Wednesday, September 2, 2009

One strike away ...

and oh so far.

Tuesday's stunning collapse by Joe Nathan — in which a 2-0 lead with two outs and nobody on in the ninth inning and an 0-2 count on the batter somehow turned into a 4-2 defeat — seems, in retrospect, almost inevitable considering how difficult recent innings have been for Minnesota's ace closer.

Everybody, I supposes, has a theory on what's wrong with Nathan. Patrick Reusse thinks he's nibbling. Steve Stone — I watched that ninth-inning disaster on WGN — says it's a lack of command of the slider. Bert Blyleven has been talking about his lack of command of the fastball. Ron Gardenhire thinks his arm slot is too low. Nathan himself said Tuesday's troubles came from being "too predictable" with his pitches.

My notion is this: From July 29 to August 18 — almost three weeks — the Twins were utterly without save opportunities. During that time, he picked up four innings of mop-up work.

Since then, starting with his save on Aug. 18, he's pitched eight times. All have been save opportunities; he has blown two of those, and the Twins came back to win one of them. So Tuesday was the first time Nathan's struggles actually cost a game.

In those eight outings beginning Aug. 18, Nathan has had two 1-2-3 innings. Such crisp outings have been rare; he has had appearances in which he threw 53 pitches (the first blown save, against Kansas City); 31 (Tuesday), 29; and 22 pitches. The efficient innings just aren't coming.

For the season as a whole, he has allowed 17 walks; six have come in that stretch, a rate of 6.28 walks per nine innings. For the season, he's at 2.92 BB/9. (His numbers here)

My sense of it, then, is that his command in general dissipated during that long period of relative inactivity, when his teammates' inconsistency resulted in games that didn't fit the model for using him.

He's 34, and the radar guns no longer light up as they did when he got to Minnesota six seasons back. The 97s and 96s are gone, replaced by 91s and 92s. Which is sufficient — if it's efficient.

It hasn't been.

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