Joe Nathan, Fernando Rodney, And History
When people ask about the most memorable baseball game I've ever attended, it's an easy answer. The 2009 AL Central tiebreaker against the Detroit Tigers, with its enormously high stakes and staggering momentum shifts, was one of the most intense sporting events I've ever witnessed.
To be there in person, alongside 50,000+ other fans for what would prove to be the second-to-last Twins game ever played in the Metrodome, was an exhilarating experience I'll never forget.
That night also contained what would go down in my mind as the quintessential Joe Nathan moment.
Being that we all saw it up-close, and on the heels of a highly successful run by Eddie Guardo as Twins closer, Nathan's incredible run in the ninth inning for Minnesota may not get the appreciation it fully deserves.
Sure, the save itself – obtained simply by protecting a lead of up to three runs in the final inning – is an overrated stat, and not necessarily a telling one. Plenty of guys have racked up tons of saves without pitching all that brilliantly. But this was certainly not the case for Nathan.
From 2004 through 2009, the right-hander was as good as it gets. Rarely in the game's history will you find a seven-year stretch marked by such consistent and convincing dominance. But you wouldn't guess it on the basis of Nathan's mannerisms while pitching.
Despite his greatness, he certainly wasn't immune to getting himself into sticky situations, and when that happened, he hardly exuded confidence with his nervous pacing and raspberry-blowing on the mound.
However, on the vast majority of occasions, Nathan worked his way out of it, and on that October evening against Detroit he did so in particularly dramatic fashion.
THE TRIPLE FIST PUMP
In the eighth inning, Matt Guerrier had given up a leadoff homer to Magglio Ordonez that tied the score at 4-4. After a groundout, Guerrier issued back-to-back walks, putting the game in a precarious spot.
Joe Nathan time.
The Minnesota closer, wrapping up what would prove to be his last stellar campaign as a Twin, came into the game and quickly induced a pop-up, then froze Gerald Laird on a signature hard curveball to escape the inning.
The ninth would bring its own theatrics. The Tigers opened with two straight singles, putting runners on the corners with no outs. Due up? The Nos. 2-through-4 hitters Placido Polanco, Ordonez and Miguel Cabrera.
Through grit, determination, and a little bit of luck, Nathan got the job done.
First, he struck out Polanco – no small feat. Polanco's 6.8% K-rate that year was second-lowest in the majors. One of the best contact hitters of the era was just looking to put something in play, and couldn't do it, as Nathan caught him looking on an inside slider that caught the corner. Then up came Ordonez, setting up one of the most thrilling moments in a thrill ride of a game.
Nathan fell behind Ordonez 1-0, then grooved a fastball down the middle. The Detroit right fielder connected didn't get all of it, sending a soft liner directly to shortstop. Orlando Cabrera gloved it and quickly whipped the ball to Michael Cuddyer at first to double off Curtis Granderson, who'd wandered just a bit too far off the bag.
Inning over. Tie preserved. Triple fist pump.
RODNEY RUNNING ON FUMES
In the bottom half of the inning, in came Rodney, who was actually at the tail end of his first year as a full-time closer, in which he delivered the kind of performance that would become customary: with a 4.40 ERA and 1.47 WHIP, he was hardly great, but good enough when it counted as he converted 37-of-38 saves.
In this particular game, Rodney put forth an admirable effort, going three full innings for a beat-up Tigers bullpen. But by the 12th, as he approached 50 pitches, the right-hander wore down and eventually the Twins got to him, with Alexi Casilla singling in Carlos Gomez to propel Minnesota into the playoffs.
Rodney took the loss in one of the most memorable Twins games ever. Now, in the twilight of his career, he's joining up. Ironically, Nathan basically did the opposite, joining up with Detroit in 2014 for what was essentially his last burst in the big leagues. In that case it didn't go well (he posted a 4.78 ERA in '14 and made only one appearance in '15 before requiring a second Tommy John surgery).
Obviously, we're hoping things play out better in the case of Rodney, who is coming off – by a number of measures – his best season in years. As he inches toward the end of his own career, he has a chance to gain ground on Nathan and other heralded closers ahead of him. It's not unthinkable he could break into the Top 10 in saves before he's done (he needs 68 more to pass another former Twin, Jeff Reardon, who's currently 10th).
If Rodney is able to help the Twins back to the postseason this year, it'll be celebrated with imaginary arrows instead of fist pumps, but we'll take them all the same. His résumé will never match up that of Nathan – who stands out especially in contrast as the definition of pure dominance in the ninth – but Rodney certainly now has a chance to end things with a redemptive exclamation point.
And if he's not up to the task, the Twins added some valuable insurance over the weekend with the addition of Addison Reed, whose performance over the past couple seasons has been much more reminiscent of Nathan in his prime.