Beyond Tonight - Joe Nathan
May 12, 2005
Stony Brook, N.Y. - It's not a farfetched argument to suggest that Joe Nathan has been the best closer in baseball in the last year-plus. As Karl Ravech snuck in a mention at the end of Tuesday's show, Nathan hasn't allowed an earned run yet this season. In his last 88 appearances, Nathan has allowed runs only eight times. Yet we don't hear him mentioned in the same breath with the likes of Mariano Rivera, Eric Gagne, or even someone like Brad Lidge.
Nathan is a pitcher who has made the transition from middle reliever to closer seamlessly, which made us wonder why he was able to handle the pressure of the position so well. For that, we had to go back to Matt Senk, his coach at then Division III power SUNY-Stony Brook, who utilized Nathan almost entirely as a shortstop during his college career there in the mid-'90s. Nathan was a line-drive power hitter, in the mold of a Ryne Sandberg, who dominated at that level and made occasional pitching appearances.
"He didn't hit the majestic homers," said Senk, whose program is now of Division I status "We were in Florida, playing against my alma mater, Cortland State, and I still remember the home run he hit. It went 430 feet and never got more than 15 feet off the ground."
Word eventually got out during his junior year that Nathan had a good arm and a pitcher's body, and scouts told Senk they wanted to see him pitch, but couldn't, since he never started. So Senk arranged for an intrasquad game, but as luck would have it, it rained that day. The scouts came out anyway, and though the game was canceled, they watched Nathan throw.
"There was literally someone there from every organization, and all of their crosschecker scouts, too," Senk said. "Joe warmed up a little bit. I stood behind him on the mound. He signaled he was ready to go, and every one of the scouts put their radar gun up. Joe turned around and said 'This is pretty cool!' He's always liked the pressure of the moment."
Apparently Nathan impressed enough people because the Giants made him a sixth-round pick in the 1995 draft. After a year as a shortstop, the Giants decided to make him a pitcher full-time. And though Nathan was reluctant at first (he actually spent a year away from the game to get his degree in business management), he warmed up to it eventually. The Twins saw something they liked in 2003, when Nathan went 12-4 as a reliever with the Giants, enough to trade their regular catcher, A.J. Pierzynski, for him. It was probably the same thing that Senk saw.
"You could tell, once he physically matured, that he was destined for great things," Senk said, pointing out that Nathan was also a two-time Academic All-American. "You had a sense that you were in the company of a special person."