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.
So Nathan probably won’t pitch Monday at Yankee Stadium, even though fellow closer Matt Capps has pitched the past two days. The Twins limited Capps to one inning Sunday, possibly with an eye toward a potential save situation Monday.
"We’ve got two closers out there," Gardenhire said. "We trust both of them."
Nathan and the Twins believe he will regain velocity as the season progresses. That’s what happened for Wagner, who was older than Nathan at the time of their respective surgeries.
"I have a newfound respect for guys that go out there and know how to pitch, that’s for sure," Nathan said. "I think it’s going to be a learning process for me to learn how to pitch at this velocity. But again this could be something that really helps me out for when I do get my fastball back."
For now, Nathan can reflect on what he already has accomplished. As Span did a postgame TV interview, Nathan gave him a hug, then exhaled as he slumped against a wall.
"He told me, nice catch," Span said. "And I told him, welcome back."