Game 99: When Joe Nathan finds his slider

Joe Nathan has been around the American League long enough to remember when the Rally Monkey first became a thing.

“Yeah, I don’t stare at the thing,” Nathan said. “It’s a known fact that if you catch eyeballs with the monkey, something bad’s going to happen. So you have to keep your head down. I’ve seen it way too many times where I watch the video and I laugh and all of a sudden, ‘Aw, man.’”

If he keeps throwing sliders like the ones he threw Thursday, he won’t have to think about superstitions. His ninth inning Thursday night barely lasted long enough for the Angels to get a video clip of the Rally Monkey on the scoreboard.

He struck out the side in order for just the second time this season, and he needed just 12 pitches — nine of them strikes — to do it. The same reliever who drew just six swings and misses over seven innings from May 12-28 drew six whiffs in his latest inning alone. Four of those came on a slider that has become a project of his in recent weeks.

“That was as long as I’ve seen his slider, I think all year possibility,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “It was clear that the hitters weren’t picking up the rotation on his slider. It looked like a fastball to them and they swung right over the top. …

“That’s the slider I remember facing. It looks like a fastball coming in at the bottom of the strike zone, and you start your swing and it just drops out of the strike zone. It almost has a split-finger action to it.”

That’s the idea.

“I threw the slider in some pretty good spots to make it tough for them to lay off,” Nathan said, “but also with two strikes being able to put it in a place.”

It also was a difference in mechanics.

“I’ve been tweaking mechanics and working on different things,” he said. “Each time out there, I’ve had a chance to work on it and get more and more comfortable with it. Now I’m getting to the point where you can get away from mechanics and stop thinking about that.”

This would be a good time for that. Thursday’s gem came hours after Joakim Soria joined the team following his trade from Texas. He was a closer with the Rangers, but set up for Nathan over the second half last season.

Nathan entered Thursday having drawn swings and misses on 35.6 percent of his sliders this year (37 whiffs out of 104 swings), up slightly from his 2013 rate in Texas (63 out of 186, 33.9%) according to STATS.

Thursday’s lineups: Tigers at Angels

Anaheim 008

J.D. Martinez was originally in the starting lineup, but Brad Ausmus said he decided to give him one more game of rest as a precaution.

“Despite the fact that he felt much better, I just decided I didn’t want to have a situation where he reaggravated it,” Ausmus said, “so I put Rajai in and shifted the lineup around a little bit.”

Martinez is available as a pinch-hitter.

Gameday | TV: FS Detroit, MLB.TV | Radio: 97.1 FM, AM 1270, Gameday Audio

TIGERS (career numbers off Garrett Richards)

  1. Austin Jackson, CF (1-for-10, 3 K’s)
  2. Ian Kinsler, 2B (4-for-13, 2 doubles, walk, 2 K’s)
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 1B (2-for-8, double, 2 K’s)
  4. Victor Martinez, DH (0-for-4, 2 K’s)
  5. Torii Hunter, RF (0-for-4)
  6. Nick Castellanos, 3B
  7. Alex Avila, C (0-for-4, walk, K)
  8. Eugenio Suarez, SS
  9. Rajai Davis, LF (0-for-7)

P: Max Scherzer

ANGELS (career numbers versus Scherzer)

  1. Kole Calhoun, RF (0-for-1, K)
  2. Mike Trout, RF (3-for-13, double, HR, 8 K’s)
  3. Albert Pujols, 1B (1-for-10, double, 2 walks, 3 K’s)
  4. Josh Hamilton, LF (6-for-19, double, HR, walk, 4 K’s)
  5. Erick Aybar, SS (2-for-14, double, K)
  6. Howie Kendrick, 2B (2-for-8, walk, 2 K’s)
  7. David Freese, 3B
  8. C.J. Cron, DH
  9. Hank Conger, C

P: Garrett Richards

What’s next for Tigers before trade deadline?

Could Wednesday’s trade for Joakim Soria be the opener of a two-part move to upgrade the Tigers bullpen? Possibly.

