Veteran All-Star Nathan savors this above the rest
Closer's comeback from Tommy John surgery culminates in Midsummer Classic
KANSAS CITY -- Rangers closer Joe Nathan had been to four All-Star Games prior to his arrival in Kansas City on Monday. But when he is introduced on Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium with the rest of the American League team, there is no doubt where his fifth All-Star selection will stand on the list."This one definitely means the most to me," Nathan said, "All my All-Star Games have special memories, but this one for sure."
Nathan has every right to feel that way after missing all of 2010 because of Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery and battling through more arm troubles last year. At one point last season, he asked out of his job as Twins closer because he wasn't getting the job down.Now he could easily be the guy that manager Ron Washington calls upon in the ninth inning on Tuesday night if the AL has the lead. That would be a crowning moment in Nathan's arduous comeback. "I didn't even think about making the All-Star team," Nathan said. "I was just fighting to put my stuff back together. That was the biggest question for others and myself, just to prove that I could still do it and if I could get back to this level. A lot of people didn't expect it, but being here is a symbol that I did." From 2004-09, Nathan was one of the premier closers in the game. His 246 saves for the Twins in those six years were the most by any Major League reliever, his 1.87 ERA was second best, and he was sixth with 11.14 strikeouts per nine innings. Then he felt something wrong in his elbow during his only Spring Training appearance in 2010, and ended up having elbow surgery before the Twins left Florida. "It was tough, really hard to hear Tommy John," Nathan said. "But I knew something was up when I tried to pitch. Then we got the MRI done, and the doctor said it was clear that I needed to do this. It hits hard. This is a game you've been playing your whole life. It's scary, very scary. But after that, you get over it and fight to get through it." Nathan was 35 when he had the surgery. He refused to believe his career was over. Nathan grew up in the tiny upstate New York hamlet of Pine Bush on the Shawangunk Kill, he played college baseball at SUNY-Stony Brook at a time when it was just an obscure Division III program, and after being drafted in the sixth round of the 1995 First-Year Draft by the Giants, he made his professional debut as a shortstop. It wasn't until 1997, after Nathan took a year off to finish his degree in business management, that he started pitching. After going through all that, as well as shoulder surgery at the end of the 2000 season, Nathan wasn't interested in walking away just because of Tommy John. "No ... no ... no," Nathan said. "I still knew I had something left in the game. Until somebody tells me I can't do it, I'm going to keep going out there and continue to perform and compete. It never crossed my mind to stop." Twins first baseman Justin Morneau, who was going through his own physical problems, was a regular partner with Nathan during his rehab workouts. "I was hurt most of the year when he was doing his rehab, and I saw how hard he was working every day," Morneau said. "He was in there in that weight room doing everything he could to get back." After missing all of 2010, the next season did not start off well. Nathan had an 11.37 ERA after seven appearances, and that's when he stepped down as the Twins closer. He finally went on the disabled list on May 24 with a strained flexor tendon and was sidelined for a month. But he started approaching his old self after being activated on June 23. He pitched in 31 games over the rest of the season with a 3.38 ERA, a .193 opponents batting average and 11 saves in 12 tries once he was restored as closer. "He's a good pitcher," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He's a hard worker. I don't think anybody is going to do more than he did to get back on the field. He was working at it really hard from the first time he really had the chance to pick up a baseball. He didn't quit on his rehab and didn't back off at all. He has a special desire and ability and he uses it. He doesn't let it go to waste. "He did everything to get back on the field and it shows. His velocity has come back. He went through some tough times last year where he couldn't get the ball where he wanted. But he kept working at it and finally some good things have happened." The Rangers are glad he had the resolve. They decided last season they wanted to move Neftali Feliz to the rotation, and they needed somebody to take over as closer. The free-agent market was loaded with veteran closers including Jonathan Papelbon, Heath Bell, Francisco Cordero, Ryan Madson and others. But the Rangers identified Nathan as the one they wanted and signed him to a two-year, $14.75 million contract on Nov. 21. He has rewarded their faith with a 1.73 ERA and 18 saves in 19 opportunities. Opponents are hitting .226 off him and he has struck out 11.15 batters per nine innings. "He has been great," Rangers catcher and fellow All-Star Mike Napoli said. "His life is back on his fastball and his stuff has been awesome. When he comes into a game, we have a lot of confidence that he's going to get the job done." His only blown save was on April 11 against the Mariners. Since then, Nathan has saved 16 straight and has moved past Mariano Rivera with an 89.28 career save percentage, the highest in Major League history among relievers with at least 200 saves. "He's brought a sense of ease down in our bullpen," All-Star pitcher Matt Harrison said. "No matter what the situation, he gives it everything he's got, even when it's not a save situation. His presence and leadership have been big, especially with all the young guys we have down there. He's a great pitcher and a great teammate. I'm glad he is here with the rest of us." It will be a special moment for a special pitcher. One of the top relievers in baseball is all the way back to baseball's biggest midsummer stage.
The 83rd Major League Baseball All-Star Game will be televised nationally by FOX Sports, in Canada by Rogers Sportsnet and RDS, and worldwide by partners in more than 200 countries via MLB International's independent feed. Pregame ceremonies begin at 7:30 p.m. (EDT)/6:30 p.m. (CDT). ESPN Radio and ESPN Radio Deportes will provide exclusive national radio coverage. MLB Network, MLB.com and Sirius XM also will provide comprehensive All-Star Game coverage.
Fans will also have the opportunity to participate in the official voting for the Ted Williams Most Valuable Player presented by Chevrolet via the 2012 MLB.com All-Star Game MVP Vote during the All-Star Game on MLB.com.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.