Nathan’s season, perhaps his career, is finished

DETROIT — Joe Nathan’s season is over.

He hopes his 15-season career didn’t end with it.

The Tigers announced Thursday morning that the six-time All-Star closer tore the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his pitching elbow during Wednesday’s rehab appearance in Toledo. He’ll undergo his second Tommy John surgery later this spring.

First, though, the 40-year-old will have to decide if he has any reasonable chance at a comeback at his age. After his first UCL reconstruction, he missed the entire 2010 season and struggled for much of 2011.

"I’m going to go at this 110 percent, just like I do anything, and I’m going into it with the goal of pitching again in the major leagues," he said. "If it doesn’t work out that way, the surgery and the rehab will make my arm stronger for the rest of my life, but that’s not how I’m thinking about it."

Coming off one of the worst seasons of his career, Nathan will miss 2015 — he pitched to one batter on Opening Day — and faces an uncertain 2016. Because of the recovery time needed, he would be a 41-year-old free agent who wouldn’t be ready to pitch in spring training.

"I know this is going to be a long grind," he said. "I’ve had Tommy John surgery before, so I know what I’m facing there. But this time I have also torn the flexor, so it is a bigger deal. I’m just going to be patient and do what I need to do."

Ironically, Nathan said that he started Wednesday’s inning in Toledo feeling good for the first time since the original flexor pronator strain, which put him on the disabled list after Opening Day.

"During the whole process of recovering, I was still having some twinges and swelling and bruising," he said. "But yesterday, I didn’t feel anything. That might have been because it was snowing, but I thought I was getting over the hump. I pitched to the first two guys and I wasn’t really reaching back, but it felt good.

"Then on the first pitch to the third batter, boom. I guess I tore both things on that pitch."

Although Nathan wasn’t a success last season for Detroit, posting a 4.81 ERA while blowing seven save opportunities, he’s been one of the most dominant closers of the past decade. He began his major-league career as a starter with the Giants in 1999, but eventually moved to the bullpen.

His career took off in 2004, when he was traded to the Twins. He spent seven seasons with Minnesota, going to four All-Star Games and averaging 37 saves per season. After recovering from his first Tommy John surgery, he went to Texas and had 80 saves in two years, making the All-Star Game both times. He leads all active major leaguers with 377 career saves.

Nathan will make $10 million this season, but the Tigers are expected to buy out the last year of his contract for $1 million, leaving him without a team and an uncertain future.

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