LAKELAND, Fla. — In 2014, as in 2004, Joe Nathan has become Torii Hunter's teammate.
Nathan joined the Twins in a November 2003 trade from San Francisco.
"We didn't know much about him," Hunter said. "We didn't know if he had good enough stuff to close."
The Twins immediately put Nathan into the closer's role, even though he had no experience with it. He has 340 saves since then. In that 10-year span, only Mariano Rivera (369) has more.
When Nathan got on the mound for the first time as a Tiger on Thursday, everyone knew all about him. The 6-foot-4 right-hander is one of the best closers, ever.
Nathan gave a first indication Thursday that, at 39, he'll join closers such as Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, who stayed in their prime past 40. He set down the side in order. He struck out Ramiro Pena, then retired a pair of established big-league hitters. He fanned B.J. Upton (who it must be noted has averaged almost 160 strikeouts per year over the last five seasons), and he got Ryan Doumit on a fly ball.
In the variety of its speed and location, and in its overall authority, Nathan had the stuff that has impressed Hunter for a decade.
Hunter and Nathan had four years together in Minnesota, then Hunter left as a free agent for the Angels. Nathan later left the Twins for the Rangers. He and Hunter kept facing each other over those six years.
Now they are back together, perhaps in part because Hunter told Nathan and Dave Dombrowski how well Nathan would fit in Detroit when he became a free agent last fall.
"I try to be a student of the game and understand players, what they can and can't do," Hunter said Thursday. "Just getting to know Joe Nathan all those years, watching him and playing with him and against him, I know that this guy is a bulldog. I know what kind of person he is in the clubhouse: respectful, a professional, and he does it right. So my recommending Joe Nathan, it was easy.
"In the four years we were together, I was happy when he came in the game. When good closers come in the game, you feel like you can take a deep breath. It's not over, but you're confident that this guy is going to do what it takes to get the job done. That's what I felt about Joe Nathan all the time, even when I faced him."
In one year, the Tigers have gone from total doubt to certainty about the closer, the almost mandatory piece of the championship equation.
Bruce Rondon's spring-training appearances last year brought pitch-by-pitch scrutiny, because the Tigers were taking the risk of turning someone with no big-league experience into the closer for a championship aspirant. Even though he could throw 100 miles per hour, Rondon didn't make the team.
With Nathan on hand, it seemed like just one more piece of spring-training business Thursday when Rondon, in his debut this spring, threw a 1-2-3 inning to finish the 5-2 win.
"Fastball, slider," manager Brad Ausmus said of his first in-person look at Rondon in a game. It is important that he said "slider." As Ausmus noted, "At the major league level, even if you throw 100, you have to have a secondary pitch."
Rondon is competing with Joba Chamberlain for the eighth-inning setup role. Chamberlain also turned in a scoreless inning Thursday. In all, five relievers - all of whom could make the team - blanked Atlanta over the final six innings.
The Braves, it is true, didn't send up that many big-league hitters in those six innings. But for anyone who worries about the Tigers' bullpen, this was one day not to.