SURPRISE, Ariz. -- It took all of seven pitches for Ron Washington to make a bold pronouncement about Joe Nathan.
The right-hander, signed by the Rangers to a two-year contract this offseason, faced three White Sox hitters in a perfect seventh inning on Thursday. The ball did not leave the infield, and Nathan threw five of the seven pitches for strikes.
"I know Joe," Washington said after the game. "The way he carries himself, what I've seen from him in Minnesota before he got hurt, what I've seen from him this spring, Joe Nathan is back."
It may still be too soon to tell, but the skipper -- and even Nathan himself -- believes the closer is the same player who was selected to four All-Star Games and closed at least 36 games for six consecutive seasons with the Twins.
"I had a good winter, a healthy winter, a normal workout regimen," Nathan said this weekend. "And that's what's led me to come into spring and feel as strong as I do."
It's been a long road back for Nathan, who missed the 2010 season and appeared in just 48 games last year (logging 14 saves) after undergoing Tommy John surgery in March 2010.
"Obviously, the surgery, being two years behind me now, has allowed my arm to heal and do everything I need to do," Nathan said. "It's not a concern, I'm not thinking about that anymore. I'm just concentrating on what's important and that's getting guys out."
Not only does Nathan have the potential to be among the league leaders in saves this season, but his arrival in Texas allowed for the Rangers' starting rotation to gain a weapon, as well.
With Nathan, who is fifth among active closers with 261 career saves, serving as back-end bullpen insurance, the club was able to move Neftali Feliz from the closer's role to the rotation.
"Last spring, we experimented with Neftali starting, but we weren't protected in the back end of the bullpen," Washington said. "And the first thing [general manager Jon Daniels] did this winter was go get us some protection in the back end of the bullpen so we could go make this move with Neftali. I think he made a great choice in Joe Nathan. More than that, Joe Nathan wanted to be in Texas."
The Houston native arrived at Spring Training with the goal of building his arm strength and bolstering his velocity in time for Opening Day. He said he typically gains momentum slowly toward the regular season, but it seems there aren't too many at camp worried about his execution.
"Not to take anything away from Neftali, but Nathan is one of the best closers in the game, and it's a plus to have a guy like that to bring in," said catcher Yorvit Torrealba, who also spent time with Nathan from 2002-03 in San Francisco. "With Neftali moving to the rotation, we need a guy like that, and to have him here is great."
It's a fresh start of sorts for Nathan, whose role has been in somewhat of a state of flux since 2009. But he points to the second half of last season -- he had 11 of his 14 saves after the All-Star break and his 3.91 ERA was nearly two full points lower than his first-half ERA -- as the jump-off point for a successful 2012.
"I'm sure everybody else is going to have their questions," Nathan said. "But for me, the questions are done. It's just about going out and taking the mound and taking the ball and trying to pitch."