Twins' Gardenhire taps Rauch to close

MINNEAPOLIS -- With four-time All-Star Joe Nathan's season over before it started, the Minnesota Twins have turned to the tallest pitcher in major league history to take care of the ninth inning -- right-hander Jon Rauch.

Manager Ron Gardenhire announced the news before Friday's exhibition against the St. Louis Cardinals, which started on time after rain through the morning and early afternoon put the first Twins game at Target Field in doubt.

There are questions about Rauch's ability to succeed in the closer's role like Nathan has, but with his thick, 6-foot-11 frame and a body covered in tattoos, Rauch at least has the intimidation part down -- even if he doesn't have overpowering stuff.

"I just hope he goes and uses all of his pitches," Gardenhire said. "I think he will. He's been pitching long enough. I know this about him: Last year, good outing or bad outing, he was the same person. He didn't change, and you need that mentality. You're going to have a few downers. Hopefully not very many."

Nathan had Tommy John elbow surgery last month, but he'll be around the team all year while he rehabilitates the injury. Rauch plans to seek advice from him often.

"He's got a lot to offer, and I've got a lot to learn about it," said Rauch, whose only prior experience in this role came in 2008 when he had 17 saves in a half-season with the Washington Nationals.

Gardenhire told Rauch of his assignment on the team plane on Thursday, and the 31-year-old said he thought it was an April Fool's Day joke.

"I don't really make anything official until he comes out and says it's true," Rauch said. "It's an honor to be thought of in that job and that they have the confidence in me to do that. Hopefully I can just try to do somewhat of the same job that Joe did for the past few years."

Gardenhire said last week he would start with a committee approach, but in explaining his decision on Friday he said he wanted the bullpen roles defined before the regular season so his relievers could focus. Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain, Jose Mijares and Pat Neshek will be the main men in the middle.

The Twins considered Francisco Liriano, who will be in the rotation, but he's more comfortable starting. They could also still trade for an established closer, but for now the job is Rauch's.

"This is our ballclub. The organization is doing what they can, and other people are all interested in our players," Gardenhire said. "So we'll see. We're going to go here in a couple days and start a season. We're excited about this."

As is Rauch, though he acknowledged some nervousness about the responsibility.

"You don't want to be the guy who screws up in the end," he said. "I'm just going to try to do my best."

Rauch was struggling with the Arizona Diamondbacks when acquired by the Twins last August, and he went 5-1 with a 1.72 ERA in 17 appearances after the trade.

"Hopefully I can just continue that through this season," he said, adding: "I just want to pitch and help the team win games regardless, whether it's in the fourth inning, fifth inning, whatever. I want to be out on the field. I want to be given the ball and given an opportunity to help the team win games."