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Glen Perkins learns lessons from mentor Joe Nathan — with All-Star results

Perkins assembled a blueprint that won him Nathan’s job, and a spot on this year’s A.L. All-Star Team.

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, catcher Drew Butera and pitcher Glen Perkins shown during a 2011 game at Target Field.
REUTERS/Eric Miller

In the last months of the 2011 season, the easiest way to find Glen Perkins in the Minnesota Twins clubhouse was to find Joe Nathan. Perkins followed Nathan around like a puppy, partly for friendship, mainly because Perkins aspired to be a left-handed version of Nathan – a dominant, reliable closer.

So Perkins watched everything Nathan did at the ballpark, and when he did it – stretching, running, heading to the bullpen, icing his arm. Then Perkins developed a similar routine. By the time Nathan departed in free agency at the end of the season, Perkins assembled a blueprint that won him Nathan’s job, and ultimately a spot on this year’s American League All-Star Team.

“I knew relievers are, by definition, inconsistent, and he wasn’t,” Perkins said last week. “You see guys have a good year, then a bad year, then a good year. Matt Guerrier was one. Jesse Crain was one. Joe was good every year.

“Obviously I knew his stuff was better than a lot of other guys, but I wanted to figure out what it was that made him good year in and year out. He was also older. A lot of guys at his age declined. He was able to maintain it for quite awhile, and obviously he’s still doing it now. I was fascinated by his process.”

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Perkins said this at Nathan’s old locker, one of the four oversized stalls anchoring the corners of the Twins clubhouse. Designed wider and deeper than the others, they were originally assigned to the four biggest Twins stars when Target Field opened in 2010 — Nathan, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer. Each was an All-Star at least once after the park opened. Perkins claimed Nathan’s space this season.

Stardom is no longer a requirement; Jamey Carroll took Cuddyer’s old stall last year, and Mike Pelfrey lockers there now. But Perkins, with his first All-Star selection, maintained the tradition, though he sweated out the last two weeks waiting for word.

Fans vote for the starting position players, while players, coaches and managers vote for the pitchers. The All-Star manager – in this case, Detroit’s Jim Leyland for the A.L. – names replacements for injured players. Every team must be represented. Perkins knew he had two things working against him: The Twins’ crummy record, and Joe Mauer’s likely selection as the A.L. starting catcher. Bad teams often get only one All-Star.

But Perkins also had two big pluses: the scarcity of lefthanders among elite A.L. relievers and Leyland’s respect for the Twins as an A.L. Central Division rival. Perkins has done some of his best pitching against the Tigers, too. In two years of closing, Perkins hasn’t allowed an earned run to Detroit in 15 appearances while averaging a strikeout an inning. This year, he is 1-0 with two saves in four games.

Leyland picks Perkins

That’s why Leyland chose Perkins, whose 20 saves are tied for seventh in the A.L., as an injury replacement for Crain, of the White Sox. Perkins joins Brett Cecil of Toronto as the A.L.’s only lefty relievers. With the Twins well into a third consecutive putrid season and minor-league help a year or more away, Minnesota products Perkins (Stillwater) and Mauer (St. Paul) at least give Twins fans a Midsummer Classic to anticipate.

Naturally, Perkins watched his Twitter feed blow up in the hours after his selection. So he tweeted this: “To EVERYONE who has written me tonite, thank you. I am beyond humbled. But mostly this is for you, Minnesota. I am #OneOfYou.”

The best part of July 16 game at Citi Field: It reunites Perkins with his buddy Nathan, an All-Star with Texas and one of seven ex-Twins chosen between both teams.

“When Joe was here, he was kind of the leader in the bullpen,” Mauer said. “He was great for guys like Glen, Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier. You had guys watching one of the best closers in the game for years, and it definitely had an effect on Glen.”

That leadership helped Nathan and Perkins bond when Perkins arrived as a rookie reliever in 2006 and ‘07. Perkins, Crain and Guerrier all hung out with Nathan on the road, eating lunch together and sharing cabs to the ballpark.

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“He gave me the time of day,” Perkins said. “Being a multiple-time All-Star, when a guy like that treats you that way, you gravitate toward him. He became a mentor for me.”

Studied every move

After two seasons as a starter, Perkins returned to the bullpen in 2010, when Nathan had Tommy John surgery and missed the entire season. With Crain and Guerrier gone as free agents by 2011, Perkins and Nathan paired up to play catch and run windsprints. And Perkins studied Nathan’s every move.

“From the moment he arrived at the field to the moment he left, he reminded me of Jim Thome in that you always knew where he was,” Perkins said. “He was always doing something. If it was before the game, he was getting something done with the trainers on his arm, or working out, or running. After the game, if he pitched, he put his elbow in an ice tub instead of wrapping it. Stuff like that. His routine at the field was so rigid, and I think that helps. It’s not like, `I had a crappy game last night, I don’t feel like doing anything.’ He did the same thing every day no matter what.”

During games, Nathan watched the first four or five innings in the clubhouse, did some stretching, then popped into the dugout for a bit before heading for the bullpen in the sixth. Once Nathan started stretching in the eighth, that cued everyone to leave him alone.   

“I do so much of the same stuff he does, it’s sickening,” Perkins said. “I like that routine of getting stretched in the third inning, doing flexibility stuff, doing strengthening stuff that gets you ready, so when I go out to the bullpen, I’m loose and I’m warming up and I’m ready to go. I’ll always ice after games, even if I just warm up in the bullpen or throw 30 pitches.

“It’s all the little stuff that you do throughout the day that makes you feel good when you go out there.”

When the Rangers were here in April, Nathan downplayed his influence on Perkins. But he never doubted Perkins would thrive as a closer.

“He’s got the tools,” Nathan said. “He’s got the mindset for it. He’s very laid-back. I don’t want to say he has a doesn’t-care attitude, but an attitude like, `I’m going to go out and give you my best stuff. If it’s enough, great. If it’s not, I’ll see you tomorrow and try to get you again.’ He’s got that kind of attitude to go along with the job, which is why he’s so successful.

“It doesn’t hurt that he throws 95 mph from the left side, either.”  

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The other thing Perkins learned from Nathan: Skip the gimmicky save celebrations. You won’t see Perkins pretending to shoot an arrow, like Tampa Bay’s Fernando Rodney, or dancing around like Leyland’s former closer in Detroit, Jose Valverde.

“He gets fired up, believe me, but you don’t see it on his face,” said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. “He’s not one of those rah-rah guys when he strikes somebody out either, which probably is good. There’s enough that comes with the territory of closing a game out. If you can tone that down and still stay in command of yourself, that’s what good closers do.

“If you look at Nathan, he looked like he was going 10,000 miles a minutes – still does – touching everything, Nervous Nellie. But he wasn’t, really. It was routine. He was calm.”

And now, like the 38-year-old Nathan, Perkins is an All-Star.

“It’s good to see that he’s still doing it,” said Perkins, 30. “Hopefully in seven or eight years, when I’m that age, I can continue to do that and be in the spot that he’s in.”