ARLINGTON, Texas -- Joe Nathan did not have the kind of start he expected or wanted to the 2011 season. Returning just more than a year after Tommy John surgery, Nathan struggled. He had a 7.63 ERA in 15 1/3 innings with 15 strikeouts and nine walks.
He lost his closing job in the process and landed on the disabled list with a flexor muscle strain in his right elbow. But after he returned in late June, Nathan pitched better. he had a 3.38 ERA in his final 31 games, holding opponents to a .193 batting average with five walks and 28 strikeouts. He converted his final 11 save chances starting July 16.
"It was huge for me," Nathan said. "It was big for my confidence. Anytime you can go into the offseason with a good feeling about the workouts and what you need to do is important. Talking to guys that have been through it, they said 18 months is the key timeframe. For me, that's this offseason. I'm looking forward to what it feels like when I get to spring. But last year was huge finishing up the way it did."
Nathan said injuries have actually forced him to become a more well-rounded pitcher. He had shoulder issues in 2000 and after surgery started throwing a slider that has now become an important part of his repertoire. After Tommy John surgery in March 2010, Nathan didn't get his velocity all the way back and knew he had to get by using more of his secondary stuff. So he focused on using his curve more and re-introducing his changeup, a pitch that was nearly forgotten when he moved into the bullpen after the 2000 season.
"I mixed it in last year and had success and it's something I want to use more now," Nathan said.
He said when healthy, he was consistently around 93 to 96 mph with his fastball. Last year, he was 91 to 93, touching 94 and 95 at times. He isn't sure if all of his velocity will return, but where he notices a difference is the ability to finish breaking pitches and see more bite with them.
That's especially true of the curve.
"I was able to command it a lot better on both sides of the plate," Nathan said. "I'm trying to use movement more and make other pitches better when my fastball isn't there."
The Rangers believe they are getting the Nathan that finished the 2011 season with solid numbers and good command. Several front office folks used the phrase "good makeup" when referring to Nathan. It's a trait they insist is critical to be sure that the solid clubhouse stays that way. The reputation of the Rangers' clubhouse was important for Nathan as well. He said he heard about the fun the club has, but also that they are ready to work when it's time.
Nathan said he wants to help keep that vibe going.
"I want to make it a comfortable clubhouse, from rookies to guys who have been in the league for 20 years," Nathan said. "[You] don’t make guys feel like they have to walk around on egg shells. I learned from some pretty god teammates. Jim Thome being on top of that list."
Nathan is looking forward to preparation for spring training and meeting his new teammates. He wore No. 63 at the news conference. He was 36 last year, but that's C.J. Wilson's number (at least for now). If the Rangers don't sign Wilson, Nathan will get his old number back.