Posted: Monday January 24, 2011 1:30PM ; Updated: Tuesday January 25, 2011 10:53AM
Mel Antonen
Mel Antonen>INSIDE BASEBALL

Nathan leads host of star pitchers returning from injury

Story Highlights

Twins All-Star closer Joe Nathan had ligament replacement surgery last year

Former Cy Young winners Johan Santana, Brandon Webb are looking to return

Washington Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg could be back by September

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Joe Nathan
Joe Nathan walked off the mound for the last time in 2010 during spring training, and he won't be back until this year's camp opens.
AP

Ask Joe Nathan about how his elbow rehabilitation is going, and there's a brief silence before he answers. Things are going so well for the Twins once and future closer that he's reluctant to say for fear that something could go wrong.

"I don't want to ruin anything,'' he says. "My arm feels great. I'm in the best shape of my life, and there hasn't been a period of time where we haven't been able to do our workouts and progress. The next time I step on the field, it will be with my teammates, and that's a good feeling.''

Nathan, 36, expects to be throwing to live batters when spring training starts next month and return to his familiar role as the anchor of the Minnesota Twins' bulllpen, a year after he had ligament replacement surgery.

"My mindset is to go back to the job I had been doing,'' says Nathan, a four-time All-Star who averaged 41 saves a year from 2004-2009.

Twins general manager Bill Smith said that how Nathan will be used is up to manager Ron Gardenhire, and it's a decision that will be made in spring training.

The Twins used two closers last season in Nathan's absence. Jon Rauch had 21 saves before Minnesota acquired Matt Capps from the Washington Nationals in July. Capps had 16 saves for the Twins.

"It will be nice to have Matt Capps there to close if needed,'' Nathan says. "If I go back-to-back days, I'm not sure how good I'm going to feel on the third day.''

The Twins' bullpen is in a state of flux after losing Rauch to the Toronto Blue Jays, Jesse Crain to the Chicago White Sox and Matt Guerrier to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the free-agent market.

In addition to Capps and lefty Jose Mijares at the back end, the Twins plan to rebuild with pitchers such as Glen Perkins, Pat Neshek, Anthony Slama, Alex Burnett, Jeff Manship, Scott Diamond and Jim Hoey.

Last spring, Nathan felt pain in his right elbow pitching in a Grapefruit League game on March 6. Three weeks later, doctors took a ligament from his left elbow and moved it into his right elbow to replace the torn collateral ligament.

Instead of closing for the Twins in their new Target Field, Nathan spent last season rehabilitating in Minnesota and at the University of Tennessee. (He lives in Knoxville.) Now, as spring training nears, Nathan's workouts are returning to the routine of a normal winter.

His work on the mound started with him throwing 15 pitches at 50 percent effort and has moved up to 30 pitches at 75 percent effort. Nathan might throw a live batting practice session before he leaves for camp in Fort Myers, Fla.

Nathan's velocity isn't where it should be, but he said it is too early to be concerned. He has the itch to get to Florida, but is trying to focus solely on each day of his recovery.

"The biggest thing about rehabilitation is that you can't look ahead,'' Nathan said. "You have to maximize your exercise each day. I'm extremely excited, but you have to realize the time left here is valuable. You can't look for the light at the end of the tunnel. You have to concentrate on the task on hand.''

That approaches works for baseball as well. The Twins have been swept by the New York Yankees in the first round of the playoffs in each of the last two years. Nathan watched from Knoxville when it happened last October. In 2009, he gave up a walk-off home run to Alex Rodriguez in a Game 2 loss.

That one still hurts: "We want to get back, we want to beat the Yankees and advance in the playoffs,'' Nathan says. "We have to walk before we run. We have to get ready in spring training. And, there's plenty to do before I go Florida.''

Nathan isn't the only prominent pitcher looking to bounce back from an injury-marred 2010. Here's a look at how some other top hurlers are progressing on their road to recovery:

ZICK: Sizemore leads hitters looking to bounce back from injury

Stephen Strasburg and Chien-Ming Wang, Washington Nationals

No injured pitcher will be watched as closely as Strasburg, the 22-year-old who electrified the baseball world with his blazing fastball and knee-buckling breaking pitches after being called up to the majors last summer. Strasburg had ligament replacement surgery on his right elbow last summer, but will likely be throwing soon. That could put him on course for a return in late September.

Strasburg is in San Diego and expects to be throwing when he gets to spring training in Viera, Fla. Last season, after starting at Class AA and AAA, Strasburg was 5-3 with a 2.91 ERA with 92 strikeouts in 68 innings with the Nationals before the injury.

Wang, 30, last pitched for the New York Yankees in 2009. He was supposed to be in the Nationals' rotation last season, but an injured right shoulder kept him out. Wang decided to sign with the Nationals this season to re-pay them for their loyalty from 2009.

The Nationals would like nothing better than for Wang to return to his form of 2006 and 2007, when he had consecutive 19-win seasons for the Yankees. There's encouraging news: Wang pitched in the Instructional League without any problems.

He'll be competing with eight pitchers for a rotation spot. The Nationals say Wang has progressed from rehab to preparation workouts.

Jake Peavy, Chicago White Sox

The White Sox gave up four prospects to get Peavy, a former National League Cy Young Award winner, from the San Diego Padres in 2009 and have been waiting for a stable return on that investment ever since.

They aren't sure how long they'll have to wait. Peavy, who has won just 10 games for the White Sox since the trade, didn't pitch after July because of a shoulder injury that required surgery in September. Even though he's ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation, the White Sox have no timetable for the 30-year-old Peavy's return.

White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen is thinking about using lefty reliever Chris Sale in the rotation while Peavy is out, but pitching coach Don Cooper didn't like the split responsibility, so it appears the top candidate to join Gavin Floyd, Mark Buehrle, Edwin Jackson and John Danks in the rotation is reliever Tony Pena. (Sale could be the White Sox's closer.)

 
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