Joe Nathan says he 'feels normal' after first outing since Tommy John
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- For Minnesota Twins closer Joe Nathan, the road to recovery came full circle at Hammond Stadium on Tuesday.
Pitching in a live game for the first time since undergoing Tommy John surgery on March 26, 2010, Nathan pitched a scoreless fourth inning against the Boston Red Sox.
"I had some nerves for sure," said Nathan, who received a standing ovation during his warm-up tosses. "Definitely anxious to get out there. I've been looking forward to today for a long time. Definitely excited for it. It went well. I'm excited how it went.
"I feel normal, which is about as good as it gets right now."
Nathan threw 20 pitches, walking one, inducing two flyouts and a weak groundout to second base. His fastball was clocked between 86-90 mph on the stadium radar gun.
"These outings now in the games are definitely confidence builders," Nathan said, "because until you get a hitter in there and get that adrenaline and really reach out and actually let loose -- cut some pitches loose -- you don't know. So this was a big test. It was nice to come out of it unscathed."
He added, "I don't want to treat this any bigger than what it is, this first spring training game. But I think every step that I've gone through throughout the summer last year, and throughout this offseason, there's a lot of big steps. But of course going into a game and being in front of more people, it makes it seem bigger."
Nathan's last outing came in a spring training game on March 6, 2010 against the Red Sox. He left early that day with tightness and soreness in his elbow, which eventually led to the surgery.
Over the last two weeks, Nathan has been throwing regular bullpen sessions and facing live hitters. He says the biggest test isn't necessarily taking the mound -- it's how the elbow responds when he wakes up the next day.
"There's some days that are great when I come back, there's some days that are a little tougher, but as expected I think," Nathan said. "I think (Wednesday) will be a big test. (Wednesday), coming after a game where I definitely let pitches go, probably a little more than I do in a 'pen, just because the game situations, adrenaline, all that. I think (Wednesday), coming in, it'll be nice to see how it feels."
As for his velocity, Nathan said he fully expects to be throwing in the low-to-mid 90's -- where he was prior to the surgery -- when the season starts in April.
"Anything less than that is defintely a disappointment," Nathan said, "but at the same time, I know in my heart that I've done everything I can to be ready for opening day. So I fit's not meant to be, hopefully it's not too long after that."
From 2004 to 2009, Nathan compiled arguably the best numbers of any closer in baseball -- a 1.87 ERA, 2.40 FIP and 246 saves to go along with 518 strikeouts in 418 2/3 innings.
Even if he returns as 80% of the pitcher he once was, he's still better than most relievers in the American League.