WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Joe Nathan hasn’t been in this particular position - less than two weeks to go until opening day, trying desperately to make a big league roster, utterly unsure if it’s going to happen - in quite some time.
The 42-year-old reliever had for well more than a decade used spring training simply to prepare himself for the regular season, knowing he was locked in as his team’s closer. And the only times that wasn’t the case was because he was recovering from one of his two Tommy John surgeries and wouldn’t be healthy for the start of the season anyway.
So these are strange times for Nathan, who is trying to squeeze his way into the Nationals’ opening day bullpen and prolong a career many figured was on its last legs.
He has pitched well to date this spring, with a 3.00 ERA in nine appearances, including a scoreless one yesterday against the Yankees. And he says his arm feels great. But he knows that may not be enough, not with the Nationals’ relief corps already stacked and a whole host of intriguing candidates battling for the one or two spots up for grabs.
“I think I’ve been through so much now, I’ve seen that business side of it,” Nathan said. “I pitched pretty well with the Cubs for a brief stint last year, but unfortunately fell short with the business side of it and the numbers crunch and roster spots and stuff like that. So I think that’s helped me to come into this year and kind of channel things and put my focus where I can control.”
Nathan, who pitched in only three games for the Cubs last summer and then seven more for the Giants in September, is trying to crack a Nats bullpen that, while lacking in an experienced closer, does have plenty of quality right-handers: Shawn Kelley, Blake Treinen, Joe Blanton and Koda Glover, to name a few. And if there’s room for another, it may have to go to a long man who can provide multiple innings or even an emergency start, something Nathan cannot do at this stage of his career.
Pitching coach Mike Maddux, who had Nathan in Texas from 2012-13, promised the veteran reliever he would get his chance with Washington, and he has been good to his word.
“When I signed over here, Maddux definitely said: ‘Hey, I’ll give you the ball. You’re going to get the shot to go out there and prove you’re healthy,’ ” Nathan said. “That’s all I can do. As long as I show I’m healthy, show I’m strong and able to go, something good will happen, I’m sure.”
By all indications, not to mention his own word, Nathan has been healthy. He said he feels “more comfortable” now than he did when pitching late last season, not worried about his twice-repaired elbow anymore.
There remains a durability question, one Nathan can answer only over time, pitching on back-to-back days and four or five times a week. But the Nats can’t really do that before making their ultimate decision, because time is running out.
Nathan has a clause in his minor league contract that allows him to opt out Friday if he’s not added to the major league roster, MASN’s Dan Kolko reported yesterday. He could elect to delay that decision, but if he has reason to believe another organization would give him a roster spot he may have no choice but to walk away at the end of the week if the Nationals can’t commit to him.
“He works hard, and you hope that he has enough to make this club and contribute,” manager Dusty Baker said. “A lot of people are pulling for him. So we just have to continue to pitch, because we’re running out of time. We have to make some decisions here soon.”
For now, Nathan can only continue to take the ball each time the Nationals hand it to him, hoping he shows them enough to land one of those coveted roster spots.
“I know they have some tough decisions,” he said. “Obviously, they’ve got a lot of guys who can pitch at this level, so I understand that side of it. So we’ll see. End of this week, I know they’ve got some decisions to make, so we’ll see what happens.”