“Our bullpen has been a situation that has been our major focus, and I guess would continue to be our major focus if we are going to do something,” Dombrowski said on his Thursday morning conference call. “I’m not sure if we will or will not, but we’re still open-minded to it.”

Could the Tigers shift direction and make that much-speculated move for a left-handed hitting outfielder or a veteran shortstop? That seems less likely.

“I don’t know that either one of them would be real high on our priority list at this point,” Dombrowski said.

The part about acquiring another reliever was one of the first questions posed to Dombrowski on the call. The spotting of a Tigers scout watching the Phillies, whose bullpen includes lefty Antonio Bastardo, sparked discussion of whether the recent struggles of Ian Krol to go with Phil Coke’s up-and-down season might Detroit to add a southpaw.

Dombrowski wasn’t getting into details on a game plan for the final days before next Thursday’s nonwaiver Trade Deadline, but he clearly left the door open for another move.

“I wouldn’t say specifically what we’re addressing. I guess we’re open-minded to a lot of different thought processes,” he said. “Our bullpen has scuffled at times. I think that a real key is you want to have people out there who put up zeroes for you, that can put down shutdown innings and also throw strikes on a consistent basis. We’ve scuffled, not everybody, but a lot of guys collectively at that. Again, we remain open-minded if something happens that makes sense to make us better before the trading deadline.”

Positionally, on the other hand, Dombrowski seems pleased. He praised Eugenio Suarez and his handling of the shortstop job.

“We are comfortable with Suarez. He’s done a very nice job for us,” Dombrowski said. “To sum it up, he’s mature beyond his years and seems to handle situations very well. He’s been solid defensively for us, which is first and foremost, and we think he can continue to do that. He’s a youngster, so you have to realize he’ll go through some ups and downs, but he’s also contributed offensively. … But he doesn’t seem overwhelmed at all.”

As for the lefty bat situation, Dombrowski indicated that he expects Andy Dirks to make it back to the big leagues in time to make a difference.

“I think Andy Dirks is going to come back here,” he said. “He’s making progress again. I think he’s going to help us.”

Dombrowski not expecting Hanrahan return

Joel Hanrahan’s Tiger tenure appears headed for an end without throwing a pitch in a game, Major or minor league. After the right-handed reliever’s throwing program was shut down this week, Dave Dombrowski sounded like the Tigers have shut the door on the comeback attempt.

“At this point, I would say we’re not counting on him at all,” Dombrowski said on a Friday Thursday morning conference call to talk about the Joakim Soria trade. “It does not sound encouraging.”

The Tigers signed Hanrahan just under a year removed from surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. He was throwing well in workout sessions for teams at the time, and while neither the Tigers nor Hanrahan wanted to put a timetable on his return, he was hoping for eight weeks.

His rehab process since then has been anything but smooth. Hanrahan’s throwing program was halted last month to rebuild arm strength before he began throwing off a mound again a few weeks ago. He didn’t progress beyond that, and he’s now seeing a doctor.

“It’s a situation where there’s another medical check being done,” Dombrowski said, “but I would say it’s highly unlikely he would be able to pitch for us.”

Asked if that had any affect on their trade talks this month, and what they could going forward, Dombrowski said the slow pace of Hanrahan’s rehab had them already planning for this.

“I think we’ve known this for a while,” he said, “so we’ve been operating over a time period here that it would seem doubtful that he would come back.”

Hanrahan signed a one-year contract for a $1 million base salary, with another $2 million available based on his time on the active roster. It was a deal that weighed the risk of a 32-year-old pitcher with over 400 innings recovering from surgery with the reward of an experienced late-inning arm. Hanrahan owns 100 saves over his seven-year big league career, 76 of them as an All-Star closer in Pittsburgh in 2011 and 2012.

“You just have to realize there’s no given when people are coming back from Tommy John surgery, or probably any surgery,” Dombrowski said. “There’s been such significant strides that have been made, it’s phenomenal in the medical field. But there are still some questions attached to it.

