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Ninth innings may be tough to watch for a Twins fan

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire slumped behind his desk, hatless, rubbing his face. General manager Bill Smith stood beside him, ashen and quiet. Joe Nathan, the team's All-Star closer, sat on a stool next to pitching c...

Jim Souhan
Jim Souhan

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire slumped behind his desk, hatless, rubbing his face. General manager Bill Smith stood beside him, ashen and quiet. Joe Nathan, the team's All-Star closer, sat on a stool next to pitching coach Rick Anderson, who draped an arm over Nathan's slumped shoulders.

They jammed into Gardenhire's office at Hammond Stadium early Tuesday morning to announce that Nathan has a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.

They did not say that the career of the most dominant closer in Twins history is in jeopardy. They didn't need to. Their expressions imparted the news as quickly and clearly as e-mail.

"Right now, I'm going to work as hard as I can . . . to be as strong as I can and hope that the arm responds, that it feels good enough to go out there and throw," Nathan said. "I don't want to look past that right now. I don't want to say, "What if, what if, what if.' Right now, my thought is I'll be fine in a week or two and be ready to go.

"But, obviously, this wasn't the news I wanted to hear."

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The news means Target Field will not only lack a roof; it might also lack someone who can close the door.

Nathan could miss a year. He could miss more than a year. At 35, he could regain his health yet fail to recapture the scything stuff that made him an All-Star.

As word of Nathan's injury spread through the clubhouse, the Twins' nine-month waterfall of good news -- from their summer trades, September surge and winter splurging, to the gleeful anticipation of opening Target Field with a talented roster -- seemed to peter out as if someone had turned off a spigot.

"It's very, very tough," Twins first baseman Justin Morneau said. "Not even looking at it as a player, but as a person, when you see somebody who works as hard as he does and is as good a teammate as he is, you don't want to see that happen to someone like him.

"Then you add in how important he is to our team, one of the three top closers in all of baseball, it's a huge blow. But this team is resilient, and we're not counting him out completely. Hopefully it holds up and you know he'll go out there and battle and give you everything he's got."

When Nathan left the mound Saturday, the Twins lost their status as division favorites. The dropoff from Nathan to Nathan's replacement is that steep.

That's one reason teammates spoke in hushed tones about Nathan, even as he donned his traditional headband and worked out as if he had nothing more to worry about than a blister.

"It stinks, for him, to sit and watch," right fielder Michael Cuddyer said. "Take that from someone who has had to miss a bunch of time. Then you throw in all of the excitement and anticipation of this season, and it really stinks. It's going to be a blow, losing him, even if it's for one game."

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Jon Rauch is the most likely temp, because he has closed games before, but his fastball isn't nearly as menacing as his neck tattoo. Francisco Liriano, at his best, can dominate like a top closer, but his elbow and head are too fragile to risk in that role.

The Twins might be forced to trade for a proven closer, or watch a $96 million payroll circle the drain.

"Obviously, we're going to have to start thinking about that," Gardenhire said of replacing Nathan. "No one's going to cry for us."

Nathan's teammates might be tempted. Since becoming the Twins' closer in 2004, he has led the majors in saves (with 246) and batting average allowed (.182) and is second in the majors in save percentage (90.8) and ERA (1.87). Since his arrival, the Twins have led the majors with a bullpen ERA of 3.60.

The Twins might have lost one of their most irreplaceable players on the cusp of one of their most promising seasons.

"That's probably the hardest part of this," Nathan said. "Yesterday, flying home, that's probably the one thing that was on my mind the most, how excited I am for this club, for the new stadium. It's tough."

Ninth innings, this season, might be tough to watch.

Souhan writes for the Star Tribune (Minneapolis).

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