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Updated: March 25th, 2011 4:13pm
Nathan still searching for slider, but 'absolutely' comfortable in 9th

Nathan still searching for slider, but 'absolutely' comfortable in 9th

by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- While the Minnesota Twins' "A" lineup -- minus Alexi Casilla -- knocked around Orioles pitching at Hammond Stadium on Friday, manager Ron Gardenhire spent time on the side fields watching a few of his major-league pitchers pitch in a minor-league game.

Specifically Joe Nathan, who threw a scoreless inning just one day after giving up three runs in an inning to the Phillies in Clearwater on Thursday.

The consensus, with one week remaining until the regular season begins, is that Nathan has done a hell of a job coming back from Tommy John surgery.

But he's still ironing out the wrinkles.

"I know coming in, I'm not going to feel 100 percent," Nathan said. "I've talked to too many people and have been through a surgery or two, so I know kind of how it's supposed to feel, how each stage is kind of supposed to go. Obviously this is my first time going through the Tommy John process, but having had good advice throughout the process and coming in here, I know not to expect to feel like 100 percent all the time.

"And that's this game. There's not going to be too many days you go out there and feel 100 percent, so when I say I'm feeling good, it doesn't mean I'm feeling great. But it means I'm feeling good enough to go out there and pitch, which is a good feeling."

Spring has provided a mixed bag of ups and downs for Nathan, whose ERA surpassed 11.00 after Thursday's outing, but most reasonable people would agree that the number one priority for the 36-year-old is simply getting through March without any setbacks.

He's done that. And now he's trying to sharpen a pitch repertoire that helped him become one of the best closers in baseball for six years prior to surgery.

"(I'm) still fine-tuning things like my slider," Nathan said. "And that's going to be a big pitch. That's one of those pitches that seemed to come later in spring for me (prior to surgery), but that's something we'll have to just keep touching up and making sure I stay on top of what I'm doing with it, because that is a big pitch for me going into the season."

Nathan added, "I expected my pitches, all of them, to be there. Am I disappointed that one or a couple of them might not be where I want them? No, I'm not disappointed.

"I think I expected to go into the first month or so of the season and kind of still be fine-tuning some things. But I think I've definitely reached, or gone beyond, what I expected out of most (pitches)."

Nathan -- who in the past was notorious for ramping up velocity and arm strength in the final week of spring training -- said he is likely to lean more heavily on his curveball and changeup until the slider comes back.

Regarding the curveball, specifically, Nathan said it has "definitely surpassed what I expected of it. I think that's the one pitch that's really gotten better, whether it's the surgery or whatever, that seems to have tightened up and really gotten sharper."

But if the season started today, would he feel comfortable handling ninth-inning duties?

"Absolutely," Nathan said.

"If I'm comfortable to pitch, I'll be comfortable to pitch in the ninth for sure. No matter when you're going into a game, you're going to have some adrenaline. It's no different, at least I don't treat it any different, if I go in the first inning or if I go in in the ninth. I always said if I'm ready to pitch, then I'm ready to pitch in the ninth."

Gardenhire acknowledged that Nathan's slider is "not as sharp as it has been," adding, "I've seen really good ones, and I've seen really not-so-good ones. But I think he'll be fine. I think his fastball came out today, a couple good ones. (Thursday) he threw a bad one and it got hit. It is what it is.

"His arm's healthy. We'll see what happens."

Of course, Nathan's bullpen mate and fellow closer, Matt Capps, has not allowed a run all spring.

Gardenhire has yet to officially name his closer, but Nathan -- despite the fact that Capps is likely the team's best reliever at this current moment -- feels a sense of entitlement to the position, as he should, considering how dominant he was prior to surgery.

He would never ruffle feathers by proclaiming so publicly, however.

"For me," Nathan said, "I think Capps and I will both say as long as we're on this team and helping this team win, then I think the one thing we both agree on is we just want to be in the psotseason again, and we want another shot back in the postseason.

"That other stuff, as far as being labeled the closer, I think both of us are in agreement that it's just a label."

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
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