Mackey: Nathan says April pelting was 'what was supposed to happen'
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MINNEAPOLIS -- How do we know when a pitcher has made it all the way back from Tommy John surgery?
Technically, Minnesota Twins right-hander Joe Nathan made it back on April 3 when he converted his first save -- with some strong turbulence -- since October 3, 2009.
At least, kind of. Nathan made it back, but not back back.
Nathan landed back on the disabled list on May 28 with elbow inflammation, and since returning on June 25 he has allowed only two runs in 11 1/3 innings (1.59 ERA) with eight strikeouts, zero walks and only six hits allowed. Both runs were solo homers.
Over that stretch, Nathan's fastball velocity is up, his breaking pitches have more snap, and his arm feels "a lot more whippy," as the right-hander describes it.
"It's going to be hard to know when you're all the way back, because in April and May I was like, 'This could be all the way back,'" Nathan said prior to Sunday's loss to the Detroit Tigers. "So you just try and pitch with what you got. And then as you get better you realize you weren't even close (earlier in the year)."
In Nathan's last outing, Saturday against Detroit, he looked a lot more like the guy who posted a 1.87 ERA between 2004 and 2009 -- particularly with the 95-mph fastball and late-moving breaking ball that froze Carlos Guillen.
"I think that's probably been the biggest difference since I've come back (from the DL), just noticing the finish (on pitches)," he said. "I can tell that I can finish a lot better, I can actually get out and have a little more whip on it. And it just allows me to get out in front and release it when I'd like to.
"Before I think everything was so stiff and tight that I wasn't having that same tight spin on the ball and just kind of hanging in there. For me it's just night and day on just how my arm comes through and how everything feels a lot more whippy and loose and free."
Over the last 15 months, the 36-year-old Nathan -- who said he now hopes to pitch another "four, five, six years" -- has been in contact with other pitchers who have journeyed down the same path, most notably Billy Wagner and Matt Thornton, both of whom told Nathan it took about a year-and-a-half before it felt like they were back back.
"That's when everyone says where all of a sudden something just clicked, and everything is back or better than what they remember," Nathan said.
"I talked with Matt Thornton when we were in Chicago, and he was another one that was like, 'Right around 18 months.' He was like 93 (mph) for awhile and he said he came in the spring, and was about 18 months when they were in the spring, went out and pitched in a game and he was like 97-98, and people were like, 'What was that?' and he was like, 'I have no idea.'"
Nathan admits spending nearly a month on the disabled list from late-May into June was probably the best thing that could have happened. He took eight days off from throwing initially and instead went in to the trainers' room every day to undergo aggressive forearm massage therapy.
"I didn't realize how tight everything was when I was just going out and grinding," he said. "I just figured that's what I was going to have to go through, and until I took that time off and got some work done on it I didn't realize how bad my forearm was and how much work it needed. ...
"About a week into it I just really noticed a difference how much more loose it was."
Shortly after that, Nathan picked up a ball to play catch once again, "and sure enough, boom, my scar tissue just basically popped and broke up."
It was pretty clear to even casual spring training observers that Matt Capps was the more effective pitcher heading into April, and the Twins knew that as well -- manager Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson included. But Nathan proved himself healthy in Fort Myers and worthy of a roster spot, and he was making $12 million as one of the best closers in baseball prior to the surgery.
"(People) wondered about him being our closer," Gardenhire said in late-April following Nathan's initial demotion from the role. "You have to find out, he had to find out, we had to find out what we had and where he's at."
As it turned out, Nathan allowed 11 runs (10 earned) in nine April innings (10.00 ERA), walking seven, hitting a batter and allowing nine hits. He said he could sense that hitters were "definitely more comfortable" at the plate because they were able to recognize pitches earlier than they did pre-surgery.
"There really wasn't much they had to worry about getting by them," Nathan said. "They didn't have to start (their swings) as early as they normally did, so they could pick up breaking balls, especially the ones I was throwing ... And anytime big league hitters can recognize a pitch out of your hand it's going to be tough to get them out."
May really wasn't much better, as Nathan allowed a run in three of his seven appearances before being placed on the DL.
"Looking back at it now, it's one of those things where you know, honestly, that's what was suppose to happen," Nathan said about getting roughed up early. "The way I was struggling, and looking back now, how I felt, would it have been smarter for me to start on the DL? Who knows?
"But I think even going through that helps later down the road, going through pitching and getting beat up a little bit. You learn a lot when you're out there and have a tough outing, so I think all that stuff happened for a reason."
As for whether Nathan is back, back back, or just somewhere in between, the right-hander says he hasn't been sweating it.
"I mean I didn't think about it. It was always just keep on plugging away and you know eventually this things going to get better.
"I knew it was early. I mean, I knew I was trying to come back in a year and there's not a whole lot of people that have attempted that... So I knew I still had plenty of time to get this thing right. I was never really nervous it never crossed my mind."