BLAINE, Minn. (AP) — The typical setbacks that come during a Tommy John rehabilitation haven’t been there for Joe Nathan.

The former All-Star closer said he felt so good during a bullpen session on Friday that he asked Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire to step into the box against him.

“I wasn’t afraid to come inside and brush him back a couple times,” Nathan said at the team’s annual fan festival. “Anytime you’re comfortable enough to tell your manager to step in and throw some inside, I think my release point went well.”

Things are going so well, in fact, that Nathan can’t wait to take the mound in spring training next month and show the team that he is ready to take the ball in the ninth inning again.

“I’m shooting to be back on the baseball field and help this team win,” Nathan said. “My plan is to go in and show them that I’m healthy and give them the confidence they’ve always had with me to put me in that role.”

Pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers, Fla., for their first workout on Feb. 18.

Gardenhire says he knows Nathan is eager to get back into the mix after sitting out all of last season. But he also says the coaches have a plan for easing him back in and they want to be cautious with him to avoid his elbow getting hurt again.

“We’ll always err on the cautious side,” Gardenhire said. “We’ll try to do that with Nathan. We’ll sit down and have our talk. I know he wants to be full bore because he’s worked really hard. We’ll have our talk soon and make sure we do the right thing.”

Nathan was injured during an exhibition outing on March 6 and briefly held out hope that he could avoid surgery before going under the knife on March 26.

It remains to be seen if Nathan’s recovery will differ from that of a starting pitcher who throws more pitches and innings, but pitches just once every five days. As a late-inning relief man, Nathan’s elbow will have to be able to recover much quicker between outings.

“The one thing a reliever has to be able to do is bounce back on a day-to-day basis,” Gardenhire said.

He certainly isn’t the first closer to have the surgery. Most recently, Billy Wagner bounced back from the surgery in less than a year and saved 37 games for the Atlanta Braves last season.

“I’m confident that having gone through kind of the same path that he did, in the same position that he is and having the same role, that I can do the same thing,” Nathan said.

He is scheduled to play catch on Saturday and throw another bullpen session on Sunday before heading back to his home in Knoxville, Tenn., to get ready for the trip to Florida. Nathan said he wants to play some long toss before he reports to spring training, but still thinks he’ll be ready to go on the first day of camp.

“We’re cautiously optimistic that Joe’s going to be able to come back and pitch to a very high level,” general manager Bill Smith said. “Having (Matt) Capps will only help that, whether it’s sharing the load, giving Joe a break if and when he needs it. I know Joe’s coming back optimistic that he’s going to be able to regain that closing spot. That’s wonderful for all of us.”

The 36-year-old is entering the final guaranteed year of his $47 million contract. Nathan will make $11.25 million this season and the Twins have a $12.5 million team option for next year.

If he can return to form, the Twins will be getting back one of the most dominant closers of the last decade. Nathan has 246 saves since coming over in a trade from the San Francisco Giants in 2004, including a career-high 47 in 2009.

The Twins started the season with Jon Rauch in the closer role, but brought in Matt Capps from Washington near the trade deadline to take over the duties. Capps remains on the staff this season, and the Twins say they will wait to see how Nathan bounces back before they define any roles.

“If Nathan comes back and he’s throwing like he did a couple years ago, then he’ll probably be at the end of the ballgame,” Gardenhire said. “And (pitching coach Rick Anderson) has already talked to Capps and he said, ‘I’ll do anything you want me to do.’ That’s exactly why we wanted this guy in our uniform.”

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


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