“Things don’t always work. Guys don’t always come back the same way. We knew that when we signed him. We really knew it was a spot where we were taking a chance. And I’d have to say we thought that chance was a minimal chance. He was throwing well at that time. But even as we said at the time we signed him, there’s a lot of difference between going out there and throwing, and throwing 93 on the mound, and then going and pitching in a big-league game. That’s an additional stress.

“You’re also in a position where you’re talking about pitching back-to-back days, the exertion of pitching late in a game — there are just so many more steps that are taken. Sometimes they’re downplayed, but they’re steps that need to be taken. And we were aware of that. We went into it with open eyes on that one.

“It’s one where we took a gamble, and it doesn’t look like that gamble worked. But we thought it was a minimal gamble, under the circumstances, in today’s world, and the financial situation at the Major League level.”

Breaking down the Soria deal

The Tigers are waiting until a Thursday morning conference call to talk in depth about their big move to land Joakim Soria from the Rangers. For now, however, here are a few key points to keep in mind:

1. Soria will set up for Joe Nathan, at least for now

Dave Dombrowski confirmed this much Wednesday evening. That’s believed to have been the plan on all the trade discussions the Tigers held on bullpen help this month. While Soria set up for Nathan with good success for 26 appearances last year, Nathan hasn’t had any role but closer over the last 10 years. So for now, if he’s going to have a role, it’s going to be the ninth.

If Soria eventually closes, it’ll leave the Tigers needing another arm for the seventh or eighth, because their current bullpen doesn’t have enough depth to cover the gap. The advantage of Soria setting up, if Nathan can hold down the ninth, is that it allows Chamberlain to enter in the seventh, an inning in which the Tigers’ numbers are almost as ugly as the ninth.

2. Two solid pitching prospects is the going rate for quality late-inning relievers this summer

Reports from before the All-Star break had the Rangers seeking 2-3 prospects for Soria, and it’s believed the Rangers’ initial asking price was steeper when the Tigers first inquired about Soria. But much like the two-year, $20 million deal Joe Nathan got last winter, the Tigers had to adjust to the market. The Rangers acquired a Triple-A relief prospect from KC for middle reliever Jason Frasor, and the Padres got a decent haul from the Angels for Huston Street.

No question, it shortens the prospect ranks for the Tigers going forward. Corey Knebel had the potential to become a late-inning arm in Detroit as soon as next year, and a cost-controlled reliever at that, while Jake Thompson had the makings of a mid-rotation starter. However, the Tigers have a club option on Soria for next season (and a reasonable one at $7 million), and they could also get Bruce Rondon back from Tommy John surgery next spring.

Thompson’s departure becomes bigger if the Tigers lose both Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello to free agency. If they re-sign one, Robbie Ray likely fills the other slot. Beyond that, Drew VerHagen also has the opportunity to step up. With Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez both signed long-term, and Drew Smyly not up for free agency until after the 2018 season, the Tigers have enough candidates to fill potential holes, even with Thompson no longer in the picture.

3. Are the Tigers done adding relievers?

That might depend on what the asking price is. They have the prospect depth to put together another package, but that’s where the deals begin to hurt the near future, rather than the distant one. While the idea of having Joaquin Benoit and Soria sounds appetizing, it would leave the Tigers on the hook for $26.5 million in relievers next season (Benoit’s $8 million salary for 2015 is guaranteed, with an $8 million option or $1.5 million buyout for 2016). Chad Qualls has a more reason $3 million salary for next year, but has said he wants to remain in Houston. Koji Uehara is up for free agency.

Wednesday’s lineups: Tigers at Diamondbacks

Interesting move by Brad Ausmus, who moves Rajai Davis up to second in the order and slots everyone else down. That means Miguel Cabrera bats cleanup in a regular-season game for the fourth time this season, all in Interleague Play. Ausmus also plays the matchup with a day game after a night game and goes with Don Kelly, 4-for-7 with a home run off Trevor Cahill, in right field.

