Healthy, reliable closers hard to find

It flatters Terry Ryan that the baseball world thinks he was ahead of the curve in envisioning Joe Nathan as a top-of-the-line closer. But Ryan, who runs what might be the game's least ego-driven operation in Minnesota, happily concedes the obvious.

He got lucky.

When the Twins acquired Nathan from San Francisco for catcher A.J. Pierzynski in November 2003, Ryan knew he was adding a good athlete with a strong arm and the potential to pitch the ninth inning. He could not foresee that two years later, Nathan would rank among the elite closers in the game.

"I don't think anybody can predict whether a guy is going to handle that job until you put him in there," Ryan said. "You can make deductions based upon his makeup and competitiveness and resiliency. But until you see a guy blow a couple of saves and how he's going to react, you just don't know."

Of course, Ryan can afford to be magnanimous. His bullpen doesn't prompt him to hurl chairs or keep the team orthopedist on speed-dial.

It would be an overstatement to declare Nathan the only healthy, reliable closer plugging away for a big-league club this season. San Diego's Trevor Hoffman is taking aim at 500 saves and a Hall of Fame berth, and since the first two weeks, you haven't heard much talk about the Yankees' Mariano Rivera's being washed up at age 35. Dustin Hermanson of the White Sox has a 0.00 ERA in 21 innings. And among the younger set, Houston's Brad Lidge, Washington's Chad Cordero and Baltimore's B.J. Ryan have put up some awfully impressive numbers.

But lots of pitchers are experiencing the downside of closing these days. Just ask Boston's Keith Foulke, who lugs a 6.46 ERA into June. Or the Braves' Dan Kolb, who has learned that saving games in Milwaukee and Atlanta are completely different things. Or Danny Graves, who made the All-Star team in 2004 but is currently seeking gainful employment after being released by Cincinnati.