Full count, two out. Nathan blew on his hand once, twice in the frigid night air. Thrice, and a fourth time. Jeter blew on his own hands, to warm them up. Time dragged on, slowing down as the end of the game approached with ever-decreasing inevitability.

At the beginning of the tenth inning, Dick & Bert were talking about Nathan's lack of confidence in his fastball. But he'd been throwing a lot of them, especially as he lost command of his slider. He'd hit 91 MPH with the fastball a few times, but caught a lot of the plate and was fortunate that the Jeter of today isn't the same Jeter that built the legend that bears that name, and he fouled them off.

The look on Joe Nathan's face said he knew he was all alone out there. That he was nearly out of gas, and his fingers were cold, and help was not coming. That if Jeter reached base, he'd have to face a red hot Mark Teixeira representing the winning run. A walkoff home run literally loomed in the on-deck circle, especially considering Nathan's chilled fingers and lack of command and diminished velocity.

Joe Nathan looked old. His beard, now, more white than anything else. It's more shocking than it might have been, except that he hadn't been seen for so long.

Five times, six, he blew into his right hand, desperate to warm up his fingers for one final attack. Seven. Nathan reared back, and he fired.

He's accustomed to having plenty of gas, for situations like this. Mid-to-high 90s, the type of heat that keeps his hands warm and blows away good hitters and made him one of the best closers in the game. He knows, though, that that heat has cooled, that his gifts have left him. This fastball won't have speed -- Nathan knows he has to win a battle of wills against Derek Jeter.

A battle of wills against the Yankees has, for many years, been the Twins' downfall. Too many times, they find themselves trailing the Yankees and the magic they have against, say, the White Sox, runs dry. I can't pretend to know what the problem is, and I daresay nobody does. But like any hitter in the midst of a slump, all you can do is keep running out there and smashing your head against the bars of your cell until you find that one phony bar and break through and escape.

The fastball arrived at home plate, high, probably above the zone. Scouting reports have been saying for the last few years that Jeter is vulnerable to high fastballs, that he can't hit them but can't lay off them. This one arrived, and the radar read just 89 but it seemed like it was faster -- Jeter swung late, and underneath, and he missed.

The game was over, and Joe Nathan had beat Derek Jeter. The score read 5-4, and the Twins had finally beat the Yankees. It hadn't been long since they'd faced another dark hour, behind in the late innings in New York. But tonight, for just one night, the Twins had vanquished their pinstriped demons.

It's just one win -- perhaps the more important thing is that Nathan has taken the next step in his transition from dominant firebreather to wily old man. He'll need to complete that transition to remain successful, unless his velocity returns. I don't know if it will, but tonight's save has to help Nathan's confidence in a way that Sunday's couldn't.

And maybe this is just one of those things, that this apparent breakthrough doesn't really mean anything -- like Kubel's grand slam against Mariano last year -- but it sure feels great to steal a win from the maw of the Yankee beast.

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06 April 2011