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Veteran reliever Joe Nathan prepares to help Cubs if they need him

WASHINGTON -- There is no mistaking why 41-year-old rehabbing six-time All-Star Joe Nathan is attempting a comeback with the Chicago Cubs after a second elbow surgery. It’s not for money or even to prove anything to himself or others.

It’s simply who he is.

“That’s all I know,” Nathan said recently from Arizona in a phone interview. “I just feel like I’m living. This is my life. This is what I do. It’s not about ‘can I push myself?’ I know I can do that. I know I can grind through workouts. This is second nature to me.”

Nathan will throw his third bullpen session on Tuesday in Mesa. Then if things go well, he’s scheduled to pitch in a real game against the San Francisco Giants organization on Friday, also in Arizona. Signed last month, Nathan is hoping to help the Cubs in the second half of the season.

“I’m 41 turning 42 this year, but I feel great,” Nathan said. “My body feels as strong as ever. Trainers have told me don’t pay attention to your age because you’re doing stuff that 21- and 22-year-olds wish they were doing.”

There’s anecdotal evidence to back that up from Cubs reliever Justin Grimm, as the two pitchers were teammates for a short period in the Texas Rangers organization. Grimm said Nathan was beating “everyone” in 300-yard shuttle drills, while looking as young as the rookies.

“That’s nice to hear from Justin,” Nathan said with a chuckle.

A dominant closer for four teams over a 15-year career, Nathan is starting over again. His second Tommy John operation came after he had saved 377 games in the big leagues. After deciding to keep his career going, he eventually had a conversation with Cubs president Theo Epstein.

“We were just feeling each other out,” Nathan recalled. “Just talking to him was an honor for me. And it was nice for him to hear where my attitude was and how motivated I was. That may have cleared his head and made him more comfortable.”

There was one thing Nathan wanted Epstein to know above all else: Coming in as a former big-time closer, he didn’t want to be a distraction.

“I basically told him I know how good your ballclub is with or without me,” Nathan said. “I’m not here to try and disrupt anything. If you need me to throw in the sixth inning, seventh inning, I’m here for you. Whatever you want. I think that was something that was good for him to hear.”

The big question is, can Nathan help? And at nearly 42, is his stuff good enough to get people out in a pennant race?

At times, the Cubs’ bullpen has shown some cracks -- right now, Nathan’s buddy Grimm is struggling -- meaning there very well could be a place for him later in the season. After all, the Cubs didn’t sign him -- nor did he choose them -- to play in the minors for the rest of the year.

“My stuff has felt surprisingly really good so far,” Nathan said. “First live session went very well. Threw every pitch except for my slider. That will be my last pitch I’ll work on. The changeup is one pitch I really worked on with the injury.”

The biggest thing for Nathan following the surgery is how he feels the day after throwing and how much rest he will need before he can pitch again.

“For me, the most important thing is the recovery,” he said. “It’s bouncing back. For me to help these guys out, I want to do what I’ve done my whole career. That’s to be able to bounce back and pitch for these guys if they need me two, three, four days in a row. That’s stuff I’ve done throughout my career. I don’t want them to have to restrict me too much.

“It’s amazing how quick it’s turned around in three weeks with recovery. What used to take me a full two days of recovery, now it’s by later in the next day I feel like I can throw again. That was a huge sign.”

If all goes well this week, Nathan thinks he’ll pitch again around June 20, then join Double-A Tennessee and then perhaps Triple-A Iowa for rehab assignments. Living in Knoxville makes it convenient to pitch for the Smokies a few times before moving on. And if you think Nathan might be feeling this is a short-term thing to end his career on his terms, it’s not. He wants to keep going.

“They’re going to have to rip the jersey off me, there’s no doubt,” Nathan said. “I’m looking to play as long as I feel good. I don’t want to play if I’m hurting every time, but if I feel good, let’s keep it rolling.”

Like many pitchers these days -- Jake Arrieta and Jason Hammel come to mind -- a change in what Nathan does at mealtime has become extremely important. He hopes it extends his career; that’s how important proper eating has become to many athletes now.

“I figured if there is an area I can benefit myself in, it would be to eat better,” Nathan said. “They say that’s probably more important than getting into the gym. That’s helped being able to recover and bounce back from workouts.”

Nathan stays in touch with John Lackey and only knows Cubs manager Joe Maddon from the 2009 All-Star Game -- well, in addition to the stories he has heard. And Nathan has heard the good ones.

“He puts guys into a place where they can succeed,” Nathan said. “They tell me he wants you to play the game with less pressure than you need. There’s already enough pressure.

“He seems to make it a lot lighter, which it needs to be. It shows when the young guys go out already performing at a higher standard than people expect.”

And like every current member of the Cubs, somewhere in the back of Nathan’s mind is the idea of winning a championship for the team with the longest drought in professional sports. The righty was well aware of the Cubs’ reputation before signing on. Now he wants in on the fun.

“From the baseball side of it, the reason why I do it is to win a championship,” Nathan said. “That is one thing I have not gotten a taste of. I never got the taste of getting close to winning a championship.

“If you’re going to win a championship, why not do it at Wrigley? That would be one heck of a party.”