Rangers closer Nathan closes in on his familiar form

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Joe Nathan has always been able to run well, which helps explain how the 37-year-old has been able to keep pace or even outpace Texas Rangers pitchers 10 to 15 years younger than him this spring.

But there's also the notion that someone is only as old as he thinks he is, and, after an off-season without physical limitations, Nathan feels like he's just out of college.

He has sipped from the Fountain of Youth almost two full years after having his right elbow rebuilt. The timing couldn't be better for the Rangers, who signed him in the off-season to replace Neftali Feliz as their closer.

Nathan has done nothing to make the Rangers question their decision, and he hasn't felt any discomfort in the elbow that might make him question his ability to return to All-Star form.

"I try to prove something to myself every day," Nathan said. "I know I have things to do this year to get back to where I want to be. Last year was good, but at the same time it was a disappointing season. I did what I needed to do, but at the same time you always want to be better."

The 2011 season was a disaster for Minnesota, which labored with injuries to key contributors. Count Nathan among them, even though he was their closer on Opening Day.

But he struggled to get outs early on, and removed himself from the role in April while the Twins were still considered a contender. That might have been as hard as the year of recovery from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery.

"It was a situation where it was easier for me to tell them that this isn't the time to try to go out there and do something stupid," said Nathan, who signed a two-year deal worth $14.75 million Nov. 22, his birthday. "I knew I wasn't where I was supposed to be. I told them to make the move and give me a chance to get back to where I needed to be before I went back into that spot."

Nathan eventually got back to closing games, after hitting the disabled list May 28 with a strained flexor tendon. He recorded 14 saves overall and finished with a .193 opponents' batting average over his final 31 games.

But it wasn't until the off-season, at the 18-month mark after surgery, that he began working out without wondering how his elbow felt. The freedom allowed him to push himself and turn in his most intense gym sessions in years.

The results have been evident in camp so far.

"There's a lot of steam left in him," Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux said. "It's refreshing to see a guy who's been around have surgery at an older age and bounce back like he has. He's like a kid in a candy store. He feels really good about himself."

Nathan has taken a leadership role, said Maddux and manager Ron Washington, though he leads by example rather than with rah-rah stuff.

He's part of a bullpen that has experience and depth, traits that were missing early on last year when the Rangers had to fill the hole created by Alexi Ogando's move to the rotation with rookies Mason Tobin, Cody Eppley, Pedro Strop and Ryan Tucker.

The Rangers have another kid this year, or at least a veteran who isn't acting his age.

"Joe is bouncing around here like he's 22 years old," Washington said. "He's being a good leader. He's having no problems with his arm. I hope I can give the ball to him often."

Jeff Wilson, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @JeffWilson_FWST

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