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Twins pen springs a leak
10/07/2004 1:45 AM ET
NEW YORK -- Twins relievers had won redemption at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday night. Joe Nathan ran out of gas before they could win the game.

"We overextended him, I'm sure," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said after Wednesday's 7-6 loss. "He wanted the ball, but it just didn't work out for us."

Trying to avoid the kind the game-winning rally that would add to Yankees lore, Gardenhire went with Nathan when the game went to extra innings. But after Nathan tied his season high with two innings of work, the Twins took the lead on Torii Hunter's home run in the 12th.

Faced with the choice of a rookie reliever who has never saved a Major League game and a left-handed specialist short on confidence, Gardenhire went back to Nathan for a third inning. By losing the gamble, he ended up watching another chapter in Yankee heroics. Minnesota's relief greatness had merely delayed it.

The conflict about using Nathan in long outings is that while he hasn't done it often, he's done it well when asked. He had just two two-inning outings this season, but the numbers were impressive -- no runs, one hit allowed and six strikeouts, though two inherited runners scored. He didn't allow a run to score in his three outings of an inning plus, either.

His numbers regarding pitch counts weren't much different. Batters improved from a .176 average against him in his first 15 pitches to .224 for the next 15. But in the five outings when Nathan went longer than 30 pitches, opponents managed neither a hit nor walk.

Gardenhire said going into Game 1 that he was willing to use Nathan for longer than an inning if that's what it took to win a game. In a way, he had prepared Nathan for it. With home-field advantage for the Division Series at stake last weekend, Gardenhire used Nathan for the ninth inning in a save Friday night, then brought him back for two innings the following afternoon in the extra-inning affair that was suspended until Sunday.

Three innings, though, was different. His last such outing lasted 2 2/3 innings on May 3, 2003 as a middle reliever in the Giants' bullpen. But what Gardenhire saw and heard from Nathan countered it.

"They asked me how I felt," Nathan said. "I felt fine. I felt good. I felt like I made pretty good pitches out there. Everything felt good."

The results backed it up. He had two hitless innings and struck out back-to-back hitters, including Ruben Sierra on a 95 mph fastball for his final pitch of the 11th inning.

Facts machine
No pitcher had earned a save one day and a loss the next in the postseason since the Cardinals' Steve Kline on October 13-14, 2001, against the Diamondbacks. He saved Game 4 in St. Louis, then lost Game 5 in the ninth inning at Arizona.

Whichever way Gardenhire went was going to be a test -- of Nathan's endurance, Jesse Crain's inexperience or J.C. Romero's confidence. Even if they had a three-run lead going into the bottom half of the inning, Gardenhire said afterwards, Nathan was going out there. The local high school product, pitching with his father in the stands, had earned that right.

"That's the first time he's been into the third inning," Gardenhire said, "but he was still throwing the ball 95,96 miles an hour. He told us he wanted it."

When Nathan fanned John Olerud on a checked swing to lead off the bottom of the 12th, Nathan had three consecutive strikeouts. And then he lost it.

Like a race car running out of gas on the final lap, Nathan's fall-off soon became clear. After a first-pitch strike to Miguel Cairo, he threw nine consecutive balls out of the strike zone. Every fastball he threw sailed high. He recovered to spot a well-placed strike on the inside corner to Alex Rodriguez, but by then he had runners on first and second -- an even worse situation, Gardenhire believed, for his other options.

"He just walked Cairo and he walked Jeter and got behind A-Rod, I think, and then had to come in with a pitch," Gardenhire said. "But the choices are J.C., who has been kind of struggling, and Crain, the kid out there. And I didn't want to put him in that situation.

"And Joe was still flipping the ball pretty good. He's our closer. We know we tried to extend him a little bit, but it's the time of year you have to do that."

His deciding pitch, ironically, wasn't the fastball. He went to a slider on a 1-1 count on Rodriguez and left it over the plate. Rodriguez drove it to left-center for a game-tying ground-rule double that put the winning run on third. Nathan's last four pitches to intentionally walk Gary Sheffield brought his pitch total to 53.

"I got the first guy, but I lost it for a couple of hitters," Nathan said, "and that's what ended up costing us."

Romero came on to force Hideki Matsui to line out, but it was deep enough to plate Jeter from third.

It was a stunning end to a game that had signaled the return of Minnesota's relief dominance. Twins relievers took two losses in a three-game sweep here last week, and both included blown saves. Neither, however, came from Nathan.

Starting with Grant Balfour's entrance in the seventh to induce an inning-ending double play from Sheffield, Twins relievers retired 11 consecutive batters. Juan Rincon fanned four batters in two perfect innings. Rodriguez's double was the Yankees' first hit since his go-ahead single chased starter Brad Radke in the seventh.

The bullpen was all set to be legendary again. They simply ran out of gas.

"It's a roller-coaster," Nathan said, "but like I've always said, you can't go on that roller-coaster ride. You have to stay on that level playing field, whether it's up or down. That's what it's all about. That's the quickest way to bounce back."

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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