Brutal Twins loss puts Nathan in uncomfortable spotlight

Joe Nathan
REUTERS/Eric Miller
Despite Wednesday’s disappointment, Twins closer Joe Nathan is on just about the same pace as last year’s performance.

On the days the Minnesota Twins lose a game in brutal fashion, like Wednesday’s come-from-ahead fiasco against the White Sox, the mood in the clubhouse can be dicey. Sometimes it’s a dirge: No music, players hide or bolt early, and those who remain say little. Other times it’s oddly jovial, like nothing bad happened.

Wednesday, a little of both prevailed.

Joe Nathan was one strike from closing a 2-0 victory for Brian Duensing when he surrendered back-to-back home runs to Gordon Beckham and Paul Konerko, both on full counts, to tie the game. Never as a Twin had Nathan allowed two home runs in one inning. Then he walked the next two batters. Both scored with Matt Guerrier on the mound in a distasteful 4-2 loss, tainting an encouraging 15-game stretch that restored the Twins to the A.L. Central race.

Manager Ron Gardenhire, faced with a barrage of questions about Nathan’s sudden struggles, said Nathan “dropped his arm” throwing a nothing slider to Konerko for the tying homer. That means Nathan released the pitch lower than the normal apex of his delivery, a common mistake that reduces the sharpness of the break. A slider with little break, thrown to a power hitter like Konerko, often ends up in the seats. Gardenhire said when he removed Nathan, catcher Mike Redmond told him Nathan was dropping his arm.

But Nathan repeatedly dismissed that explanation to reporters. He insisted he noticed the flaw several appearances ago but did not repeat it Wednesday. It’s not unusual for a player and manager to differ like this, especially if said player doesn’t know what the manager put out there.

Then Gardenhire walked by.

“You don’t think your arm was dropping?” Gardenhire asked Nathan. “Even on the slider to Konerko?”

Said Nathan: “Maybe that one.”

Ah.

By then, normally affable pitching coach Rick Anderson had left in a huff, angered by a question about what was wrong with Nathan — this after calmly doing a TV interview with Fox Sports Net.

“He’s made a few mistakes,” Anderson said with annoyance. “What’s wrong with him? He’s got 35 saves and he’s blown two [expletive] games. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him. He’s had one bad day. He’s been doing a pretty good job up until then.”

Wednesday marked Nathan’s fifth blown save against 35 successes. That’s similar to his pace last year, when he saved 39 and failed six times. One botched save a month is about right for elite closers, though Wednesday’s failure (and Anderson’s reaction) seemed more significant for its placement on the calendar. 

Certainly, prolonged ineffectiveness by one of the game’s premier closers would wreck any chance of the Twins stealing this division from Detroit. Beginning with his 53-pitch blown save and subsequent victory at Kansas City on Aug. 21, Nathan has given up nine hits and six walks in 6-2/3 innings — a lot of base runners for someone who walked seven batters, combined, over May, June and July.

“I’m not a machine,” Nathan said. “They’re going to have base runners sometimes. Every season, I have a week or so where it’s not as easy as it looks sometimes.”

This “slump” coincides with Nathan’s stumble last year, when he blew three saves in four chances on that mammoth four-city road trip in late August and early September while the Republican Convention was in St. Paul. The Twins lost all three games. Win any of them, and that tie-breaker in Chicago wouldn’t have been necessary.

A major-league scout who has seen the Twins lately thinks Nathan might simply be tired. That makes sense. In his first 49 games, Nathan averaged 15.04 pitches per appearance. In six appearances since Aug. 21, he’s thrown 27.33 per outing, thanks in part to his three highest single-game totals of the season — 53, 31 on Wednesday, and 29 on Aug. 24 vs. Baltimore (tying a July 23 effort).

The same scout thinks the Twins should be less worried about Nathan and more concerned about their starting rotation, especially compared with Detroit’s. The Twins lack a starter with overpowering stuff, like Justin Verlander or even Edwin Jackson, and the back end of the rotation might be too young and iffy to handle a pressurized September.

“The question for Minnesota is: What can they get from their Nos. 3, 4 and 5 starters?” the scout said. “They’ve got the great closer. But can they get to him?”

Duensing pitched seven scoreless innings Wednesday, giving him a 1.42 ERA in his last three starts, an effort the Twins wasted. Gardenhire said Duensing and fellow rookie Jeff Manship are staying in the rotation, even if/when the injured Francisco Liriano and Glen Perkins return.

“Got any better ideas?” Gardenhire said. Well, no.

At least the Twins are making it a race, which says as much about the quality of the division as their play lately. Adding Orlando Cabrera, a steady hand at short and a mentor to the young Latin players, and fortifying the pitching with veterans Carl Pavano, Jon Rauch and Ron Mahay, may not be enough. But it placated the doubters in the clubhouse who wondered if the organization cared more about building Target Field than winning the division, especially those who witnessed the 2007 trade-deadline fire sale.

“The one thing we always talked about is, we want everybody to be on the same page and want the team to do well,” Nathan said. “We come here every day and battle our butts off to get to postseason.  Seeing Bill [general manager Bill Smith] do the moves and getting guys in here that can help us out, it’s nice to see.”

Added Gardenhire, who had his own doubts at times: “It made a statement to the players out there in the clubhouse. Sometimes statements can be bigger than the play itself — they’re trying to help us here. Sometimes the statement goes a long way.”

Long enough to the back locker, where Joe Mauer dresses? We’ll revisit that as October approaches.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Dan Hoxworth on 09/03/2009 - 12:03 pm.

    Nathan is human and has pitched several long stretches (a lot of pitches in recent outings). The coaches could have helped by giving his time between the two batters to help him recompose.

    The real story for the Twins is the slump that Morneau is in and the fall off in his batting average. What is amazing is that the recent surge by the Twins is largely done without Morneau or Mauer. If the M & M’s can pick it up now, the Twins have a chance but only if they pick it up NOW!

  2. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 09/03/2009 - 12:09 pm.

    Joe Nathan is so good at what he does, we forget it is NOT automatic that the Twins win when he goes out there in the eighth or ninth inning. Look at all the time the Twins shell other teams’ closers. So he had a bad day. He’s still an All Star and one of the reasons the Twins are in second place in what could be a close finish with Detroit.

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