NEW YORK -- Joe Nathan was struggling so badly in his first appearance of the season, with the game on the line Sunday in Toronto, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire looked at pitching coach Rick Anderson several times, wondering what to do. Left-hander Dusty Hughes was ready in the bullpen, and when Nathan's pitch count reached 30, Gardenhire was prepared to make a move with left-handed hitting Adam Lind at the plate. A day later, Gardenhire said, "I just couldn't do it. Not after he worked so hard to get here. I couldn't do that to Joe."
Nathan got Lind to ground out, earning the save for the game, the Twins' first victory of the season. It was the 248th save of Nathan's career, and it was maybe as bad and as shaky a save -- 31 pitches, 15 strikes, two hits and two walks in one inning -- as he has ever had. But his first save since having Tommy John surgery in March 2010 speaks to Nathan's tremendous competitiveness, as well as his manager's trust and faith in him and compassion for him.
It is warranted. Nathan had six consecutive seasons of 35 or more saves for the Twins (2004-09); other than Mariano Rivera, there was no better closer in the league in those years than Nathan. But in spring training a year ago, something grabbed in Nathan's elbow, and his season was gone, a second season that he had lost -- he missed the 2001 season with a shoulder injury. But this time was worse. He was in the prime of his career; his team had aspirations of winning the World Series; and he spent the whole year rehabilitating his elbow, a time that Nathan called "pure torture.'' He came to spring training this year ready to go.
"The most touching moment was his first appearance this spring,'' Anderson said. "I shook his hand afterward and said, 'Congratulations, you made it back.' His eyes watered up.''
But there was no time for tears Sunday in Toronto. This time, the game counted.
"I felt like it was the first time I'd ever pitched," Nathan said. "I felt good going out there, but when I got in trouble, I thought to myself, 'OK, what am I going to do to get this guy out?' That's when I knew it really had been a while since I'd been in a pressure situation."
And he came through.
"It was a weight off his shoulders," Twins reliever Matt Capps said. "He got the jitters out. I know how nervous I was when I made my first appearance Saturday, and I pitched all last year. I can't imagine what it'd be like to come in like he did after sitting out all year."
It wasn't pretty, but it was something on which to build. "I got a lot of firsts out of the way," Nathan said. "I got my first hit out of the way, my first walk, my first run, my first bullet that was caught for an out, my first broken-bat hit, my first infield hit. I won't be surprised the next time. I still have to remind myself that we're still early in this process."
On Monday, the day after his 31-pitch save, Nathan said his arm felt great, and he told Gardenhire and Anderson that he would be ready to pitch that night at Yankee Stadium. But there was no way the Twins were going to let him. "If you feel good now," Anderson said, "you are going to feel even better tomorrow night. We're going to use common sense. We know how 'game on' he is. He's going to tell us he can go every night."
Nathan said he likely won't. "That is the one conversation we have had," Nathan said. "I have to be honest with myself. There will be times that I'm going to have to pull back."
Nathan, 36, has been honest about his stuff: It isn't what it was in 2009. Back then, he threw his slider 89 mph and his fastball at times in the upper 90s. "I am 92 [mph] now, not 97," he said. "I hope to get back to 97, or the mid-90s would be nice. I would like to blow the ball by someone again. I still think I can. I hope so. Some of my pitches are better; my curveball is sharper, and I've really worked on my changeup. But I need my fastball."
The most touching moment was his first appearance this spring. I shook his hand afterward and said, 'Congratulations, you made it back.' His eyes watered up.
”-- Twins pitching coach Rick
Anderson on Joe Nathan
Maybe his fastball will come back, as will all his strength and durability. For the next month or so, there will be nights the Twins' bullpen, which is short with the departures in the offseason of Matt Guerrier (Dodgers), Jesse Crain (White Sox), Brian Fuentes (A's) and Jon Rauch (Blue Jays), will be without Nathan because he's just not ready for hard, back-to-back outings. On those nights, Capps will close as Nathan watches, but only for a day, not a season.
On the first Sunday of the season, Nathan was out there, and even though it wasn't pretty, he got it done. He remembered the conversation he recently had with former closer Billy Wagner, who also had Tommy John surgery but came back almost as dominant. Nathan remembered all the lonely days of rehabilitation, just him and his trainers, specifically Chris Johnson. After he saved the game in Toronto, Nathan got texts and other messages from all sorts of friends. Nathan contacted Johnson to thank him for helping him get back to the big leagues.
Gardenhire perhaps jeopardized a victory that day, and a much-needed one at that, by leaving Nathan in for 31 grueling pitches. But sometimes, there are things more important than a victory.
"There has to be a reward," Gardenhire said, "for making it all the way back."
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Tim Kurkjian on Twitter: @Kurkjian_ESPN