It wasn’t looking like a good weekend to debut as a Cubs relief pitcher. Mike Montgomery threw his way to ignominy by allowing a three-run home run to the first batter he faced, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, a man who’d only hit one previous round-tripper against a southpaw. And when 41-year-old Joe Nathan made his first appearance Sunday afternoon in Milwaukee, it appeared as if he’d be shoveling another load of coal into the engine of the futility train.
The Cubs trailed 4-1 when Nathan came to work the bottom of the 6th inning against the top of the Brewers’ order. On his second pitch in a Cubs uniform, Nathan caught too much of the plate with a slider and Jonathan Villar smacked it into the corner in right for a triple. Hernan Perez then worked a seven-pitch walk and stole second to put men on second and third with no outs and Ryan Braun at the plate. Not exactly a great spot for the former elite closer to be in.
And when Braun started fouling off pitches in a full count, things were looking pretty rough indeed. I don’t know about you, but I always get a bad feeling when a good hitter is up there just missing time after time. I fully expect him to absolutely hammer the next mistake. Never mind that Nathan was showing some decent velo on the fastball, it just felt that things were gonna get sideways. Until the old man froze the batter with a perfect pitch to get the first out on a backwards K.
Nathan still needed to get two high-leverage outs with Jonathan Lucroy and Chris Carter due up, though, so confidence was not exactly at a high level. But you see, that’s the thing about having a guy who’s got more than enough experience in those situations. There’s also something to be said for Nathan knowing that this could well be his last hoorah. He can just let it all hang out and get after it.
And get after Lucroy he did, dialing the four-seamer up to 93 and mixing in the slider to earn a swinging strikeout. Okay, maybe the old man’s got something going here. And with frequent strikeout victim Carter up next, that grim sense I’d had earlier in the inning was fading fast. Nathan missed the plate with his first two pitches, almost as though he was luring his prey into a trap. Sure enough, he got swinging strikes on the next three pitches to end the inning.
Pat Hughes didn’t call it such at the time, but Nathan doing to the Brewers what Jeurys Familia keeps doing to the Cubs felt like the turning points the Cubs broadcaster is so fond of drawing attention to. There was really no reason to believe the Cubs would do what they eventually did, which was score 5 runs in the subsequent half inning. Given the benefit of hindsight, though, you can see how Nathan self-arresting and stopping his team from plummeting down Bennie Brewer’s slide could spur them onward.
As deflating as it is to be shut down in a sure run-scoring situation, it’s at least as uplifting for the team on the other side. And when Nathan went from nearly letting the Brewers break the game open to shutting them down and keeping the Cubs in it, the whole feeling of the game changed. I could sense it driving down the road and listening to it on the radio, the sounds of Wrigley North streaming through my stereo. Even Hughes admitted to feeling goosebumps from the sound of the road crowd. Ron Coomer agreed.
It wasn’t the AC that gave me chills as I heard the call of Anthony Rizzo’s bases-clearing double, late though it was. We were in a bit of a dead zone for both the radio and cell signals, so I had been flipping from the MLB app to the AM feeds. The radio had just cut out and the stream was buffering, so I only heard Pat saying the names of the runners who’d scored. Then the stream came back with about a 15-second delay and I got to hear the whole call. My wife asked what the heck I was doing and I just smiled.
One lament about the Cubs bullpen is that they don’t really have shut-down pitchers outside of Pedro Strop and Hector Rondon. A single inning isn’t enough to know whether Joe Nathan can be such a player, though I’d say he’s got a decent enough pedigree to give him the benefit of the doubt. And if he can continue to bring even a portion of that to bear down the stretch for the Cubs it could be a turning for their whole relief corps. Heady stuff.
So yeah, I just projected a single inning from a 41-year-old two-time Tommy John surgery recipient to the future performance of the ‘pen. And I’m serious…ly crazy? All I know is that it was pretty darn cool to listen to Nathan bear down and blow the Brewers away after getting himself in a precarious situation. I think we could do with more of that.