More than a year and a half removed from his last major league save, Twins right-hander Joe Nathan took the mound in the ninth inning Sunday looking for his first save since Oct. 3, 2009. He got it, but it didn't come easily.
Nathan gave up a single, a double and two deep flyballs that required solid defense to be caught. He also walked back-to-back hitters to load the bases with two outs before getting a groundout to first base to end the inning. But no matter the results, Nathan said he would have been pleased.
"I think this was a win for me regardless," he said, "just to get back on the mound."
Nathan, who had Tommy John surgery last March after tearing his ulnar collateral ligament in a spring training game, still is not back to pre-surgery form. His fastball on Sunday was 90-92 miles per hour (it was 94-96 before surgery) and his slider is still suffering. That meant that on Sunday he had to rely heavily on his curveball.
"It's not the same," Nathan said of his velocity, "but that's one thing I hope gradually improves as we move on through the weeks. I'd definitely rather pitch at mid-90s, as opposed to 90, so I have a newfound respect for guys who go out there and know how to pitch, that's for sure.
"It's something that I think is going to be a learning process for me to learn how to pitch at this velocity, but again this could be something that really helps me out for when I do get my fastball back. When I had surgery before I figured a slider out, and this could be a time for me to kind of learn how to pitch a little bit more as opposed to just relying on velocity and having a fastball that guys have to respect a little bit. Now, I feel like they're not really respecting the fastball and they can kind of sit on other stuff."
Nathan needed 31 pitches to get through his inning, and his pitch count had manager Ron Gardenhire so concerned that LHP Dusty Hughes was warming in the bullpen.
"It was kind of a scary moment," Gardenhire said. "I didn't want to take him out. I wanted him to get (Adam Lind) out. I don't (think) in your first closing situation you want somebody else giving it up for him."
Center fielder Denard Span, who helped Nathan out in two ways Sunday -- first by hitting a solo homer in the top of the ninth for an insurance run that proved necessary and later by making a sprinting catch on a fly ball to center field in the ninth -- said Sunday's win had extra meaning because Nathan got the save.
"I was getting hyped out there," Span said of the ninth. "We hadn't seen him out there in a whole year. Everybody watched him rehab all last year, knowing what he had to go through, and it was good to see him out there competing once again in that closing spot. He did what he's been doing for so long."
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