SURPRISE, Ariz. – Rangers closer Joe Nathan said he can’t remember the last time he felt this good heading into spring training.
The 37-year-old had Tommy John surgery in March of 2010 and was told it usually takes 18 months to be fully healthy. He hit that mark just as the 2011 season was coming to a close and said he was able to do his usual routine this offseason.
Nathan has thrown seven bullpen sessions, including one on Tuesday, and is pain free.
"I’m excited," Nathan said. "I had a great workout this winter and have looked forward to this day for a long time."
Nathan’s next step: throwing to live hitters. He was told almost as soon as he signed in November that every healthy Rangers pitcher throws to live hitters the first day of camp.
"I’ve prepared myself for that," said Nathan, who will throw to hitters for five minutes Thursday. "I’m ready for hitters to stand in and see what we can do."
Nathan’s confidence stems from not only his offseason, but the end of the 2011 campaign. The beginning of last season wasn’t what Nathan had hoped. He had a 7.63 ERA in 15 1/3 innings with 15 strikeouts and nine walks and lost the closing job in Minnesota. He landed on the disabled list with a flexor muscle strain in his right elbow.
But the strain healed and when Nathan returned in late June, he looked more like the guy that had pitched so well in relief before the surgery. He had a 3.38 ERA in his final 31 games as opponents batted just .193 against him with five walks and 28 strikeouts. Nathan converted his final 11 save chances in the second half.
"I think the end of last season definitely helped finishing the way I did," Nathan said. "Coming into the offseason, I could tell how much better I felt with workouts. The year before, I could still feel some pulling in the elbow and that it needed to stretch out and do what it needs to do to heal.
"But this offseason, I didn’t think about it. That tells me I don’t feel it anymore. I don’t worry about it. I’m not asking myself, ‘How does it feel now? How does it feel now?’ It was business as usual. My bullpens went according to plan and got better and better. I’m excited to go."
Nathan knew after 2011 that he would have to prove himself following the surgery. So when the Rangers called and were interested, he quickly settled on a two-year deal worth $14.75 million and a club option for 2014 for $9 million.
"It was a no-brainer once they showed some interest," Nathan said. "I’m very excited about this season and hopefully getting back to where these guys have been the last couple of years."
Nathan said pitching for the back-to-back American League champions and the fact that he heard so many good things about the Rangers’ clubhouse atmosphere were big factors in coming to Texas.
"Obviously, I haven’t seen them all together in one place yet, but I’ve heard they all get along real well and that’s why they’ve done so well," Nathan said. "There’s talent here, just like there is in every clubhouse, but usually the thing that separates squads is how well they get along and how well they pull for each other and it looks like these guys do that as well as anyone."