Joe Nathan made it, just barely, but he made it.
Bases loaded, two outs, bottom of the ninth — Nathan’s first appearance since October 2009 — and Twins manager Ron Gardenhire nearly replaced him with lefthander Dusty Hughes.
"We’re going to protect [Nathan],"
Gardenhire said following Sunday’s 4-3 victory over Toronto. "He was close to coming out of that game."
One year and nine days removed from Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery, Nathan had just thrown his 30th pitch, walking last year’s home run king, Jose Bautista, to load the bases.
Gardenhire had Hughes warming specifically to face Adam Lind, a lefty who was on deck when Bautista drew his walk.
"[Nathan] had 30-plus pitches, so it was kind of a scary moment," Gardenhire said. "But I didn’t want to take him out."
The Twins were understandably tense, trying to avoid a sweep and their first 0-3 start since 1981.
Handed a two-run lead to start the bottom of the ninth, Nathan already had given up one run. He had recorded two outs, and even those were white-knuckle moments: Delmon Young going back against the left field wall for one catch, and Denard Span making a sprinting grab in the right-center gap.
An announced crowd of 35,505 at Rogers Centre was on its feet, screaming.
Nathan, a four-time All-Star, looked vulnerable. His fastball, which averaged 94 miles per hour in 2009, was sitting at 90 to 91 mph. His curveball looked better than his once-potent slider. Nathan, 36, insisted he wasn’t tired.
"I think there you’re just running on adrenaline," he said.
He threw one more pitch, a low curve that Lind bounced impatiently and harmlessly to first for the game’s final out.
Nathan called it a steppingstone, something to remind him that he has done this before. This was his 248th career save.
"But it still feels like the first time when you get out there, for sure," he said.
Gardenhire said the Twins have spoken to Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell, who oversaw Billy Wagner when he returned to closing in 2010, after coming back from Tommy John surgery. McDowell’s advice was to limit the times Nathan has to pitch back-to-back days early in the season and let him gradually rebuild his confidence.