The former Twins closer wanted to pitch for a team on the rise and got his wish, even if it meant cutting close Minnesota ties.
ARLINGTON, TEXAS - Before Thursday's game, Rangers closer Joe Nathan spent a long time talking with Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson behind the batting cage at Rangers Ballpark. On Friday, Nathan stood out in the outfield with Justin Morneau and other Twins players for several minutes, catching up with his former teammates.
There's a piece of Nathan's heart that is still in Minnesota, where he was given a chance to close and become one of the best in the game for seven seasons and a club-record 260 saves. But his desire to be on a winning team has taken him deep in the heart of Texas.
"It's been good," he said. "It's been fun. It's been everything I expected, and more."
Nathan signed a two-year, $14.5 million deal with a club option for 2014 at $9 million. There was a little bit of a risk because Nathan, 37, was a year removed from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery. But it's all clicked back together for Nathan, who hit 96 miles per hour with a fastball earlier in the season, with a slider that touched 90. Those were the tools he had in his toolbox when he dominated for the Twins.
Nathan is 2-3 with a 2.59 ERA for the Rangers while sitting on a club-record streak of converting 23 consecutive save opportunities. He's 25-for-26 on the season, and his career conversion rate of 89.65 percent is the best among any pitcher with at least 200 saves. The great Mariano Rivera is second at 89.28.
"He's been the same Joe that he's always been," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "He's been in every situation; nothing rattles him. His stuff has been great, like it was a few years ago."
Nathan is pitching like he's in his early 30s again, and the Twins can't help but to think about the years they thrived with him as the last man standing.
"It's tough to watch because he's a guy we miss and a guy we enjoyed having around," Morneau said. "He's one of my favorite teammates I've ever played with. It's hard to see, but at the same time it is what you expect him to do."
The Rangers have the best record in the American League and the second-most home wins in baseball. They are strong defensively and have one of the top draws in baseball in outfielder Josh Hamilton. They lead the AL West division by six games over Oakland and appear well-equipped to reach the World Series for the third year in a row.
It's exactly what Nathan was looking for when he became a free agent following the 2011 season. As much as he enjoyed his time in the Twin Cities, the Twins didn't offer the path to the postseason that the Rangers did. The Twins have the worst record in the AL and appear to be headed for a 95-loss season.
"The whole time I was like, 'Is there any chance of me going back to Minnesota?' " Nathan said. "There always was, but the main thing was, where is this team going? Where is Minnesota going? And I did not see them going in the direction any time soon, where I wanted to be fairly quick. So that was a tough spot.
"Obviously, looking where they are now, it's tough with what they are going through for a second straight year. But I see a lot of good things with the [young] players. I see guys who can do some really good things in this game."
Nathan is a medical marvel of sorts. He missed the entire 2001 season because of shoulder surgery and then missed 2010 because of Tommy John surgery. He has bounced back both times. This season has him confident that he can pitch at a high level through the end of his contract.
How much longer will he pitch beyond that? He was primarily a shortstop in college, so he believes he has pitches left in his arm.
And he's starting to wonder how his body will react when he's 40.
"I know my wife will probably disagree and want me to be done before I do," he said, "but I think as long as my body holds up and teams are willing to show some interest, why not continue to play this game as long as you can, as long as your body allows you to?"
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