park standout linebacker who requires heart surgery, and the three junior colleges transfers who enrolled in the spring: safety Tramaine Brock, linebacker Rex Sharpe and quarterback David Pittman.
Expected to be at the university on Monday, according to Berezowitz, are MarQueis Gray, Eric Lair, Kevin Whaley, DeLeon Eskridge, Gary Tinsley, Jewhan Edwards, Terrell Combs and Tim Dandridge.
This leaves four recruits -- Traye Simmons, Tim McGee, Vince Hill and Spencer Reeves -- who have schoolwork to complete before they can be admitted.
Brewster said there might be one or two who might not qualify academically, but at present he is optimistic that every one of recruits except Maresh will be in uniform when the Gophers open practice in August.
Twins owner Carl Pohlad had his first tour of the new ballpark on Friday, and the one thing that impressed him was the four decks in the stadium compared with only two in the Metrodome. Pohlad, like others who have taken the tour, can't believe how fast that stadium is going up. Incidentally, the Pohlad Foundation has contributed $50,000 to American Red Cross flood relief and will contribute another $50,000 if the employees of their various companies match it.
Injured Twins relief pitcher Pat Neshek, who signed autographs on Saturday at the team's autograph party, no longer will have to wear the leather cast on his injured right arm effective Monday. Neshek, out for the rest of the season because of an elbow injury, says his recovery is on schedule. ... Chip Hale, the former Twins player who now is the third-base coach for the Diamondbacks, won the Midwest League batting title his rookie year in 1987 with Kenosha. "That hasn't been done very often," said Jim Rantz, the Twins farm director. Hale made his Twins debut in 1989 but didn't stick with the team until 1993, making his mark as an excellent pinch hitter.
It's a baby boy named Casey, 7 pounds, 8 ounces for Twins outfielder Michael Cuddyer and his wife, Claudia. And Vikings center Matt Birk and his wife, Adrianna, are the parents of a baby boy named Grant Matthew, born last week.
The Twins drafted three Gophers players: Nate Hanson, Matt Nohelty and Kyle Carr. Hanson, a 28th-round pick, has signed and reported to rookie league Elizabethton, and Twins General Manager Bill Smith said the team is working on signing Nohelty and Carr.
Bob Gebhard, the former Twins righthander and front-office official and a Minnesota native, is in town with the Diamondbacks, for whom he works in the front office.