Tigers closer, 40, does not plan to retire as a result of the injury
By Jason Beck
DETROIT -- Tigers closer Joe Nathan will undergo Tommy John surgery after being diagnosed with tears of the ulnar collateral ligament and flexor pronator in his right arm, ending his season and potentially his career.
At this point, Nathan said, he isn't planning on the latter yet. At age 40, however, he's preparing for it.
"I will rehab and do everything I am supposed to as if I am coming back to be a Major League pitcher," Nathan said. "That is my goal, to come back and pitch again. But more importantly, the rehab will be good for the rest of my life anyway; it's something I need to do to get strong again, be able to play catch with my kid, play golf, whatever I'm going to do."
The tears occurred during his rehab appearance Wednesday for Triple-A Toledo. Nathan had been on the 15-day disabled list for the past two weeks with an elbow flexor strain, but he was hoping an inning Wednesday for the Mud Hens would be his final step toward a return to the Tigers, perhaps as soon as Friday.
He retired the first two batters he faced, striking out the second, before feeling a pop on his 10th pitch of the inning. The pain was different, he said, than when he tore his UCL five years ago.
"That was more of a grab," he said. "This was more of a pop. I heard it. I felt it. So this one was a little more intense than that one. And the discomfort afterwards is a lot more intense."
Nathan was examined Wednesday night at Detroit Medical Center and received the news later in the evening. He'll talk with other doctors about the results, but he has no reason to doubt the initial diagnosis of tears in his right arm.
Nathan has not scheduled a surgery. When he does, though, he has been told to expect a longer timetable than normal Tommy John surgery, given the flexor tear. He won't be able to pick up a ball for about eight months, costing him not only all of this season, but probably part of next year as well. The rehab process is not simply to pitch again, but also to do normal life activities.
Nathan is in the final season of a two-year contract he signed with the Tigers after the 2013 season. There's a $10 million option for next season, but Detroit can buy it out for $1 million.
It's an abrupt halt to a career that ranks Nathan among the best closers in Major League history. His 377 career saves lead all active pitchers, and rank him seventh on the all-time Major League list. All but two of those saves came in an 11-year stretch in which Nathan recorded four 40-save seasons and five others with 35 or more.
Nathan is preparing himself for either possibility.
"I do know what's in front of me," he said. "I'm also smart enough to realize that if things don't work out, I have nothing to be upset about. I played baseball until I was 40 years old. If you would have told me when I started this I'd be playing baseball when I was 40, I'd have been ecstatic. I'm very happy with the way my career has gone, but like I said, I'm not done yet."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.