KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- There was a time, during the long and arduous rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery in 2010 and 2011, when Joe Nathan wasn't thinking about returning to the All-Star Game for a fifth time.
The fixture in the Minnesota Twins' bullpen just wondered if he could even pitch in the big leagues again.
"I was answering questions, not from other people, but questions I had for myself," said Nathan, now the Texas Rangers' closer. "Can I get back to this level? Can I get back to the way I was throwing before? You can't let the thought of, 'This might never happen,' or the doubt creep in, but it's tough.
"You've got to go out and go through the work and put the time in and hope that all the hours that you put in and the days you put in trying to get this thing back is not going to go all for naught."
So Nathan worked. He went through treatment and rehab after the surgery to replace a ligament in his elbow and rebuilt his arm strength. But when he returned to action for the Twins in 2011, after having missed all of 2010, Nathan wasn't the same pitcher he was before.
He struggled and blew leads. Finally, after a late-inning loss at Tampa Bay, Nathan met with pitching coach Rick Anderson and manager Ron Gardenhire. He told them he didn't want to hurt the team by blowing any more saves and was willing to take a step back. Matt Capps became the closer and Nathan ended up on the disabled list with a right flexor muscle strain.
But when he came back in late June, Nathan felt better. The slider was returning, and so was the bite on his curveball and velocity and location on his fastball. He pitched well enough to eventually regain his job as closer.
His solid finish to the 2011 season convinced the Rangers that Nathan could still get the job done with the game on the line. The two-time American League champions signed him to a two-year deal early in the offseason, moved Neftali Feliz to the starting rotation and made it clear that Nathan was the man in the ninth.
He's rewarded the club's faith, saving 18 of his 19 chances, including the past 16 in a row. Nathan has a 1.73 ERA and an impressive ratio of 45 strikeouts to four walks.
He's throwing his fastball in the mid-90s and showing durability. On Saturday, he made his first two-inning appearance since Aug. 2009. He got a win against the Twins for his efforts thanks to a walk-off double by Nelson Cruz in the 10th inning, a victory that ended the Rangers' five-game losing streak.
"I think I'm even better now than I was last year," Nathan said. "My stuff is better, but more importantly, my location is better. I'm throwing strikes the way I did before the surgery, which lets me know that even in my subconscious I am more comfortable."
Nathan says his confidence is high because he's able to get hitters out with good pitches in the zone, as opposed to hoping for loose swings on pitches out of the zone.
Nathan has now returned from shoulder surgery (2000) and Tommy John surgery, and both times he found a positive in the time off. He learned to throw a slider after the shoulder surgery because he needed a pitch to get hitters out while he tried to get the velocity back on his fastball. And after Tommy John, Nathan noticed he had more bite on his breaking pitches.
"I feel as good now about my overall game as I did years ago," said Nathan, who holds the Twins' career record with 260 saves.
His teammates see the Nathan work ethic every day and the relief corps has taken notice, employing some of his weight-room routines.
"He's arguably one of the best closers of all time, so you pay attention," reliever Mark Lowe said. "He might be the hardest worker on the team. He's in the weight room doing something on a daily basis and it's a great routine and guys come in and see that. Guys that have been around as long as he has, it's cool to see a guy that's accomplished so much."
Nathan feels he still has more to do. He wants a World Series title and hopes to help the Rangers finally earn that trophy after two straight AL titles. But first, he can add a fifth trip to the All-Star Game to his résumé.
And don't be surprised if Rangers manager Ron Washington, also the AL All-Star skipper, summons him from the bullpen with the game on the line Tuesday.
"I'm honored just to be there," Nathan said. "There are so many guys that are deserving [to close the game]. It seems like Mariano [Rivera] is supposed to be there. Without them there, there's going to be a void to fill.
"There's a lot of guys that have had great years. If Wash wants to go with them, great. If he wants to go with me, great. I feel privileged just to be there. I'll take any inning and be happy to do that."