There’s something about the way Joe Nathan goes about his business that seems to rub off on his teammates. Maybe it’s the passion he plays with, or his work ethic, or his track record for success.
There’s no question that Tanner Scheppers and Robbie Ross have gravitated toward him the past two seasons with the Texas Rangers, just as Glen Perkins and Jesse Crain did when they came up with the Minnesota Twins years ago.
Perkins and Crain are experiencing the All-Star Game festivities for the first time in their careers this week, which makes Nathan’s homecoming trip and sixth All-Star Game a little more special.
The 38-year-old Nathan gets to share the moment with two of his protégés, although he probably wouldn’t refer to them as that. But they might.
“Joe was a huge influence on me,” Perkins said. “Everything I do at the field in my routine is based on what I saw him do.”
Perkins and Nathan each joined the Twins in 2004 but at different points in their careers. Perkins was a first-round draft pick out of Minnesota, projected as a future starter. Nathan, who grew up and went to college in New York, was part of a four-player trade in the off-season, projected as a bullpen piece.
Nathan went on to have great success in the closing role, saving 44 games in 2004 and making his first All-Star Game. Perkins, meanwhile, began the long journey through the minor leagues, overcame injuries and eventually reached the big leagues in 2006.
Perkins bounced between the rotation and bullpen the next few seasons before sticking in a relief role in 2010. He then studied every move that Nathan made, from how he went through spring training to how he stayed fresh throughout the year. When Nathan returned from Tommy John elbow surgery in 2011, he and Perkins were nearly inseparable.
“His preparation is second to none; it’s as good as I’ve ever seen,” Perkins said. “I grew up in the game by watching him and his work ethic and his attention to detail.”
It rubbed off on the left-handed Perkins, who saved 16 games last season and has 21 saves so far this year. Perkins, somewhat ironically, got the All-Star nod as an injury replacement for Crain.
Crain, a University of Houston product, joined the Twins bullpen late in the 2004 season and had a desire to close. But he saved only three games the next seven years with the Twins as there was “some guy named Joe Nathan.”
Nathan appreciated the kind words by his former teammates but wasn’t going to take credit for their success.
“We fed off each other so much,” Nathan said. “It’s just about being teammates and making not just yourself better, but making everyone around you better. If they picked some things up from me, great, because I know I learned a lot from them. I couldn’t be more proud of those guys to be where they are.”
Could Scheppers and Ross follow suit one day?
“Absolutely,” Nathan said. “Tanner’s stuff is unbelievable and he knows exactly what he needs to do to get better every day. And Robbie Ross has been just spectacular since getting the nod last year. He’s been everything of a superstar, and hopefully one day he’ll get to experience something like this.”
Nathan couldn’t ask for a better All-Star experience this time around with his former teammates on hand and personally. He is back in his hometown and is excited to share a moment of this stature with his family and friends.
Every All-Star Game is special, of course, but last year’s carried significance to Nathan because it showed that he could still pitch at that level after undergoing elbow surgery. This year comes after he has essentially reinvented himself as a pitcher.
Nathan doesn’t throw as hard as he did in the past, which forced him to locate his fastball more often and throw his slider on both sides of the plate. The results speak for themselves as he set a career-high with 30 saves in the first half.
That comes as no surprise to his teammates, past or present.
“The one thing about Joe that I really respected was his work ethic,” said Joe Mauer, Nathan’s teammate for eight years with the Twins. “So I’m not surprised by what he’s done the last couple of years.”
Said Nelson Cruz: “He’s been amazing. I think he’s been the star of the team.”