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TWINS: Nathan new saves king of Minnesota closers

Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer, left, and relief pitcher Joe Nathan, right, celebrate their 8-6 win over the Chicago White Sox after a baseball game and four-game sweep of the White Sox, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2009, in Chicago. Nathan recorded his 44th save of that year. On Aug. 11, 2011, Nathan became the Twins' all-time saves leader. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

MINNEAPOLIS

Joe Nathan was happy just to be joining a good, young team when he was traded to Minnesota before the 2004 season. Becoming the closer was not really on his mind.

"(Eddie) Guardado and (LaTroy) Hawkins were still a part of this team, so I thought I was joining an already very good bullpen and just making them deeper," Nathan said. "I just figured I'd be a seventh- or eighth-inning guy."

In hindsight, it's hard to believe.

Nathan became the Twins' all-time saves leader Wednesday night, locking down a 5-2 victory over the Boston Red Sox with a 1-2-3 ninth inning that moved him past Rick Aguliera with 255 saves in a Minnesota uniform.

"Obviously it's an honor to pass such a great pitcher in Aggie, good human being," Nathan said. "He's an outstanding person. To be able to take over his record means a lot to me, and to be able to stick around this organization, it's a pretty cool thing."

His eighth season in a Twins uniform has been his most difficult. Nathan missed all of 2010 after blowing out his right elbow in spring training. He might have been confident he could pitch this season, but he couldn't be sure. To do so, he would have to recover from ligament reconstruction surgery in 12 months.

That's hard for any pitcher, and at 36, Nathan is closer to the end of his career than the beginning.

"He's been through an awful lot, and there are a lot of people in the baseball circles that said at his age, he probably wouldn't be able to come back and be

anywhere close to the closer he had been," manager Ron Gardenhire said.

But an intense offseason regimen paid off, and Nathan pitched all through spring training, earning the closing job and converting his first three opportunities. But even as he did so, Nathan was cautious, never declaring himself back. His elbow hurt too much, and ultimately put him back on the disabled list at the end of May.

But that's when things got much better. He took eight days off from throwing, and when he started again, the scar tissue that had built up in the elbow began breaking. It hurt, but it was worth it. Once that loosened up, Nathan could extend his arm.

The slider got crisper, and the fastball got faster. He hit 93 mph on the Target Field radar gun Wednesday, close to the 95-96 mph he once threw. And he buckled Jacoby Ellsbury with a slider in the dirt for strike three on the second out.

"Through a lot of hard work and dedication, and a few ups and downs," Gardenhire said, "he's getting close to being that closer again."

Wednesday's save was Nathan's ninth of the season, and he has converted his past six chances. Overall he has 256 saves, one earned with San Francisco before he was traded with Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser to the Twins in a deal for catcher A.J. Pierzynski.

"I still remember the day I found out; I was on a cruise when I got traded over," he said. "I remember it like it was yesterday. Then I come to find out Hawkins leaves, Guardado goes. There was an opportunity there. A little door opened up. They informed me I was going to get a shot to close, and they'd see what I could do.

"Things just kind of took off from there."

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.