Nathan appears and gets job done

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 8, 2011 - 10:55 PM

The crowd was loud and the situation tense, but the Twins closer responded with save No. 250.

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Twins closer Joe Nathan breathed a sigh of relief after he shut down Oakland in the ninth inning and preserved a 2-1 victory in the team’s home opener Friday.

"Stand Up and Shout" already was pumping when the bullpen door swung open to start the ninth inning, but the Target Field crowd didn't need Steel Dragon's cue to erupt.

"The place kind of started shaking," said the object of that clamor. "It's the loudest I've ever heard a crowd in this city."

That's saying something, considering the decibels that once reverberated around the Metrodome. But of course the Opening Day crowd went jet-engine raucous -- it's as if Twins fans collectively remembered all at once: "Hey, Joe Nathan is on this team!"

It had been 18 months, an elbow surgery and one ballpark ago since Nathan last threw a pitch in Minnesota, an out-of-sight-out-of-mind eternity so lengthy, Nathan's name doesn't even appear in the scorecard the Twins sold on the concourse. But as he stood on the Target Field mound, he looked as though he had never been away.

"It picks you up to see him run out of that bullpen," right fielder Michael Cuddyer said. "We've been missing that."

Everyone had. Starting pitcher Carl Pavano turned to manager Ron Gardenhire during the clamor and said, "If that don't make you get the jitters, nothing will."

Nathan got them, too -- and that's a problem for a closer. The score was 2-1, after all, and it's his job to make sure it stayed that way.

"The fans were definitely electric at that point. They kind of got me going a little bit -- almost too much," Nathan said. "I used the warmup pitches, really, just to calm down. It wasn't about getting loose, it was about taking a deep breath and trying to settle in."

If Nathan looks the same, however, he realizes it's just an illusion. His arm feels good, but it's not completely recovered from the ligament transplant he received only 12 months ago. His fastball topped out at 92 miles per hour, his slider is in the mid-80s, and getting those final three outs now is more chess than riflery.

"I'm just trying right now to piece things together," Nathan said. "This is the first time in a while I've really had to go out and concentrate on pitching, rather than just reaching back and throwing."

It showed in the final two outs. With a runner aboard on an infield hit, Nathan faced A's cleanup hitter Josh Willingham, who can turn a stray fastball into a tape-measure job, and Hideki Matsui, a lefthanded slugger. Both times, Nathan got to two-strike counts, then went to a pitch he hadn't planned to rely on: slider.

Willingham froze as the 85-mph pitch caught the corner for strike three. Matsuii swung late and popped to short, sealing Nathan's 250th career save.

"It didn't feel too great in the pen, but I got out to the game mound and threw a couple, and it felt pretty good," Nathan said of Friday's out pitch. "I shook to the backdoor slider on the last pitch to Matsui. So I felt pretty good about today."

Judging by the noise, a lot of people did.

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