Dinner sealed deal for Joe Nathan
And it wasn't the food that did it.
"But I think we ate just about everything in that restaurant," Nathan said. "We were there about four hours and I was completely comfortable. I knew I wanted to play here."
Nathan, a four-time All-Star, signed a two-year, $14 million contract with a club option for $9 million in 2014 or a $500,000 buyout after passing his physical Monday. He turned 37 on Tuesday and smiled as he was introduced as the club's newest closer.
The move allows young flamethrower Neftali Feliz to slide into the rotation, giving the Rangers another arm in a rotation that may or may not include left-hander C.J. Wilson, who is a free agent and testing the market for a long-term deal.
For Nathan, it's a chance to close for a contender and show that he's healthy following Tommy John surgery on March 26, 2010. Nathan's agent talked to nearly a dozen teams, but after dinner with Rangers president Nolan Ryan, general manager Jon Daniels, assistant GM Thad Levine and senior special assistant to the GM Don Welke at one of Ryan's favorite spots in Fort Worth, the reliever was ready to join Texas.
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"I got to spend 30 minutes with Nolan Ryan, a guy I grew up watching, and then heard about the vision of the organization from everyone there," said Nathan, who lives in Knoxville, Tenn., and noted that it was a short plane flight. "There are no guarantees, but the Rangers are hungry and a contender and I want to try to help them win a World Series."
To do that, Nathan must stay healthy. He believes the second half of his 2011 season is a sign of things to come. He struggled to start the season, posting a 7.63 ERA in 15 1/3 innings with 15 strikeouts and nine walks in the first two months. He lost his closer's job and landed on the disabled list with a flexor muscle strain in his right elbow. But when he returned he had a 3.38 ERA in his final 31 games, holding opponents to a .193 batting average with five walks and 28 strikeouts. He converted his final 11 save chances starting July 16.
"It was huge for me," Nathan said. "It was big for my confidence. Any time you can go into the offseason with a good feeling about the workouts and what you need to do is important. Talking to guys that have been through it, they said 18 months is the key time frame.
"For me, that's this offseason. I'm looking forward to what it feels like when I get to spring. But last year was huge finishing up the way it did."
It does take some of the pressure off. With C.J. [Wilson] or anyone, we don't want to be put in a spot where have to do something that we didn't plan to. This gives us a guy we've liked for a long time and also gives us options. It doesn't pin us down to where we have to do something.” -- Rangers GM Jon Daniels
Nathan said his velocity hasn't completely returned, though it's not far off at 91 to 93 mph, even touching 94 or 95 at times. He's using his curveball more and re-introducing a changeup into his repertoire.
"I'm finishing my breaking pitches better now," Nathan said.
That includes the curve.
"I was able to command it a lot better on both sides of the plate," Nathan said. "I'm trying to use movement more and make other pitches better when my fastball isn't there."
Nathan wore a jersey with No. 63 on the back. He was No. 36 last year and will wear that number again should Wilson not return to Texas. Daniels said he called Wilson's agent, Bob Garber, to let him know of the signing. He said as of now, the rotation is led by Colby Lewis and includes Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando and Feliz.
"It doesn't change anything in terms of the fact that we're interested," Daniels said. "But it does take some of the pressure off. With C.J. or anyone, we don't want to be put in a spot where have to do something that we didn't plan to. This gives us a guy we've liked for a long time and also gives us options. It doesn't pin us down to where we have to do something."
Manager Ron Washington talked to Feliz over the phone a few days ago and said the pitcher's attitude was good and that he's excited about starting.
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"He wanted to be informed of our purpose," Washington said. "We let him know ahead of time and he's excited about it and will prepare himself to start."
Washington said having Nathan gives the club some more experience on the back end and the confidence to move Feliz.
Nathan is a four-time All-Star (2004, 2005, 2008, 2009) and has 261 saves, fifth-most among active pitchers. He had 35 or more saves for six straight seasons (2004-09).
Richard Durrett covers the Texas Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.