FORT MYERS, FLA. - Twins righthander Joe Nathan on Tuesday was more nervous for a spring game than a veteran with his credentials should be.
"At the same time, it was a big step for me," he said.
His past year has been filled with baby steps and bigger steps. Tuesday's game was a major checkpoint on his road back to the majors, and he breezed through it with a scoreless fourth inning in a game the Twins dropped 5-0 to Boston at Hammond Stadium.
Nathan is one more step closer now to returning as the Twins closer. He missed all of last season after tearing the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow during an outing against the Red Sox on March 6. He missed the Twins' inaugural season at Target Field and a second consecutive AL Central title.
With Matt Capps ready to step in to close if Nathan falters, Nathan has sailed through rehabilitation and workouts without a hitch.
Now he has to stay healthy and prove he has got his old stuff and command back.
"Definitely excited for it and it went well," Nathan said. "I was excited the way it went. I was able to mix in most of my pitches."
He admitted that he had looked forward to Tuesday's outing for a long time. It's not about finally getting to pitch at Target Field as it is proving during this camp that he can be nails again.
He received a loud ovation from the sellout crowd of 7,963 as he made his familiar jog to the mound and warmed up.
Nathan walked Jarrod Saltalamacchia around a pair of fly-ball outs, then got Drew Sutton to ground to second to end the inning.
He thew 20 pitches -- 20 of the most meaningful pitches he has thrown in some time. His adrenaline was pumping. He let all his pitches loose.
His first pitch registered 88 miles per hour on the stadium radar gun. Two of his final pitches hit 90. He did throw one pitch at 91 mph. His history is to throw a little slower than that at the start of camp.
"I feel like I'm a little further ahead of where I am usually at this stage," he said. "It's nice to be back where I am, if not a little further. I don't see a problem with being ready for Opening Day."
Seeing him back in the dugout after the inning, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire could tell Nathan was in the afterglow of his return to the mound.
"He was all smiles, walking up and down the bench," Gardenhire said. "Even afterwards, [he] kind of stood behind us talking and was looking out.
"You can only imagine that you miss that much time and love the game as much as he does. It was a pretty big day for him."
Nathan said he threw all of his pitches, including a changeup he plans to use more in 2011. He's also tinkered with working from different spots on the rubber to see what effect it has on his pitches.
It's not a reaction to his surgery as much as it is him trying to stay one step ahead of opponents. He thinks the changeup could be a good weapon for him this season.
"Hitters have definitely made adjustments on me," said Nathan, a four-time All-Star whose 246 saves are eight behind Rick Aguilera's team record. "So hopefully, this pitch is something for me to make an adjustment [and] hopefully gain the advantage that I did have."
Wednesday will be a key day, as Nathan does a system check to see how his arm feels a day after his outing. But he hasn't worried about his elbow for quite some time now.
"I feel normal," he said, "which is about as good as it gets right now."