DETROIT -- Joe Nathan has been through a Tommy John surgery before. This will be his second go-around with the surgery, made more in-depth because of multiple tears. He's not the only Detroit Tigers pitcher to undergo two surgeries of this nature, closer Joakim Soria being another. Despite what now looks like a bleak future, Nathan intends to approach a season-ending setback as if he'll be back again at some point.
"Hanging my cleats up never crossed my mind until that day that I have to," Nathan said. "My motto in this game has always been throw 'til you blow. Unfortunately, yesterday I did blow. One of those things that I've been proud of my career, I've been proud of the things I've done. It's always been about hard work and getting myself ready, so this will be no different. I will prepare myself to get ready and bust my butt to see whatever's in store for me in the future."
Throughout his rehab, Nathan had swelling and bruising, something he thought was a good sign that the injury was healing. During the bullpen prior to his rehab outing, Nathan felt nothing. But where Nathan's first surgery came about after experiencing a grabbing feeling, this was completely different.
A pop in his elbow forced Nathan off the mound to gather his thoughts, and the hope that the feeling would subside. The pain that followed for a single warmup pitch was enough to tell Nathan something was seriously wrong, though. It was nothing like the former injury when Nathan felt fine after being checked out after coming off the mound. But the damage was likely done, Nathan decided, so he opted for the warmup, to be sure.
"I even remember myself on the mound thinking, ‘All right, what should I do, what should I do?' and I already felt a pop," Nathan said. "So I was like, ‘OK, worst-case scenario, it's already torn. What's it going to hurt to throw another one. What am I going to tear it again?' It was either I tore it, or I broke up some serious scar tissue. Because it hurt real bad. It's still discomfort right now.
"I figured tossing one more is not going to hurt it any more, so I figured give it a shot, let it roll. Unfortunately, it really, really hurt the second time, but that was because it was already torn. I didn't do any more damage."
It would not be surprising if the 40-year-old opted to call it after what has already been a hall of fame worthy career. Maybe some would. But for Nathan, going out as a result of something beyond his control, is something he's not at peace with. Whether Nathan will be back in the major leagues after his surgery and rehab isn't something that anyone can know for sure at this point, but that's the goal for Nathan, regardless of his age.
Since Nathan's been through Tommy John surgery once before, it's allowed him to mentally prepare himself to a point, but only a point. That the surgery is necessary five years and a month to the day from his last surgery is just bizarre, this injury taking place in another area of his elbow closer to Nathan's upper arm as opposed to the lower portion like before.
"I don't think you're ever really prepared for these," he said. "It's a grind. It's going to be a lot of work. But like I said, that's a pleasure for me sometimes, in a sick way. But yeah, am I prepared? I do know what to expect. I know what the work entails. I have people that have been through it twice."
Will he be back? At 40, a player needs a significantly longer period of time to rehab properly. And the success rate for a second Tommy John surgery tends to plummet, regardless of age. That's not to say that players don't recover, but it becomes more difficult.
Only two players returned to pitch in the major leagues following a second surgery of that nature: John Franco, 42, and Jamie Moyer, at 49. Add that to the fact that Nathan is undergoing not just surgery for the UCL but the flexor tendon as well, and the timetable gets increasingly complicated.
"With Tommy John, they usually say not to pick up a ball for four or five months," Nathan said. "I think with this, it's I believe at least eight months until you can pick a baseball up. Again, each case is different. History has shown that I've been able to come up quicker, so hopefully that's the case here, but again, patience is very important with this."
Nathan admitted it would be quite a stretch to try to be ready for the start of the 2016 season. And as of yet no date has been set for his upcoming surgery. Asked if Dr. James Andrews was one of those consulted for the surgery, Nathan said he was not, that consultation going to Dr. Keith Meister in Texas. Another option that is an option for Nathan is Dr. David Altchek, who performed Nathan's initial Tommy John surgery.
Prior to coming over to Detroit Nathan held an impressive record. Whether the injury affected him last year is impossible to know. But in his career, Nathan pitched for four teams in 14 years (this would've been his 15th) and with few exceptions, put up stellar numbers.
Off the mound in Detroit was another story, a stark contrast to the pitcher who fans saw in seven seasons with the Minnesota Twins. Even after his less-than-optimal performance with the Tigers, though, the six-time all-star still holds a 2.89 career-ERA and 3.37 FIP with over a strikeout per inning in that time. Going forward, whatever the future holds for Nathan, the road ahead isn't about to get any easier.
"Nothing's come easy and this definitely won't be easy, it's gonna be a long road," Nathan said. "I've always enjoyed the work and this will be no different. I will rehab and do everything I am supposed to as if I am coming back to be a major league pitcher. 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. I am preparing myself to come back and be a major league player."