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Updated: April 14th, 2012 6:20pm
Zulgad: Joe Nathan isn't surprised by reaction in Target Field return

Zulgad: Joe Nathan isn't surprised by reaction in Target Field return

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS - The popular line from most athletes when asked for their reaction to a crowd's response is to claim they didn't hear it. That they tuned it out because they were in some type of zone that doesn't enable them to hear thousands of people all making noise at once.

Joe Nathan made no such claims Saturday after the closer's new team, the Texas Rangers, had handed his old team, the Minnesota Twins, a 6-2 defeat at Target Field. Nathan said that when he took the mound for the ninth inning that he eagerly waited to see how the announced crowd of 35,854 greeted him.

"If I was a little younger maybe I would have just tried to tune it out, but to me the fans here have always been special," said Nathan, who had 260 saves in seven seasons with the Twins before signing a two-year, $14.75 million contract as a free agent with the Rangers during the offseason. "They always rose to the occasion and got me up during times when I needed some energy. I wanted to hear what kind of (reaction) it was.

"I heard a little bit of everything. Big cheers. Big boos. A 'you suck.' That was what I expected. I think at one point when I first did my interview I said, 'I expect there to be both. I don't think it's going to be a big ovation, I don't think it's going to be a huge boo from everybody. But I think there's going to be a mix.' That's exactly what it was."

It would have been understandable if there also had been some confusion from the Target Field patrons.

On Friday, the Rangers held a 4-1 lead entering the ninth inning, meaning there was a save opportunity. But it wasn't Nathan who entered from the bullpen. Instead, Alexi Ogando was brought in to pitch the final inning. He gave up one hit, struck out one and came away with his first save of the season.

Nathan got up in the bullpen Saturday with the game in a save situation in the ninth, but that came to an end as the Rangers tacked on two runs to take a four-run lead. Nathan was still summoned, though, facing Justin Morneau to lead off the inning.

Nathan, 37, admitted it was odd to see his former teammate in the batter's box.

"He was the only one I looked in the eye," Nathan said. "That was the first hitter. I got the ball back, did my thing and then looked up and just kind of looked at him. I went, 'This is kind of weird.' He stepped up and I got ahead of him. Got 1-2 on him and made a decent pitch."

It wasn't good enough.

Morneau was able to drive Nathan's two-seam fastball back up the box for a base hit. "Morneau is going (to) let me know he got a hit off me for the next 12 months," Nathan said. "But, again, I'm excited for him. I'm excited that's healthy and it seems like he's having fun again playing this game. I'm excited for a guy like that."

Nathan likely wasn't nearly as excited for Josh Willingham, who joined the Twins this offseason as a free agent and entered Saturday hitting .417 with four home runs and seven RBI. Willingham doubled to left to put runners on second and third with nobody out.

This wasn't good news considering Nathan entered the game with an 0-2 record and an earned-run average of 9.00 in four appearances. He also had two saves but had blown an opportunity last Wednesday by giving up three runs in the ninth inning to Seattle. Rangers manager Ron Washington already had given him what amounted to a vote of confidence less than 10 games into the season.

"After the second hit, I got (ticked) off at myself," Nathan said. "I had made decent pitches to those guys."

Despite having another golden opportunity in a game in which they left 15 runners on base, the Twins would not get a run. Ryan Doumit and Danny Valencia went down swinging and Chris Parmelee grounded to first to give the Rangers a chance to sweep this three-game series on Sunday.

Nathan's third strike to Valencia was clocked at 95 miles per hour, after strike three to Doumit registered at 94.

"First time in three years for me. Maybe four years," Nathan said when asked about hitting 95 on the gun. "I don't know if I had that in '09. These guys told me at the end of the inning I threw it three or four times straight (at) 95. For me, the most important thing was my slider being down.

"That's what I had trouble with last outing and I was able to really throw some good sliders down, getting some people to offer at them, too. That was a better sign. The fastball location was really good, and the velocity lets me know I'm letting it go."

The velocity was important because Nathan continues to try to regain his old form after undergoing Tommy John surgery in May 2010.

"It felt good to get through an inning, pitch out of the stretch and not give up a run," Nathan said. "I think that was my first time counting the spring that I've been in the stretch and not given up a run. My arm felt good. I think there was a point there in the inning that I just stopped trying to guide the ball and let it go and started hitting spots that way."

While Nathan looked fresh Saturday, especially against the last three batters, he said it was in no way his idea not to pitch on Friday. That doesn't mean he was complaining about it, but clearly he would have preferred to have been on the mound when a save opportunity existed.

"No. This (was) on them," Nathan said, referring to Washington and pitching coach Mike Maddux. "They gave me the second day. The first day I think was obvious (to sit). I threw in four (games), was up and ready to go in on another day. I think that was going to be clear that the day before yesterday I was going to be off.

"(Friday), to be honest with you, it was not a popular decision (from Nathan's perspective). ... This is tough for me because I've come up through the days where you throw until you blow. Yesterday, even though I wasn't 100 percent, I've felt worse than that and gone out and thrown. ... At the same time, this year more than ever I think, I've been able to kind of take a step back and look at the big picture. We're in April, this isn't July, August, September.

"I'm 37 years old and I'm learning things. The important thing about this year is at the end of the day is it a W or an L? That's all that's important to me now. I think I've always been a team guy throughout my career, but you always want to be out there and you always want to be competing. That hasn't changed, but at the same time I have to be smart about things and know that a day off now may help me in September."

After Rangers' first baseman Brandon Snyder stepped on the bag to end Saturday's game, he tossed the ball to Nathan for him to keep. But catcher Yorvit Torrealba had other ideas and requested Nathan toss it to him.

"He has it somewhere," Nathan said of where the Rangers catcher put the ball. "He'll probably write something on it and give it back to me. So, I'm waiting for him to do that. He was like, 'Can I have that baseball,' and so I flipped it to him. He knows it's a special one so I'm sure he has it." 

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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