Nathan takes challenge and runs with it

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 29, 2011 - 11:58 AM

Called on in a stressful eighth inning, the reliever excelled as the Twins ended a skid.

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With the Twins riding a six-game losing streak and coming off a 15-0 loss, manager Ron Gardenhire knew how much was at stake Tuesday night when he turned a two-run lead over to Joe Nathan in the eighth inning.

The Dodgers had a runner on first, no outs, and National League triple crown candidate Matt Kemp at the plate.

Nathan had a 7.71 ERA and hadn't been in a situation this stressful since late May, before he went on the disabled list because of a strained flexor muscle in his surgically repaired right elbow.

"We had used up pretty much our whole bullpen [Monday]," Gardenhire said. "It was just going to be on Nathan's shoulders to get it done."

Nathan welcomed the challenge, delivering a stirring performance to help preserve the 6-4 victory at Target Field.

"It was nice to get into a game where I had some good adrenaline out there," Nathan said. "Definitely some excitement."

The tension built gradually before Nathan entered. Trailing 4-1, the Dodgers came back to tie it with three runs off Twins starter Brian Duensing in the fifth inning, but Luke Hughes answered with a two-run homer that same inning.

Duensing (5-7) had the lead again, but he hit Juan Uribe with a pitch to open the sixth. Gardenhire needed 12 outs, and righthander Alex Burnett got four of them.

Glen Perkins got two outs to end the seventh, but Andre Ethier singled to start the eighth, and Gardenhire summoned Nathan to face Kemp.

Nathan had made one appearance since returning from the DL -- in Saturday's 11-1 loss in Milwaukee -- and given up a home run to Corey Hart.

"That outing definitely helped," Nathan said. "It let me know that my fastball was better. I think my breaking pitches were a little sharper. Even though I did give up the home run on a good at-bat by Hart, it definitely gave me peace of mind."

With Kemp staring back at him, batting .332 with 22 homers and 63 RBI, Nathan threw nothing but fastballs.

It was a stark difference from Nathan's early-season outings, when he relied heavily on breaking pitches. Kemp chased the last pitch, a 93-miles-per-hour heater low and away, for a strikeout.

"I think that's one of the things he had talked about is being able to use his fastball a lot more," Gardenhire said. "He went out there tonight, and we were looking for breaking balls, and he kept pumping fastballs. So I guess he was serious last time he said that."

Seventeen of the 19 pitches Nathan threw in the inning were fastballs. Asked about that, he smiled and said he was just going with the sign catcher Rene Rivera gave him, just as he always does.

After getting Uribe to ground into a fielder's choice, Nathan continued throwing fastballs to pinch hitter James Loney. Then, on the seventh pitch of the at-bat, Nathan threw an 83-mph curveball that twisted into the dirt. When Loney swung and missed, Nathan pumped his fist.

Closer Matt Capps stranded two runners on base in the ninth inning for his 12th save in 17 chances.

"Myself and this team have to hopefully use this game and use this as a little boost to get something going," Nathan said. "It seems like we win eight [in a row] and we come back and lose six in a row. We're just trying to get consistent. These streaks are killing us a little bit.

"And it's tough when it seems like we've got a new team on a daily basis, very difficult to figure out who we are when we have new faces every day."

Nathan is a familiar face who has played a huge role in the past. On this night there was hope he's ready for a big second half.


    Up next: 12:10 p.m. today vs. L.A. Dodgers

    Target Field • TV: FSN (1500ESPN)

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