How '04 brilliance changed Nathan's career

January 21st, 2022

MINNEAPOLIS -- Toward the start of the greatest closing career in the history of the Minnesota Twins, there was a ninth-inning at-bat by longtime Royals infielder Joe Randa on April 25, 2004. It's an otherwise utterly meaningless at-bat in the grand scheme of the season that still lives on in Joe Nathan's memory.

It was the newly minted Twins closer's sixth save opportunity of the young season, and he was in a spot of trouble -- bases loaded, tying run on second, Randa fouling off pitch after pitch after pitch.

Nathan, a converted starter, would continue to rely on his starter's arsenal throughout his career. But that time, he just fed Randa fastball after fastball after fastball, not giving in, willing and overpowering his way to a popup behind home plate and, in short order, a game-ending strikeout of Tony Graffanino.

"It's those ballgames that you kind of go back to when the season's done," Nathan said. "I think this is the one I went back to and, really, I think I got a lot more comfortable that this is now my position that I can fill in and feel like I've settled into my own a little bit."

He very much settled in -- and made ninth innings his unquestioned domain during an incomparable seven-season run of closing games in Minneapolis.

Nathan is on the National Baseball Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this year and will learn his fate on Jan. 25, when the results will be announced live on MLB Network. He won't be elected this year barring an enormous surprise, and considering how crowded this ballot is, he's in for a fight just to stick around for another year of voting (he needs to be selected on 5 percent of submitted ballots to remain on the ballot next year).

His consideration for Cooperstown hinges on a run of utter dominance in the mid-2000s that coincided with one of the most successful stretches in recent Twins history and landed him at eighth overall on the all-time saves leaderboard, with 377, two spots behind ballot-mate Billy Wagner, whose candidacy could prove a preview for Nathan's own battle for the Hall.

There's a good argument to be made that 2006 was Nathan's most dominant season, and he still looks back on that Twins team and what could have been. But '04 was the season in which he led the American League in win probability added -- even ahead of teammate Johan Santana -- and ushered in a new age of the Minnesota bullpen.

"I'm sure a lot of the fans around there were probably a little worried about the bullpen now that Eddie [Guardado] and LaTroy [Hawkins] weren't there -- established guys that had done so well for them, and obviously, the previous couple of years there in really keeping Minnesota baseball in Minnesota," he said. "All of a sudden, we had a completely different look down there."

When Nathan arrived in Spring Training that year, he was a relatively unknown commodity to Twins fans walking into a wide-open closer competition. Gone were Guardado and Hawkins, who had pitched ninth innings since the turn of the millennium. In came Nathan, only one year removed from his return from arm injury and transition to the bullpen, traded from the Giants with Boof Bonser and Francisco Liriano in exchange for A.J. Pierzynski.

Nathan remembers that the Twins let the relievers know that everyone would be evaluated for the closer role. With that said, the most likely competitors were Nathan, J.C. Romero and Juan Rincon, and though Nathan worried about his lack of Spring Training velocity in making his case for the closer role (he even had to call the Giants to make sure he'd always been slower in the spring), he got the job with a few weeks to go.

"I don't think, all three of us, it mattered one way or the other," Nathan said. "I think we knew what we had there. We knew we had a special team, and we knew we had a really deep bullpen no matter how they lined us up. I don't think any of us was sitting there on eggshells waiting to hear news of where we were going to pitch."

Closing is, of course, a mental game, and Nathan remembered the oft-repeated advice from veterans on his Giants teams like Robb Nen and Tim Worrell -- that it's still just three outs with another number next to the inning marker. He said, rather matter-of-factly, that the only thing that did "make it a little bit tougher" was that if he had an off-day, his team would likely lose.

The fact that he could consider that in such a simple manner likely contributed to why he took so readily to the job from the jump, even though he had one career save to his name when he assumed the closer role for a Twins team eyeing its third straight AL Central title.

He converted his first seven opportunities before blowing one, and that only came on an inherited runner scoring when the Twins asked him for a five-out save. He then converted his next 27 save opportunities in a row, spanning the All-Star break -- during which he was the Twins' lone representative to the Midsummer Classic -- seeing his ERA at 0.82 before he finally hit a rough patch in late August.

A perfect September later, Nathan finished his season with a 1.62 ERA and 44 saves, one shy of the club record set by Guardado two years earlier. Nathan's 47 saves in 2009 remain the most ever by a Twins closer, and his 260 overall in a Minnesota uniform are the most in club history, six ahead of Rick Aguilera.

"The moment you think you're on top and you think you've got everything figured out in baseball, it's going to throw you a curveball and you will figure out that you are the exact opposite -- you've got nothing figured out," Nathan said. "So really, it's about going to the park and really trying to learn something new every day and be ready for those adjustments."

He never did give up on that five-pitch starter's mix, and he figures that helped him weather those adjustments when needed -- not that his performance ever really required the need for many.

From his mindset to his arsenal, Nathan, the onetime professional shortstop and starting pitcher, had everything it took to find his home as one of the greatest closers of all time. It just took him until that 2004 season to finally get there.