DETROIT -- Joe Nathan is eligible to return from the 15-day disabled list on April 22 after being retroactively placed on the disabled list for a right elbow flexor strain on March 7. The Detroit Tigers haven't determined whether he will be activated at that point, but so far things are going well for the 40-year-old righthander.
At the time Nathan landed on the DL, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said it was something that had bothered the closer since the last week of spring training. When it didn't clear up on the first day of the regular season, the Tigers ordered an MRI to ensure that it wasn't in an area of concern. The MRI came back clean and head athletic trainer Kevin Rand classified the strain as "very common."
Nathan hasn't suffered any setbacks during his rehab and his recovery is currently on track. Saturday he thew long toss as planned, but that went so well that Nathan said he stepped it up, after which pitching coach Jeff Jones had him pitch off the mound.
"I got up to 75 yards, which is what I do during the season when I'm feeling great," Nathan said. "When I came in Jonesy said, 'How's it going out there?' I said I felt awesome and he said, 'Let's get on the bump.'"
The righty threw 14-15 pitches, mostly fastballs, from the mound with no pain wearing plastic spikes, though he did mix in a few curveballs. It was the first time Nathan had thrown off a mound since Opening Day, when he recorded the final out of the first game of the 2015 season. That Nathan threw off the mound with no setbacks or issues marked an important step in his progress, and puts him that much closer to returning to the team.
The Tigers haven't said what the next step is for Nathan, and Nathan said he isn't sure himself -- and he doesn't want to speculate what that step will be, whether it's a simulated or a rehab assignment. Nathan said he'd prefer to get into a game, but acknowledged it's better to be safe than sorry, especially at 40.
"You have to be smart," Nathan said. "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."
As for the closer's role, Joakim Soria currently holds that position. When Nathan initially went on the DL Ausmus said Nathan would return to his job as closer, but over the last week or so, Soria has nailed down the position and Ausmus said "we'll see what happens" when Nathan did return.
Since becoming the Tigers closer, Soria has made seven appearances and put up a 1.59 ERA and 1.56 FIP with four strikeouts, giving up just one run on two hits in 5 2/3 innings-pitched. The one run that Soria gave up was during a 9-6 win over the Cleveland Indians when defensive indifference allowed the runner to advance to second -- and later scored.
The plan may outline one course of action, but the execution, however, may see different results. For Nathan's part, all he can do is continue to recover from the strain and be ready to rejoin the Tigers, whenever that is.
"It's been a week and a half," Nathan said. "We played great ball. We've had great pitching. I've been a cheerleader on the bench. I been watching it and enjoying it. I am 40 years old. 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 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."
An update, on Sunday Jones said the plan is for Nathan to throw off the mound again on Monday if he comes in feeling good. Ausmus also said that while Nathan is eligible to return from the DL on Wednesday, he will need a sim game or rehab game before the Tigers will bring him back from the DL.