Joe Nathan earned the save tonight. It was his ninth save of the season, number 256 in his career, and his 255th as a member of the Minnesota Twins. He now has one more save in a Twins uniform than previous record holder, Rick Aguilera.
After Nick Blackburn hurled 6.2 impressive innings, Glen Perkins vultured the win by giving up a run in the 8th before the Twins took the lead on a Jim Thome RBI double. The Twins quickly tacked on two more in that 8th inning rally. For a moment it looked like Nathan would not have a chance for the save, but Delmon Young was thrown out at home to keep the Twins’ lead at three.
In the 9th, Nathan did what we’ve seen him do so many times before.
He began by running a full count to Mike Aviles, but Tsuyoshi Nishioka made a nice play on a soft liner to short left field. For the second out, Jacoby Ellsbury struck out on four pitches – including two nasty breaking pitches for the last two strikes that made the All Star swing like a drunken T-Ball player. Finally, Marco Scutaro bounced out to shortstop. Interestingly, Scutaro now has his name in two footnotes in Twins history: in addition to being the last out in Nathan’s record-breaking save, he also recorded the first hit in Target Field history last April. But this was Nathan’s night, not Scutaro’s, and Nathan played his role perfectly.
He came over to the Twins after the 2003 season in the now infamous A.J. Pierzynski trade. At the time, there was no guarantee that he could be a reliable closer, much less an elite one. Nathan had enjoyed a succesful 2003 in the Giants bullpen, winning 12 games and striking out 83 in 79 innings, but he had no track record finishing games. Nonetheless, the Twins showed faith in him, immediately placing him in the closer role left vacant by Eddie Guardado, and they were rewarded handsomely.
Save number one came on April 15, 2004 against Cleveland. Nathan entered in relief of Brad Radke and shut down the Tribe, racking up two strikeouts in the process, for a 3-0 win. It was the first of 44 saves that season, a number that does not include his biggest save of the year – a shutdown performance in Game 1 of the ALDS, the last playoff win for the Twins so far. He went on to notch 43 saves the next year, 36 in 2006, 37 in 2007, 39 in 2008, and 47 in 2009.
But the last nine saves were arguably the toughest ones of Nathan’s career. By all rights, he should have steamrolled over the team saves record sometime in April or May of 2010, but an elbow injury in Spring Training forced him to undergo Tommy John Surgery. The operation was a success, but Nathan missed all of 2010 and came to camp in 2011 a different pitcher. The velocity was down, and he found himself working very hard to retire hitters who would have been helpless against him before. In the Twins’ third game of the season, Nathan battled his way to his first save of 2011, but within a week he had removed himself from the closer position. But Matt Capps struggled in that role too, and last month Nathan took it back.
Even after he took back the closer role, Nathan has had some trouble reaching the saves mark – not because he has pitched badly, but because the Twins haven’t given him many save opportunities lately. Tonight was Nathan’s first save opportunity since he tied the team record on July 26th against Texas.
Many statheads argue that saves are not a valid statistic for measuring a relief pitcher’s value. No problem: Nathan’s can be measured many other ways. Between 2004 and 2009, Nathan ate 418.2 innings for the Twins and struck out 518 opposing hitters, an incredible 11.1 per 9 innings. He only allowed 120 walks and 271 hits for a WHIP of .93. And his ERA during that span was 1.87. He’s also a four time all star who has finished in the top five in the Cy Young vote twice – no mean feat for a closer. ll thing considered, Nathan has been one of the most reliable relief pitchers in the game. In fact, if Mariano Rivera were not around, Nathan would likely be considered the best closer in the game.
Nathan’s future with the Twins is murky. The team has a $12.5 million option for Nathan next year. If they choose not to pick up the option, there is a $2 million buyout. Given their already high payroll, it is unlikely that the Twins will want to shell out $12 million for a closer of Nathan’s age and injury history, but they will certainly try to ink some sort of deal with him. The team obviously needs his services, given the weak state of their bullpen this year. The only question is whether another team will be willing to pay more.
Wherever he pitches in 2012, his place in the Twins’ Hall of Fame is secure. Nathan has accomplished enough with the Twins to ensure that he’ll be fondly remembered by at least one generation of fans.
So congratulations, Joe Nathan, on your record breaking save! We at Puckett’s Pond hope that you’ll save many more for the Twins.