La Velle E. Neal III has covered baseball for the Star Tribune since 1998 (the post-Knoblauch era). Born and raised in Chicago, he grew up following the White Sox and hating the Cubs. He attended both the University of Illinois and Illinois-Chicago and began his baseball writing career at the Kansas City Star. He can be heard occasionally on KFAN radio, lending his great baseball mind to Paul Allen and other hosts. Mark Rosen borrows him occasionally for WCCO-TV.

Nathan has 'significant' tear of elbow ligament; season in doubt

Posted by: La Velle E. Neal III Updated: March 9, 2010 - 9:15 AM

Closer Joe Nathan has a significant tear of the Ulnar Collateral Ligament in his right elbow, a potentially devastating blow for the four-time All-Star - as well as to a team that's dreaming of a postseason run.

The Twins announced the injury during a quickly assembled press conference inside manager Ron Gardenhire's office that also included a nervous Nathan, GM Bill Smith and pitching coach Rick Anderson.

While surgery certainly looks to be imminent, Nathan will take two weeks to let the swelling in the area subside. He'll work with the trainers to strengthen the muscles around the elbow. And then he will try to pitch. He's prepared to pitch in pain - given the huge expectations placed on the 2010 Twins - and is prepared to tests the limits of his tolerance level.

If that doesn't go well, Nathan will have surgery that will end his season.

``I'm going to do whatever I can right now to give myself the best chance to go out there and help this team out,'' Nathan said, ``but at the same time, I'm not going let this go on too long because at the same time, I know these guys have a decision to make, and they've gotta prepare for the season, too, so I will make a decision quicker rather than later and give them ample time to do what they have to do.''

Smith said the club will send results of the exam to Birmingham, Ala., specialist  Dr. James Andrews to get a second opinion.

`We're going to send the test results off and get a second opinion,'' he said. ``We probably won't have a final decision on where we're going for a week or two. Let it calm down, get some of the soreness out and re-evaluate from there.''

Andrews removed bone chips from Nathan's elbow during the offseason out of concerns that one of the chips could do damage to the ligament. He said early bullpen sessions went smoothly, and he headed to spring training optimistic that he was fully healed.

But he felt tightness and discomfort in his elbow while throwing a pitch on Saturday against Boston and was removed from the game. That's when the decision was made for him to return to the Twin Cities for further examinations.

What now?

If Nathan ends up on the operating table, the Twins will be challenged to replace one of baseball's best closers. No closer in baseball has more saves since 2004 than Joe Nathan's 246 (Mariano Rivera has 243).

No one on the staff has numbers that come anywhere near Nathan's 247 career saves. Here are career saves of the rest of the Twins relievers:

Jon Rauch       26  - 17 with the Nationals in 2008

Matt Guerrier     4

Clay Condrey    4

Jesse Crain      2

Pat Neshek       0

Jose Mijares     0

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said the club will start looking at other closing options immediately.

``In-house, yes, we've got candidates out there,'' He said. ``If we have to go that route, we'll find one.''

I don't think the Twins will go with a closer-by-committee. They had all kinds of trouble in 2008 when they tried a set-up man by committee, and Gardenhire regretted doing that. We'll be on the watch for any signals that point to whomever fills that role.

It's unclear if the Twins look outside the organization.

``Obviously, we're going to have to start thinking about that,'' Gardenhire said of contingency plans. ``Right now, until they tell us, Joe's not going to pitch, he's our closer, we'll go from there. But we have to start looking in other directions and start the process. This kind of all of a sudden came up, and it is what is is. No one's going to cry for us. We just have to kind of make our way through it.''

 

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