The opportunities for Nathan have been few and far between this year, with most of his time on the mound coming in situations that are far from save opportunities.
But when it came to a critical situation of having to pitch the ninth and 10th innings on Tuesday with the game tied at 5 in only his second outing of the past week, Nathan (2-0) more than stepped up his game. He did not allow a runner on in the final two innings, as he struck out five batters for the first time in an outing since June 29, 2000, when he started a game for the Giants against Colorado.
"Unbelievable," Santana said of Nathan's performance. "He's been pretty good, but we just haven't been able to hand the ball to him in save opportunities. He knows what's going on, and it's good to see him perform like that."
Keeping the game knotted proved crucial for the Twins, as they were able to stage their comeback when the middle of the order came to the plate in the bottom of the 10th.
With one out in the inning, Indians pitcher Guillermo Mota walked Torii Hunter to put the go-ahead run on. Michael Cuddyer followed with a sharp single to center that moved Hunter to third.
Left-hander Justin Morneau then came up to bat and delivered the sacrifice fly that would score Hunter and give the Twins their first victory over an AL Central opponent in their last six tries.
"I don't know why they pitched to him," Hunter said. "There was a base open so you can walk a lefty and then get two righties out. I didn't understand that. ... But thank you, we'll take it."
It wasn't exactly the situation the Twins expected to be in late in the game after they got off to an early 4-0 lead over the Indians with Santana on the mound.
A two-run double by Juan Castro in the second inning gave the Twins an early 2-0 advantage. They added to it in the third with a two-run homer by Michael Cuddyer. It was his fifth of the season.
But after starting off the game looking strong and with the solid lead, Santana began to falter in the fifth.
After recording two outs to start the inning, Santana gave up three straight singles to load the bases. A double down the right-field line by Grady Sizemore would score two runs and make it a 4-2 ballgame.
Santana's woes continued the next inning, as an error by third baseman Tony Batista allowed the leadoff batter, Casey Blake, to plate. Travis Hafner then doubled to center to score Blake, making it a one-run game. Two batters later, Eduardo Perez blasted a two-run homer over the left-field wall to put the Indians up by one, 5-4.
"I was throwing my fastball but those guys are pretty aggressive," Santana said. "I then just tried to pitch backwards and show them I can throw something else. They are a pretty good ballclub and they play the ball pretty good. You have to be careful what you do out there."
But it wasn't all on Santana's shoulders as Twins manager Ron Gardenhire placed some of the blame on his defense for being unable to help the pitcher out.
"I know he gave up five runs, but a couple of plays we didn't make -- choppers toward third and swinging bunts as you will," Gardenhire said. "Johan should have been out of there and shouldn't have given up many runs. I thought he did a super job. He didn't have his best stuff, but I thought he pitched good tonight."
Still for the Twins, it was odd to see Santana not hold a lead, as normally it's offensive struggles that keep him from a win. In Santana's last start at Detroit, it was Minnesota's bats that couldn't give him any run support when he gave up just two runs. So this time, his offense felt good about helping him out a bit.
"It felt good to pick up Johan right there," Hunter said. "Cleveland has faced him numerous times and I think they know what he's got. They see him so much that they actually hit him pretty good -- better than I've seen any team hit him."
And while it wasn't quite the outing that Santana himself is used to seeing, that he didn't earn the "W" in the game didn't matter as much as his team being able to find a way to pull out a third victory in its last four games.
"I don't really care about personally winning or losing," Santana said. "It's all about winning games. With the way that we have been playing lately, we just want to keep it going and going and going."