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Patience turns Nathan into elite

MINNEAPOLIS -- Joe Nathan was summoned to a meeting at the San Francisco Giants minor league complex at Scottsdale, Ariz., late in spring training 1996. He was told that to realize his dream of a major league career he would need to switch positi...

MINNEAPOLIS -- Joe Nathan was summoned to a meeting at the San Francisco Giants minor league complex at Scottsdale, Ariz., late in spring training 1996. He was told that to realize his dream of a major league career he would need to switch positions -- moving from shortstop to pitcher.

Nathan became so emotional that he admits to shedding tears. After composing himself, he walked out of the office and out of professional baseball for a full year.

Despite being selected as a shortstop-pitcher in the sixth round of the 1995 draft out of NCAA Division III Stony Brook (N.Y.) a year earlier, Nathan balked at what he heard that day from Jack Hiatt, then Giants director of player development, and Keith Bodie, then Giants minor league field coordinator.

"His heart was set on playing shortstop," said Bodie, now the pitching coach for Class A Salem in the Houston Astros chain. "He took it as a slap in the face."

Trying to hold back the tears, Nathan told Hiatt and Bodie that he needed some time off.

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"To be told after years and years of doing something that I've got to start over -- and the whole thing about not going to be breaking (minor league camp) with the team -- it was definitely a tough day," Nathan said. "All I could think of was that I was playing better than some of their shortstops that they have who are breaking camp. This isn't right, I should get another shot at being a shortstop for another season."

History has provided a different perspective. More than a decade after that career-altering decision, Nathan has become one of the best relief pitchers in the major leagues, averaging 40 saves in his first four seasons with the Twins and setting a pace to surpass that figure this season.

"I'll say it now," Nathan said, "that it was the best decision I've ever made."

After leaving the Giants in 1996, Nathan returned to Stony Brook, now an NCAA Division I program, and earned a degree in business management. But the degree was a secondary goal.

When Nathan walked out of the Giants office, he fully intended to give baseball another try. But emotionally, he wasn't prepared.

Nathan thought he was making progress as a shortstop, even if his 1995 year at split-season Bellingham didn't show it; he batted .232 with three home runs and 20 RBIs and committed 26 errors in 56 games. But Nathan believed he had adapted to the speed of the pro game during the following spring training.

At the time, Nathan had limited experience as a pitcher. He went to Stony Brook as an unheralded player from Pine Bush (N.Y.) High who stood 5-7 as a high school sophomore and still only 6-1 when he graduated.

He threw a total of three innings his senior year at Stony Brook. Giants scout Alan Marr, who signed Nathan, has a great relationship with Stony Brook coach Matt Senk and suggested that Nathan get a shot at pitching.

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"When I was able to watch him at shortstop and throw the ball across the diamond, it was about his arm action," said Marr, now a Baltimore Orioles national scout. "It looked like a pitcher. It was fluid. It was loose."

Later that season, Senk arranged for Nathan to throw in the bullpen in front of some scouts. Nathan said he threw 99 percent fastballs, just to show them pitching could be a fallback option for him.

"All scouts use stats, but it's all about the tools," Marr said. "Here's a kid who was 6-4 with a great body and his arm worked great and he could swing a bat."

After the Giants doused his dreams to be a shortstop, Nathan spent 1996 working out with the Stony Brook team while earning his degree.

For the first time, he focused on the mechanics of pitching.

"So going back to school was great to get my degree at Stony Brook but to allow myself a chance to work out and really get my mind right," Nathan said. "Just saying, 'All right, I'm going to be a pitcher. Let's give it a shot.' "

Nathan contacted Marr shortly before he graduated, and Marr put him in touch with San Francisco general manager Brian Sabean. Nathan was asked to write a letter explaining what he did in his year away and why he wanted to return.

Two days after graduation in May 1997, Nathan was on a plane bound for Arizona -- and another chance.

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He opened that year in the bullpen at short-season rookie league Salem-Keizer but finished in the starting rotation. He went 2-1 and was second in the league with a 2.47 ERA. His fastball exceeded 90 miles per hour, and he said he immediately had a good feel for a curveball. Mastering a changeup would take more time.

On April 21, 1999, only two years after taking pitching seriously, Nathan was called up to the majors from Class AA Shreveport and debuted for the Giants against Florida. His first major league pitch hit 97 mph. He tossed seven shutout innings and held the Marlins to four hits and three walks while striking out four.

Nathan spent the rest of the season bouncing between the majors and Class AAA Fresno and opened 2000 in the Giants rotation.

