At his peak as an All-Star closer for the Twins, Joe Nathan had a fastball that averaged about 95 mph, and he threw it about 65 percent of the time.
That's no longer the case. Right now, Nathan's best fastball only occasionally touches 94 mph. His average is 91.8, and he's down to throwing the fastball just 52.5 percent of the time. The rest is the slider, the curve and a very occasional changeup.
"Yeah, I think this is really the first time I've really had to pitch," Nathan said. "I relied on pure stuff for a lot of my career, and [I had] been able to attack hitters with just stuff and pound the strike zone. The one thing I do similar is mix it up and try to keep the batters guessing, but I used to get away with far more before.
"I still have a good enough fastball, but I have to locate the ball better than I have in the past and throw strikes in the right location. Before I could get away with making mistakes. Now I can't get away with them. I have to stay ahead of the hitters, keep them guessing and use all four of my pitches at any time."
Nathan is doing exactly that, and he is not making very many mistakes. At age 38, in his 17th season of professional baseball and having pitched 688 Major League games -- seventh most among active pitchers -- he is as good as ever.
Nathan goes into the All-Star break with 30 saves in 31 chances, a 1.36 ERA, and with opponents hitting .149 off him. Not even undergoing Tommy John surgery and missing all of 2010 derailed his career. For the second consecutive year, Nathan is representing the Rangers for the All-Star festivities, which this year are taking place at Citi Field in New York. It is his sixth All-Star Game appearance.
"He's a total professional," Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who is leading the American League squad, said. "He knew how to come back, he knew how to work it. He's been a terrific closer for a long time. I don't think there's any question. I think he's a stud."
The 30 saves are the most by a Rangers closer at the All-Star break, and Nathan now has 328 all-time -- the 13th most in Major League history. That's pretty good considering the Twins didn't make him a closer until he was 29. That was in 2004, and to that point he had just one career save.
Nathan's never going to catch all-time saves leader Mariano Rivera, but he is leading the Yankees' Hall of Fame-bound closer in one critical category. Nathan, who has been successful on his last 14 save opportunities, has the best save percentage (90.11 percent) in baseball history among all relievers with at least 200.
One of the most enjoyable parts for Nathan being an All-Star this year is that he gets to witness Rivera participate in his final All-Star Game, in New York of all places.
"Obviously, what he's done on the field, everybody knows about [that]," said Nathan. "But I think him away from the field and what type of person he is is what we're going to miss most. He's a true leader. Quiet leader. You never hear negative things about him.
"That's just a credit to him and his family and just a guy to look up to, on and off the field. A guy you can look up to in your profession but also living your life. It just shows how he's going around visiting ballparks and talking with employees of visiting ballparks and just his thanks for what they've done for the game of baseball."
Nathan marvels at what Rivera has accomplished.
"He's done it for 17, 18 years," Nathan said. "For me, I'd have to continue to do this until I'm about 47, 48 years old. We'll see if I can get there."
Even so, Nathan is building quite a legacy of his own.
"Joe Nathan very quietly is one of the best closers," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "When you look back over his track record over a long period of time, I think a lot of people miss how good he is. He has a lot of ways to get you out. The best closers are guys that are more than just throwers, they're pitchers. He's a pitcher. He's got a lot of different weapons, and he's not afraid to use them."
Being selected to the All-Star Game does not get old for Nathan, especially since he has gone two straight years since signing with the Rangers.
"No, not at all," Nathan said. "The game is always exciting. It's always an honor to be selected. It gives my family and friends [the opportunity] to experience something not many people get to do. So I go there to represent the team and take in everything I can.
"As a player and competitor, you want to reward the faith they showed in you. They brought me over to an organization that had been very successful, and it means a lot that I've been able to make this team better and help give us a chance to get back to postseason."
Nathan has been one of the game's best relievers this season, but he may be more than that. A case could be made that he's been the Rangers' best pitcher and even their Most Valuable Player. Certainly, the bullpen has been a surprising strength of the team, and a big part of that is the confidence Nathan brings when he jogs to the mound in the ninth inning.
"It's definitely a lot less stressful ninth inning," second baseman Ian Kinsler said. "Next to Mariano, he's the best in the game. You always have confidence in Joe regardless of the results, just by the work he puts in and the mentality he has. He is ready to pitch every day, and we know we're going to get the best out of him every day."
Nathan thrives because of his attitude and his work ethic. Last week in Baltimore, a few hours before the Rangers were getting ready to play the Orioles, he was seen in the weight room, familiar sweat band wrapped around his head, working the StairMaster.
"He's the oldest teenager we have," pitching coach Mike Maddux said. "He plays with the passion of a Little Leaguer. He has fun while he is out there and gets excited. When it's over, he's excited. He has the grit of a man while doing his job but the enthusiasm of a Little Leaguer. It's a pretty good blend."
That's how you stay effective at age 38. Nathan is signed through this season, and the Rangers have a $9 million option for 2014. His stated goal is to pitch well enough for Texas to pick up the option, but he is not thinking about just one more year.
Nathan isn't looking for the finish line. He is looking for the ball in the ninth inning, another save opportunity, another win for his team and another step toward getting back to the playoffs. He has been there before, but he hasn't pitched in a World Series. That's what he wants more than anything, and he's not worried about the date on his birth certificate.
Nathan has somewhat reinvented himself as a pitcher, but the results have still been outstanding, and he sees no reason why that can't continue.
"I've always said I hate a number being put on age," he said. "As long as you work hard and prepare yourself and do what you need to do to take care of yourself, you can still play. To me, 38 years old is not that old in other employments. For me it just means a lot to come over to this team and show them that signing me was worthwhile."
The Rangers have no complaints to this point.
The final phase of All-Star Game voting will again have fans participating in the official voting for the Ted Williams All-Star Game Most Valuable Player Award presented by Chevrolet. During the Midsummer Classic, fans will vote exclusively online at MLB.com via the 2013 All-Star Game MLB.com MVP Vote, and their voice will represent 20 percent of the official vote determining the recipient of the Arch Ward Trophy.
The 2013 All-Star Game will be played at Citi Field on Tuesday. Come to MLB.com for extensive online coverage of the All-Star Week festivities.
The 84th All-Star Game will be televised nationally by FOX Sports, in Canada by Rogers Sportsnet and RDS, and worldwide by partners in more than 200 countries via MLB International's independent feed. ESPN Radio and ESPN Radio Deportes will provide national radio coverage of the All-Star Game. MLB Network and SiriusXM also will also provide comprehensive All-Star Week coverage. For more information, please visit allstargame.com.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. Ian Browne contributed from New York. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less