Rauch makes smooth transition to ninth
Twins' new closer deflects credit while filling in for Nathan
MINNEAPOLIS -- Jon Rauch has kept some baseballs that have significant meaning to him -- including the one from his first big league win, the one from the first time he hit a home run and the one from his first save with the Twins on Opening Day last week.But when Rauch converted the save at the inaugural home opener at Target Field on Monday afternoon, he wanted someone else to have it.
That person was injured closer Joe Nathan, who underwent Tommy John elbow surgery March 26."I've been thinking about it for a while," Rauch said. "He's such a pivotal part of this team and gotten them so far in the past. It's so unfortunate what happened to him in the spring, and the blow he was dealt. He's got to sit and watch. I've been there. I've been on the sidelines watching my teammates play, and it's not a lot of fun. "It means a lot to me, the amount of help he's given me. I figured that was the least I owed him." Rauch has made the transition to the ninth inning look relatively smooth. He's been perfect in five save opportunities through eight games this season. Rauch's five saves are currently the most in the Majors, and he has a 1.80 ERA. Rauch is the first to dismiss any kind of praise, giving as much credit for the success to the other guys in the bullpen who have pitched before him and held leads. But having been through this process himself of getting settled into the closer's role, Nathan said before Monday's opener that such a start can only help Rauch. "I've said all along that he just has to get off to a great start," Nathan said. "Now that he's off to a very good, a very quick start, I think his confidence has got to be better. "It's about getting comfortable and getting everyone's trust around you that you can do this. I think this first week has definitely helped him. He's gotten some trust from the guys around him now." Rauch is the first to say that the Twins' bullpen situation took a huge blow when Nathan was diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow in early March. Nathan, a four-time All-Star, had saved 36 or more games in each of the past six seasons since becoming the Twins' closer prior to the 2004 season. And the club had become accustomed to trusting its successful closer with shutting the door at the end of games. So when Rauch was named Minnesota's closer before the first exhibition game at Target Field on April 2, one of the first things he said was that he'd go to Nathan for advice on the role. Rauch, who tallied 17 saves with the Nationals as their closer in 2008, had closing experience, but he felt this was a different situation. "It helps, but I was also not on a team that's expected to win the division and go to the postseason," Rauch said of his time in Washington. "It's apples to oranges. Yeah, it was a closing situation, but I can't rely on that much." Instead, the 6-foot-11 Rauch spent time talking with Nathan. It was mostly about keeping it simple, the two said of their conversations. The point that Nathan has tried to make to Rauch is not to think too much about the closer title or how it might differ from previous bullpen roles he's held. "It's just three more outs you need to get," Nathan said. "It's just your turn now as the last guy to go out there. There will be adjustments being made. I'm sure he's under the microscope a little more now. Teams will probably scout him more and know what his tendencies are. As he sees adjustments being made, he'll have to adjust to that -- go out and do what he does." There are signs that Rauch is indeed settling into the role. He laughs when asked about nerves pitching in the ninth inning, saying those will never go away. He has picked out the music he'll enter to in the ninth inning, running to the mound on Monday afternoon to Metallica's "Wherever I May Roam," a song he's used in the past. Still, Rauch tries to make it clear to everyone that will listen that he's a temporary fill-in while Nathan is injured. And Rauch wants to make sure that Nathan feels a part of everything while he is around the team as he rehabs from the surgery in Minnesota, thus giving him the save ball on Monday. But while Rauch might not take credit for what he's done so far this season, his teammates appreciate his modesty and they certainly are willing to give their new closer what they feel is much-deserved praise. "I don't know why this guy's being so modest and humble," Denard Span said of Rauch. "This guy is five for five, but I respect that from him. Whatever he's doing, just keep doing it. We're winning; that's all that matters."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.