KODAK, Tenn. -- Joe Nathan is attempting to come back from a second Tommy John surgery at the age of 41 to pursue the biggest item missing from his resume.
"A world championship," Nathan said Friday while sitting in the dugout of the Tennessee Smokies, the Chicago Cubs' Double-A affiliate. "World Series - the biggest motivator."
The six-time All-Star reliever pitched a perfect inning with two strikeouts Thursday in his Smokies debut, the first time he had taken the mound in a regular-season game of any sort since undergoing his second Tommy John surgery in April 2015. Nathan signed with the Cubs last month and says he's eligible to come off the 60-day disabled list July 16.
"We're going to push and get these games in to prepare myself for that date," Nathan said. "That's kind of what the schedule's going on right now. We can play with it and move things around if need be, but right now we're shooting for some time between the 16th and 20th of July."
This may represent the last potential shot at a World Series ring for Nathan, whose 377 career saves rank eighth in major league history. Nathan has pitched in the postseason six times, but his teams have never advanced beyond the division series round.
The Cubs have baseball's best record but could use some bullpen help. Nathan said the Cubs were the first team to contact him this year, and the right-hander believes he can still contribute to a contending team.
"If I don't have something to offer and I don't feel like I can compete and help a club out, it will be time to hang it up," Nathan said. "But I still feel like I have something in the tank. I know I am 41. I don't feel it."
Nathan agreed to a one-year deal for the major league minimum $507,500, though the Cubs also have a $1.5 million option for next season.
Pitching in the Cubs' system has additional benefits. The Smokies play their home games just a half-hour drive from Nathan's home in Knoxville, Tennessee. Nathan said he pitched in front of about 40 friends and relatives Thursday.
Nathan hasn't pitched in the majors since the Detroit Tigers' 2015 season opener. Nathan posted a save in that game but went on the disabled list the next day with an elbow injury. He was on a minor league rehab assignment a couple of weeks later when he felt a sharp pain in his right arm, resulting in his second Tommy John surgery.
His first Tommy John surgery came in 2010.
"The only kind of more difficult thing this time is I detached my flexor tendon as well as the UCL (ulnar collateral ligament)," Nathan said. "The UCL was actually intact, it was still fine, until my flexor tendon detached. That, I kind of had been feeling since I was with Texas, so I was dealing with that for a couple of years, but it never really stopped me from throwing until it detached from the bone. And that left the UCL exposed, so that tore as well."
Now he's recovered to the point that he's eyeing a July return to the majors with hopes of getting back to October at least one more time.
"This isn't me just trying to stick around," Nathan said. "If I've got something I can do to help a club out, why not keep playing? I just don't feel mentally it's time to hang it up."