07/12/2004 6:34 PM ET
Nathan transitions into All-Star
New closer impresses league opponents
By Adam McCalvy / MLB.com
MINNESOTA -- Where are the Joe Nathan doubters now?
|Joe Nathan has made a smooth transition into a closer for the Twins. (Ben Platt/MLB.com)
Nathan had exactly one career save before a November 2003 trade sent him to Minnesota, where he became the Twins' closer and replaced "Everyday" Eddie Guardado, a fan-favorite who had saved 86 games in the previous two seasons and made back-to-back All-Star appearances.
He was not the only setup-man-turned closer raising questions. Houston's Octavio Dotel and Oakland's Arthur Rhodes were in similar spots, dealing with similar doubters.
Nathan did what Dotel and Rhodes could not: He answered the questions with authority.
"This is just beyond my dreams," Nathan said Monday, sitting in a hotel ballroom alongside the other American League All-Stars. "I would have never even thought of making this team. Coming into the season, I was trying to fill a spot that was lacking. To be here is just a dream come true."
Nathan's dream first half included 23 saves in 24 chances, third-best in the American League behind a pair of fellow All-Stars: the Yankees' Mariano Rivera (32 saves) and the Rangers' Francisco Cordero (27). He posted a 1.13 ERA in 38 games.
Surprising success for a guy three and a half months into his career as a closer?
"I don't know about that," said Yankees All-Star Tom Gordon. "He looks like he's intimidating; the cat looks like he's seven feet tall!"
Actually, Nathan is listed at 6-foot-4, 205 pounds. He only seems more imposing, especially after not allowing a run in 23 of his first 24 appearances, including all of May.
"Sometimes people say it takes two or three years to understand the closer's role," said Gordon, who has 112 career saves. "If you have the stuff and you have the strength and you take care of yourself, why not figure it out sooner? If that's the case, then he's an example. He's very young but he has a grasp of that role.
"I'm happy to see that happen. If he wasn't having success, the Twins wouldn't be where they were."
Thanks in part to his consistency closing out opponents, the Twins finished the first half at 47-40, a half-game behind the division-leading White Sox.
"I don't know if I had doubts," Nathan said. "It was more of a question mark. I had never been in a closer's role and our 'pen had guys stepping into new roles they had never done before. Guys have stepped up and filled spots and definitely exceeded expectations."
The only drawback for Nathan was that he traveled to Houston alone. While the Indians sent five All-Stars to Houston, Nathan was the lone representative for the two-time defending division champion Twins.
"I know there's quite a few of us that feel we probably should have had more than one guy coming here," Nathan said. "We know we don't get a lot of respect, playing in a small market, and I think it gives us more motivation to beat the bigger teams."
Nathan, who was mostly a starter for the Giants in 1999 and 2000, pitched his first full season in relief in 2003, going 12-4 with a 2.96 ERA in 78 games.
"I love it," Nathan said of the closer's role. "It's like it was when I was a position player. Even if you don't play every day, you have to be ready mentally every day and you have to prepare like you're going to play every day. It's as close to being a position player as you can get."
How has he adjusted to the new role so quickly?
"I haven't tried to do anything differently, mentally," Nathan said. "Even as a starter, I was kind of a guy who would go out there and throw it until I blew out, basically. I would give 110 percent until I was tired and then you needed to take me out. Going to the 'pen, it was not much different."
Nathan said he is looking forward to the second half. The Twins could be tough with the return of outfielder Shannon Stewart, who was activated from the 15-day disabled list on Sunday. Stewart, who finished fourth in MVP balloting last season, developed plantar fasciitis in his right foot and has not played since May 17.
"We battled through some tough situations with injuries and playing pretty bad for a few weeks," Nathan said. "For us to be floating around first place is great.
"Stewart allows everyone else to fill in their spots where they're comfortable. I think he's kind of the missing link for us right now to play with a little consistency. It's going to be fun to have him back."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.