Joe Nathan makes big step toward recovery

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — Nobody likes getting ambushed, but this one worked out pretty well for Tigers recovering closer Joe Nathan.

Nathan, on the DL with a right elbow flexor strain, did his usual long-toss program before the game Saturday.

"I felt awesome," he said. "I didn't feel anything long-tossing and I got up to 75 yards, which is what I do during the season when I'm feeling great."

That's when pitching coach Jeff Jones ambushed him.

"When I came in Jonesy said, 'How's it going out there?'" Nathan said. "I said I felt awesome and he said, 'Let's get on the bump.'

"He might have had a plan, but I didn't know about it. But I said, 'Let's do it.'"

Nathan said he threw "14 or 15" pitches off the mound — his first mound work since the injury and said he felt good.

"I threw mostly fastballs, but again, I was in plastics (spikes), I had a sweatshirt on, I had my outfielder's mit on. I was not planning on throwing off the mound," he said. "But it felt good. It was my first time on the mound, first time throwing on an angle. I let it go (fairly) good. And I threw three curveballs just to get a little touch and feel."

Barring pain or unusual soreness Sunday, he will throw a full bullpen on Monday. He is eligible to come off DL Wednesday, but he said to pump the brakes on that.

"I am eligible, but I don't want to speculate on what we're going to do," he said. "I assume they would want me to get some game action to make sure (he's ready)."

Asked if that would entail a simulated game or a rehab assignment, he again said he didn't want to guess.

"If it's up to me, we'd want to just start playing," he said. "But you have to be smart. You can't just get activated, go pitch and then tweak something and then need a day or two. You put your team in kind of a bind."

In Nathan's absence, Joakim Soria has been a perfect four for four in save opportunities, and they've all been quick and efficient saves. Manager Brad Ausmus, when asked if Nathan would retain his closer's role when he got back, said, "That's the plan. We will see what happens."

Nathan, though, isn't worried about that aspect of it. He pointed out that it's only been a week and a half and that he's enjoyed being a cheerleader as the team bolted to a 9-2 start.

"I am 40 years old," he said. "I am not worried about losing a role or doing anything except winning ballgames. I think that's what our bullpen and, bigger picture, our whole team is trying to do — win as many games as we can.

"My worries are never about where am I pitching. My worries are about helping this team to get where we want to be."

Chris McCosky on Twitter @cmccosky