Joe Nathan plans to resume closing after coming back from Tommy John surgery

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Joe Nathan is 10 months removed from Tommy John elbow surgery and told Charley Walters of the St. Paul Pioneer Press that he plans to pick up right where he left off as the Twins’ closer once he arrives at spring training on February 17.

Nathan saved 47 games in 2009 and has been the second-best closer in baseball since coming to Minnesota in 2004, but the Twins acquired Matt Capps from the Nationals to serve as their closer down the stretch last season and he’s under contract for 2011 at $7.1 million.

If healthy there’s little doubt that Nathan will reclaim ninth-inning duties and make Capps an overpaid setup man, but the Twins learned first-hand with Francisco Liriano that not all pitchers return from Tommy John surgery with their old stuff intact and Nathan has just now been cleared to start throwing breaking balls.

I don’t plan on being left out of any drills or held back in any way. If something else says something differently, we’ll go from there. But my mind-set right now is that I’m closing and getting ready for the season. That’s my plan. We’ll see how it goes. There’s always going to be a question mark. For the most part, things have gone well. Obviously, there are some sessions when you wish it went better. But these are the things you’ve got to do to come back. It’s tough to gauge now, but at this stage, it feels good.

Nathan’s comeback is particularly key for the Twins because they lost nearly half of last season’s relief innings with Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Brian Fuentes, and Jon Rauch all leaving as free agents and haven’t acquired a single veteran reliever to replace them this offseason. They’re counting on Nathan and Capps anchoring the bullpen while various young guys step up and claim jobs.

Dodgers top Giants, clinch fifth straight NL West title

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The Dodgers are NL West champions for the fifth time in a row. They clinched with a 4-2 win over the Giants on Friday night, taking their first and only lead on a mammoth record-breaking home run from Cody Bellinger in the third inning.

Rich Hill turned in another quality start, going six innings with five hits, a run and nine strikeouts to keep the Giants at bay. He tacked on an RBI hit of his own, too, lashing a double to left field for his first extra-base hit since 2007.

The Giants, meanwhile, deployed Jeff Samardzija and his 4.42 ERA for 4 1/3 innings. Samardzija was on the hook for the Dodgers’ four-run spread in the third and took his 15th loss of the season. Pablo Sandoval came through with a solo home run in the ninth, but the rest of San Francisco’s offense wasn’t so lucky against Kenley Jansen, who struck out the side to clinch the game — and the division.

After Friday’s showstopper, the Dodgers are just two wins away from their first 100-win season since 1974. If they win the remaining eight games of the season, they’ll beat out the 1953 Brooklyn Dodgers for the most wins in franchise history.

Watch: Cody Bellinger breaks NL rookie home run record

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Cody Bellinger helped the Dodgers to their first lead on Friday night, going deep for his 39th home run of the season and setting a new National League rookie home run record in the process. With two on and two out in the third inning, the Dodgers’ slugger launched a 2-1 pitch from the Giants’ Jeff Samardzija, skimming the right field fence to give the team a three-run cushion:

The three-run bomb was Bellinger’s sixth of the season. In what is undoubtedly a Rookie of the Year award-worthy campaign, he’s logged 21 solo shots, 11 two-run blasts and a single grand slam. His historic home run topped former NL rookie leaders Frank Robinson and Wally Berger, at 38 homers apiece.

The Dodgers need to stay on top of the Giants to clinch the NL West or, barring that, have the Marlins pull off a win over the Diamondbacks. They currently lead the Giants 4-1 in the bottom of the fifth inning. The Marlins, meanwhile, are staying just ahead of the D-backs with a 9-7 lead in the top of the sixth.