Wednesday, September 24, 2008 Updated: September 25, 10:08 AM ET
Young starters forming bond, strong rotation in Minnesota
By Amy K. Nelson ESPN.com
MINNEAPOLIS -- When it was time to consider a contract extension with the Twins this spring, closer Joe Nathan paid no mind to the pundits who wrote off the team after the departures of Johan Santana and Torii Hunter. Instead, Nathan was emboldened by who was coming up through the system -- especially the pitchers -- and he decided that staying put was better than selling out.
So when Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey were lined up to pitch this week in this critical series against the White Sox, Nathan's offseason vision became a reality.
"They are one of the reasons I was excited to get [a deal] done," Nathan said. "And I hopefully [wanted to] close out a lot of their wins."
Nathan did just that on Wednesday night, when he notched his 39th save of the season and the 200th of his career in an intense 3-2 win over the White Sox. Carlos Gomez made a spectacular one-out catch in center field and Nathan induced a groundout with the tying run on base as the Twins closed to within a half-game of Chicago in the American League Central.
Along with Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey, Scott Baker has allowed the Twins to remain successful despite the departure of Johan Santana this past offseason.
"I think we all saw one heck of a baseball game," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "It gives us another chance [Thursday] to sweep the series. It was something we said we probably had to do."
The Twins are in this position because of their young pitchers: Baker, the eldest at 27 years old, got the win in a 9-3 blowout win Tuesday, and Blackburn posted the victory on Wednesday after making it through five innings by pitching out of jams. Blackburn said watching Baker shut down the high-powered White Sox the night before helped him heading into his start.
"It gave me confidence to go out there and hit spots," Blackburn said. "To see somebody go out and throw against a dominating lineup like he did, it helps my mindset, my comfort level."
All three pitchers have formed a bond, Baker said, not only because they all came up around the same time, but also because they all are alike in how they approach hitters and what they throw.
"We're all a lot similar as far as pitch selection," Baker said. "If we see something, we help each other out any way we possibly can."
They teach each other and lean on one another and, in turn, have developed not just friendship but also somewhat of a competition. One good start leads to another. It also drives the others to pitch well.
"I remember in '06 when we went on that run and Santana came out and threw, and [then Francisco] Liriano would want to kind of repeat what Santana did," catcher Joe Mauer said. "It's a kind of healthy competition, and that can be good."
Now it comes down to Slowey on Thursday night in what will be Minnesota's biggest game of the year. He's 12-11 with a 3.85 ERA this season and has lost three of his past four starts, including his most recent one against Tampa Bay in which he allowed five runs in 4 1/3 innings. But he has a 3.04 ERA at the Metrodome, where a win on Thursday would give the Twins sole possession of the division lead for the first time since Aug. 23. With just three games left to play in the season for the Twins -- the White Sox have four -- it would be an enormous momentum swing in the regular season's final days.
Among all the players in the clubhouse, Slowey seems apt to handle the pressure. Though he is just 24 years old, he is known as one of the smartest players on the team, a pitcher who is extremely prepared. Undrafted out of high school, Slowey got a scholarship to Winthrop -- not through his baseball prowess, but because of his 1420 SAT scores.
"He's almost too smart for his own good," Mauer said. "I know he's been watching these last two games and developing a plan of his own."
Slowey is most often compared to former Twins right-hander Brad Radke, and teammates say they've never seen Slowey rattled.
"That's the beauty of him," Nathan said. "He can just go out there, however big or small the situation, you wouldn't know it by the look on his face or how he goes about his business."
Slowey says his relationship with Blackburn, Baker and fellow starter Glen Perkins has helped sustain him in his first full season in the major leagues. The three can empathize with one another.
"I think we all genuinely enjoy each other's company," said Slowey, who was a 2005 second-round pick. "We love baseball, we love our teammates [and] we want to win as badly as anyone else, but we get along in spite of baseball. It's a very unique situation to have all these guys as friends; maybe it'll be something I'll never have again.
"Hopefully we're here for a long time together, but certainly we're all taking advantage that we all can commiserate with each other and really enjoy the season."
Though his career is young, it is not without challenge. In fact, Slowey said only pitching in the playoffs or the World Series could compare to when he faced Cuba in a gold-medal game in 2006 to qualify the Americans for the Olympics in Beijing.
"I got a chance to throw in Cuba, against the Cuban team in front of 50,000 Cubans in the middle of downtown Havana," Slowey said. "I don't think anything will be quite as spectacular."
How did he do?
"I threw five innings and we qualified for the Olympics," he said.
It may not be a gold medal, or the playoffs, but this is as close as Slowey will get to the adrenaline level of that night in Havana. The Twins can only hope the outcome will be the same, and that Nathan will be there at the end to see it come full circle.
Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.