By Ashley Dunkak
@AshleyDunkak

CBS DETROIT – Less than 24 hours after receiving news he had torn the UCL and flexor tendon in his throwing arm, Detroit Tigers closer Joe Nathan did not want to declare his career over.

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Two days earlier, Nathan had been looking forward to a rehab stint in Toledo, ideally the final step in his return from an elbow flexor strain he suffered on Opening Day. Nathan spoke Tuesday about how fortunate he was that the injury was only a strain.

“I was definitely nervous going into the MRI to find out what the results were,” Nathan said, “because if it was a tear, ultimately it could have been the end. Definitely nervous. I know I’ve had a great run, a very long career, but at the same time, this isn’t the way you want to go out.”

The rehab stint produced the worst-case scenario and then some. Because Nathan tore his UCL and his flexor tendon, his rehab will be even lengthier and more grueling than the typical post-Tommy John process.

“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, so again, each case is different. History has shown that I’ve been able come back quicker, so hopefully that’s the case here.

“Next season would be – it’d be pushing it to start the beginning of the season, but again, it’s one of those things you’ve just got to see how you feel,” Nathan added. “To say I can’t do that wouldn’t be fair, but it’s also I think a quick turnaround to be ready for the beginning of the season next year.”

Nathan plans to make a comeback. He does not want this to be the end, but it may well be the end.

If his career is over, Nathan will be remembered by teammates not for his troublesome 2014 season in Detroit but for everything that came before that.

Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez, one of the best in the baseball, recalls his dismal track record against Nathan, whom he and others call one of the best closers ever.

Martinez, in 13 at bats against Nathan, had two hits.

“Both of them were homers,” Martinez said. “One of them was a walkoff. That was the most memorable of them, but bottom line, he owns me.

“One of the best closers in the game,” Martinez continued. “No doubt about it. No doubt about it, one of the best closers in the game. I was able to face him in his prime, and he was really tough. He was a really tough pitcher to face.”

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A six-time All-Star, Nathan has 377 career saves, seventh-most in major league history. With the Minnesota Twins between 2004 and 2009, Nathan recorded a 1.87 ERA and 246 saves in 412 outings. During that stretch, he struck out 518 and walked 120.

“Mid-90s fastball with a devastating slider,” Tigers catcher Alex Avila said. “His years in Minnesota were some of the best of a relief pitcher you’ll see. As he’s got older, you’ve got to give him credit to be able to adjust to what his body’s telling him, and in order to be that consistent for that long – it’s tough for a relief pitcher to be able to have consistency year in and year out. For what he was able to do for so long, it’s pretty remarkable.”

Nathan might not make it to the Hall of Fame. Many deserving players get passed over. Putting his name in the discussion, however, is not inappropriate.

“He’s damn close to it, for sure,” Avila said. “The way he’s pitched, the amount of saves he’s compiled, he’s had a tremendous career. I hope it goes well for him as far as the surgery and the recovery and stuff. It would make me extremely happy to see him be able to come back and be able to pitch well and kind of go out on his own terms. I feel terrible for him. He’s probably one of the best closers I’ve ever faced and been able to catch.”

Nathan’s time in Detroit was rocky in places, as he struggled on the field in 2014, turning in a 4.81 ERA. Fans booed him regularly because of his poor performance, and one time he chin-flicked the crowd. Then fans disliked him for his perceived attitude as well as his trouble getting outs.

Fans did not see how hard he worked, something at which teammates marveled. They did not see how much his failures on the field bothered him. They did not see that he spoke often and courteously with the media, and they generally did not appreciate the way he answered questions with candor rather than smothering his real feelings and offering politically correct cliches instead.

Most people who saw those aspects of Nathan like him quite a bit.

“He’s become one of my best friends, just as far as our kids and just playing catch together every day, and just being around each other, just a great man,” Tigers reliever Joba Chamberlain said. “I’ve learned so much, just at 40 years, watching his work ethic and how hard he works. Just to see the dedication that he’s put in this game for so many years has really been cool to see every day.

“Obviously just from where it started to quitting baseball to go getting your degree to coming back and being seventh all-time in the history of this game in saves, that says a lot about his determination and what he wanted to overcome,” Chamberlain continued. “Coming in as a shortstop and then turning into one of the 10 best closers to ever play this game says a lot about him.”

Nathan has had Tommy John surgery before, so he understands the tremendous obstacle that he has in front of him. Martinez, who missed an entire season after tearing an ACL, understands better than most the kind of rehab that awaits a player who has suffered a season-ending injury.

“Those rehabs are tough,” Martinez said, his face serious. “It can be pretty miserable.”

If nothing else, Nathan has to rehab enough to get a decent quality of life back. If he cannot get back to professional baseball, at least he wants to be able to play catch with his kid and golf. A comeback seems impossible, but his teammates know better than to doubt him.

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“Surgery is never good, but he’s done it before,” Avila said. “He’s come back from injuries before. The thing about Joe, he’s a tireless worker. His body’s in great shape, he’s a tremendous athlete, so I wouldn’t put it past him whatsoever.”