Twins' Nathan yanked indefinitely as Capps takes on closer role

The anticipated return of the Twins' closer extraordinaire has taken a turn for the worse: Joe Nathan blew yet another save to the resurgent Tampa Bay Rays, and now he's done in that role, at least for the time being.

Matt Capps gets to wear that cap, and Nathan, poor Nathan, will step in as a lowly setup man.

Closers have it rough. A starter like Francisco Liriano, himself also a survivor of Tommy John surgery, can give up two to three to four runs in his first inning, settle down, and hope the team catches up. That's not good when it happens, but there's still plenty of game left when it does. He's also given a few more opportunities to fail--over two seasons, in fact.

But you don't bring in a closer when the score is out of reach, you bring in a middle reliever who's typically had a bunch of rest, or a pitcher who's struggling, in the hopes that they can work out some mechanical or psychological issue in a game that's virtually over.

One of the rules of a save is that the closer can only have a cushion of three runs or less. In the last two blown saves, Nathan's had a lead of two runs and one run, respectively. Which is how it should be.

As of late, Nathan seems a bit overwhelmed with adversity. With both meltdowns, he appeared to freak out when someone got some good wood on one of his four-seam fastballs.

Consider Thursday night: it started well for Nathan, retiring B. J. Upton on two fastballs. But the next batter, Felipe Lopez, worked him hard, fouling off four straight pitches after a 2-2 count. Nathan did what he could, mixing up fastballs, sliders, and a curve, before Lopez smacked a four-seamer for a double.

It went downhill from there as Joe walked Ben Zobrist in five pitches. Nathan fell behind again, 3-1, giving the Rays' Matt Joyce something to hit--which he did, doubling in the tying run.

To Joe's credit, he managed to get the next two outs, allowing his friend Matt Capps to come in and throw the game away in the tenth in the Twins' 4-3 loss.

Roughly the same damn shit happened yesterday. Pardon my French, but on the first batter of the ninth, Nathan shot a fastball down the plate on an 0-1 count, and the Rays' Zobrist flattened it. Some closers, like Mariano Rivera for instance, end up shaking off that kind of setback, and finishing the inning typically without further damage. At this point, the game is still tied, of course.

Here's how it went instead: B. J. Upton walked on five pitches, Casey Kotchman walked as well, and two batters later Johnny Damon ends the game with a base hit. That's all she fucking wrote.

I don't believe that this is a question of simple mechanics, that Nathan's throwing pitches that don't move, that get flattened. Rather, it's a disturbing mix of hard hit fastballs (that perhaps don't move, or hang like tetherballs over the plate) and walking men in short order.

No one has quite pinpointed Nathan's troubles. ESPN's Tim Kurkjian suggests that the loss of five to six miles an hour on Nathan's fastball could be the problem. Nathan told Kurkjian "I'd like to blow it past guys", but that ain't happening with a 91 mph heater.

Nathan's story is far from over, of course, since he's in the midst of a big contract, and he was once (and is perhaps still) a great pitcher. But he's sitting on a gaudy 8.44 ERA in 5 1/3 IP, numbers that stink like old cat litter no matter what inning you're throwing.

"He'll need to become more of a finesse pitcher," Kurkjian said. We'll see if our man can adapt. It wouldn't surprise me to see that his next stop is a (hopefully) brief stint in the minors for some rehab and head work.

Joe hasn't had much to work with, of course, since the Twins' anemic offense hasn't given him much wiggle room, or much confidence. As of this writing (Sunday morning), the Twins have scored fewer runs (41) and are tied with the Orioles for lowest on-base percentage in the majors (.284). They also have the lowest slugging percentage in the AL (a puny .310.)

Those are really terrible numbers. It's as if they've fielded a team of Nick Puntos.

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