But his career took another unexpected detour in early May that year, when he experienced shoulder pain playing catch between starts.

"That's when I first felt it," he said. "I was like, 'Oh my gosh, it hurts.' I couldn't even play catch. I had to stop. I was like, 'I'll be all right. Give me a couple days rest and I'll be fine.' "

But he wasn't. Nathan was on the disabled list twice because of shoulder problems, finishing 5-2 with a 5.21 ERA while trying to pitch with pain between DL stints. He had offseason surgery on his right rotator cuff and labrum.

When Nathan reached back for his fastball the next spring, it registered 83 mph.

"There's no life on your fastball," he said of the comeback. "But your offspeed pitches, there's no bite on those either. There's no sharp break, just kind of a lazy curveball, lazy slider. Everything you throw up there just seems to hang up there a little longer.

"Needless to say, I got my brains beat in for a solid year."

Nathan's patience was tested to the max. While pitching for Class AAA Fresno early in the 2001 season, he gave up four consecutive home runs -- tying a Pacific Coast League record -- over a span of nine pitches during a 14-5 loss to Tucson.

Nathan tried to remind himself that he was there to get healthy and stronger, but the fans reminded him of the results.

"It's tough when you have fans there who are all over you," he said. "It got bad. It got to the point where I hated pitching at home."

The low point of his career came just more than a week after the four-homer debacle, when he was sent down to Class AA Shreveport.

"I remember the day he called me and said he got sent down to Shreveport," said Lisa Nathan, Joe's wife. "He was a little down at the time, but he always stayed positive. He was going to try to get back to Triple-A."

Bert Bradley, Fresno's pitching coach then, was waiting for him. The two were on the field most days an hour before everyone else.

They did some unorthodox drills, including one in which Nathan would get on one knee behind the screen used to protect the batting practice pitcher and throw balls to the plate so he could learn to finish off his pitches better.

"The fans were brutal to him," said Bradley, now Giants minor league pitching coordinator. "He was giving up home runs. I was concerned for his mental health at that point more than anything. I was surprised how strong he was."

Nathan was 3-6 with a 6.93 ERA at Shreveport, but his fastball got up to 88 mph during the season and touched 90 by the end of the year.

"He knew it would not be a lost cause," Bradley said.

Nathan spent most of 2002 with Fresno but was a September callup by San Francisco and pitched three scoreless innings. In 2003, he became an established member of the Giants bullpen, going 12-4 with a 2.96 ERA in 78 appearances. He had developed a slider while waiting for his fastball to come back, finishing out his current repertoire.

Giants closer Robb Nen and setup man Todd Worrell told Nathan he could be a closer someday. Nathan scoffed at the suggestions -- until the Twins and Giants worked out a deal to send Nathan, Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser to the Twins for catcher A.J. Pierzynski. Nathan knew little about closing. But in 2004, his first season with the Twins, he saved 44 games (still his career high) and was named to the first of two All-Star teams.

Nathan has a fastball that he can rear back and throw in the mid-90s or take a little off and make it sink. He has a slider that breaks down so sharply that it can drill for oil and a curveball that makes Bert Blyleven's heart flutter.

His mental fortitude helps him ignore hostile crowds on the road, loud music, Thunderstix, Rally Monkeys and multi-time All-Stars in the on-deck circle.

"When he goes on the mound," Twins teammate Livan Hernandez said, "you feel like he's not going to make a mistake."

Entering Tuesday, Nathan has had 173 saves since 2004, the second-most in baseball behind only Yankees future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera. He is second on the Twins' all-time list to Rick Aguilera. The Twins are so convinced that the 33-year-old Nathan will continue to dominate hitters that they signed him to a four-year, $47 million contract extension during the offseason with a 2012 option for $12.5 million. There were rumblings that the Cubs and other teams were interested in trading for Nathan during the offseason, but the Twins told them that he wasn't on the market.

One reason the Twins believe Nathan has more good years ahead of him is his late introduction to pitching.

"He has been well-protected," Twins assistant GM Rob Antony said. "He hasn't logged a ton of innings. He's a guy who is in great shape. That's why it's a young 33-year-old arm."

Has Nathan thought about how far he has come in 11 years? He pondered the question before answering.

"It seems like the time has gone by fast," he said. "You think about the story and it definitely takes you back a bit."

Marr often thinks about Nathan's career path when his two young sons watch Twins games from their home in Sarasota, Fla.

"Baseball is a funny game," said Marr, who has 25 years of experience. "I've come to the realization that players come from anywhere and you can't overlook anyone."

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