Joe Nathan entered Target Field and eventually made his way to the home clubhouse, a walk he has made many times. This one felt strange, even awkward.
Any uneasiness quickly disappeared, however, as he reconnected with a dozen former teammates and coaches inside the Twins clubhouse on Friday. Though he wears a different uniform now, Nathan, the Twins' all-time saves leader, seemed to enjoy his first homecoming and the nostalgia that accompanied it.
"I miss these guys for sure," he said. "This place was very good to me for a long time, so it's nice to be back."
Nathan's visit also served as a reminder that his current team, the Texas Rangers, operates in a different realm than his previous employer. He departed a 99-loss team and joined one coming off back-to-back World Series appearances and espouses a win-right-now mentality.
That explains the nervousness that Nathan's first week as the team's new closer generated within that fan base. In four appearances, he went 0-2 with two saves, one blown save and a 9.00 ERA.
It's never ideal when a manager feels compelled to defend his closer publicly so early in the season, but that's the position the Rangers' Ron Washington took the past few days, saying he knew Nathan "wasn't going to be perfect."
"Joe is the closer," Washington said.
Nathan didn't get the nod Friday in a save situation, however. Alexi Ogando pitched the ninth inning of a 4-1 victory, an interesting development since Nathan got the day off Thursday as well. Washington said he simply wanted to give Nathan an extra day's rest.
Nathan's uneven start shouldn't automatically signal a cause for alarm. He has five strikeouts and no walks in four innings, and he's a veteran who can figure things out and make the necessary adjustments.
If anything, Nathan sounds optimistic about the way he's throwing the ball. His arm feels healthy after he missed the 2010 season following Tommy John surgery and, at 37, he still has a fastball that resides in the low 90s.
"I think now I'm just trying to get back to where I was before surgery, because I feel so good now," he said.
Nathan's early hiccups mostly stem from his inability to locate his slider, although it should be noted that his two poor outings came on a second consecutive day of work, which is not a good sign for a pitcher his age.
"I feel strong," he said. "It wasn't a matter of being tired when I'm out there."
Washington isn't concerned, either.
"The only way Joe won't throw back-to-back is if he labors or he throws a ton of pitches to get those three outs," he said. "We're not babying anybody. Not now anyway."
The Rangers took a gamble by signing Nathan to a two-year, $14.75 million deal to replace Neftali Feliz, who moved into the starting rotation. Feliz faltered in Game 6 of the World Series, but he was an effective closer with electric stuff. The Rangers wanted him as a starter, though, and hit the market for a closer. The Twins couldn't justifiably pick up Nathan's $12 million option, and he found a perfect landing spot.
"I'm at a point in my career where I have one thing on my mind, and that's postseason," he said. "I've been very fortunate in this game to have seen and done a lot of things. But the one thing that I wanted the most has eluded me."
The Rangers put their faith in Nathan, knowing this team is expected to win big. If Nathan pitches to the level he did pre-surgery, the Rangers should remain contenders. If he struggles, the backlash will be hotter than a Texas summer.
"Somebody asked me, 'Does it put a lot of pressure on you when there's so many guys in the pen that can do this job?'" Nathan said. "I said, 'If anything, it takes pressure off of us knowing we have lots of guys that can do lots of different things.' You play 162 games, you're not going to be sharp for some of the games you go out there. You're not going to have your best stuff sometimes. It's how you can make adjustments."
He made a different kind of adjustment Friday, a visitor in a place he once called home. That understandably felt a little strange, but he found it helpful to see some friendly faces again.
"They gave me a wonderful opportunity back in 2004," he said. "I have nothing but good thoughts when I think about Minnesota, when I think about this stadium, the Dome and the fans here. A lot of people treated me and my family very well while we were here, and I appreciate all of it."
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org