With an day off yesterday, I feel like it's time to address an issue we've taken on before: the lack of Joe Nathan appearances. I've complained that Nathan needs to be used more, even if in "untraditional" ways. There is this consensus among major league managers, it seems, that it's some sort of cardinal sin to bring in a closer in any inning other than the ninth. Only Joe Torre seems to think out the box by occassionally bringing in Mariano Rivera for the eighth inning. What's the idea here?
With Rivera and in the past, closers were used as their own set-up men. For instance, in what are widely considered two of the great years in closing, Goose Gossage saved 26 games in 1977 and 27 in 1978. More importantly, he pitched 133 innings in 1977 and 134 1/3 in 1978. He did this while allowing only 78 hits while striking out 151 in 77' and 87 hits while striking out 122 in 78'. The idea is simple: he was by far the best pitcher in the pen, if not on his team, and to win a lot of games, he was being used as much as possible.
Now, granted, I'm not suggesting that Nathan should pitch 133 innings. That simply wouldn't fly in this era. But, limiting him to just save opportunities when those aren't coming too often is silly. Currently, Nathan has less saves than "prestigious" closers like Tyler Walker, Fernado Rodney, J.J. Putz, David Weathers, and Tim Worrell.
Here are a few numbers: 24 1/3, 21, 20 1/3, 16, 13, 10. Those are the innings pitched for relievers. 10 innings corresponds to Dennys Reyes, and since he has only been around for a few weeks, it isn't terribly relevant. What is important is that Jesse Crain (20 1/3 innings, 7.52 ERA) and Willie Eyre (16 innings, 6.19 ERA) have pitched more innings out of the pen that Joe Nathan (13 innings, 2.77 ERA).
I wrote on Sunday that I thought Pat Neshek should get a shot in the pen over Willie Eyre. I still believe that but also, after Crain blew the lead Sunday, think that a alternative strategy could be pursued. That is, trying to bringing in Rincon earlier, and thus, Nathan earlier. Guerrier can be used in earlier innings, but by the seventh, if the Twins have a tight lead, give the ball to Rincon. When he tires, give it to Nathan. Forget about saves and think about holding leads, getting wins, and who best has the abilities to do so.
Even in close games, Nathan should be looked to. There is no way your best pitcher in the pen should have pitched only 13 innings on May 21st, especially when he is very hard to hit (.167 OBA), has great control (.77 WHIP, two walks in 13 innings), strikes out plenty (11.77 K/9), and has looked great all year. You don't let a guy who throws 98 MPH and has a great slider sit while batting practice pitcher guys like Willie Eyre get more innings.
I don't want to wear Nathan's arm out and I don't want to suggest that Gardenhire is completely clueless with the bullpen (hey, he's just following LaRussa's system, right?), but Nathan seriously needs to be out there more often. Plain and simply, that's how you win games.
* On a different note, the Twins placed Shannon Stewart on the 15-day DL with another foot injury. Although Gardy says he'll only be out for those 15 days, it's a tear of his left plantar fascia and that kind of pain could keep him out longer. With Jason Kubel finally getting back to the majors, where he belongs, hopefully he gets a decent shot. Let's hope that Gardy goes with Aaron Gleeman's suggestion and at least platoons him with Lew Ford, allowing him to get the majority of the starts against righties. At least this way, Luis Castillo may get to leadoff, like he should. We'll see.