FORT MYERS — There are smiles, and then there is the smile that was adorned by Joe Nathan upon his return to the Twins dugout Tuesday.
He was returning from the mound.
For the first time in a year.
It was one of the only times where a loss isn’t the story coming out of the game, instead it was Nathan’s triumphant return to pitching since undergoing Tommy John surgery before the 2010 season. The surgery de-railed his season and it raised numerous questions about his career.
Will he play again? How good will he be?
Well those questions began to be answered Tuesday in Fort Myers when, in the fourth inning, Joe Nathan emerged from the Bullpen to take the mound for the first time since March of last year. Even after tossing an eight-pitch walk to the Red Sox Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Nathan was calm, composed, and healthy.
“I feel normal,” Nathan said, “which is about as good as it gets right now.”
On his way back to the dugout after throwing 20 pitches in his sole inning of scoreless work, Nathan was greeted by a warm applause by the sellout crowd and high fives and smiles from his teammates. But the high from returning is beginning to wear off on Nathan and his focus is turning towards full gearing up for a full return to action at 100 percent.
“These outings now in the games are definitely confidence builders,” Nathan said, “because until you get a hitter in there and get that adrenaline and really reach out and actually let loose — cut some pitches loose — you don’t know. So this was a big test. It was nice to come out of it unscathed.”
Now comes the analysis of exactly what Nathan’s outing will mean in terms of his arm. The verdict is still not in on how the arm will feel tomorrow or the next day. Nathan is scheduled to pitch again Friday against the Tampa Bay Rays. It’s exciting to have Nathan back, but his comeback is still in its infancy. He has only pitched one inning and we still don’t know what that will do to his arm in terms of fatigue or soreness. He also hasn’t tested his arm in back-to-back appearances yet which is the true test as that will be a likely routine come the regular season.
But as of now, the feelings and moods are positive in the clubhouse.
“Our belief is that he’s going to be just fine,” Gardenhire said. “He’s in great shape, he looks good. The ball is coming out of his hand well and now we’ll see if the arm holds up. … He’ll dictate how everything goes and he’ll let us know.”
April 1st seems far away for us; but for Nathan, that day can’t get here soon enough.