Gameday | TV: FS Detroit, MLB.TV | Radio: 97.1 FM, AM 1270, Gameday Audio

TIGERS (career numbers off Cahill)

  1. Austin Jackson, CF (0-for-6, 3 K’s)
  2. Rajai Davis, LF (0-for-3, K)
  3. Ian Kinsler, 2B (7-for-31, double, 4 walks, 3 K’s)
  4. Miguel Cabrera, 3B (2-for-11, 4 walks, 2 K’s)
  5. Victor Martinez, 1B (3-for-9, double, walk, K)
  6. Don Kelly, RF (4-for-7, HR, walk)
  7. Alex Avila, C (3-for-11, 3 K’s)
  8. Andrew Romine, SS
  9. Anibal Sanchez, P

DIAMONDBACKS (career numbers off Sanchez)

  1. David Peralta, CF
  2. Aaron Hill, 2B (0-for-2, walk, 2 K’s)
  3. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B (0-for-2, walk)
  4. Miguel Montero, C (3-for-14, double, HR, 2 K’s)
  5. Mark Trumbo, LF (3-for-9, K)
  6. Gerardo Parra, RF (5-for-11, double, 2 K’s)
  7. Martin Prado, 3B (13-for-31, HR, walk)
  8. Didi Gregorius, SS
  9. Trevor Cahill, P

Tuesday’s lineups: Tigers at Diamondbacks

Miguel Cabrera is back on the hot corner, and Victor Martinez (who had a very nice game at first base Monday night) is back on the right side of the infield. The two real changes are the return of J.D. Martinez to the lineup in left field, pushing Rajai Davis to the bench, and Alex Avila back behind the plate with rookie right-hander Chase Anderson (whom none of the Tigers have faced) on the mound for Arizona. With those two moves, Eugenio Suarez, who batted sixth in Monday’s lineup, is batting eighth tonight.

Gameday | TV: FS Detroit, MLB.TV | Radio: 97.1 FM, AM 1270, Gameday Audio


  1. Austin Jackson, CF
  2. Ian Kinsler, 2B
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 3B
  4. Victor Martinez, 1B
  5. J.D. Martinez, LF
  6. Torii Hunter, RF
  7. Alex Avila, C
  8. Eugenio Suarez, SS
  9. Rick Porcello, P

DIAMONDBACKS (career numbers off Porcello)

  1. David Peralta, CF
  2. Aaron Hill, 2B (2-for-11, HR)
  3. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
  4. Miguel Montero, C (2-for-3, HR)
  5. Mark Trumbo, LF (4-for-13, 2 K’s)
  6. Gerardo Parra, RF (0-for-2)
  7. Martin Prado, 3B
  8. Didi Gregorius, SS
  9. Chase Anderson, P

Drew VerHagen placed on Triple-A DL with back strain

Drew VerHagen has drawn attention as a potential piece in any potential Tigers trade for relief help, having more than held his own as a sinkerballer at Triple-A Toledo before delivering a decent spot start in Detroit last Saturday with five innings of three-run ball. That could well end up being his final outing before the July 31 outing. The right-hander has been placed on the disabled list with what is being called a lower back strain.

The injury was reported after VerHagen returned to Toledo, having been called up and sent down last Saturday under the 26th man rule that allows for an extra player during a doubleheader. Thus, VerHagen was placed on the 7-day disabled list at the Triple-A level, rather than the 15-day DL in the big leagues. That means he’ll at least be eligible to return from the DL before the July 31 trade deadline. Whether he does depends on his back.

It isn’t expected to be a major injury. Tigers assistant general manager Al Avila said VerHagen reported concerns about his back after returning to Toledo. He’ll visit a doctor as a precaution, Avila said, but it doesn’t appear to be a serious concern.

Though just a few teams had scouts on hand for VerHagen’s start Saturday, the Tigers are getting a good amount of interest on starting pitching in their farm system. Beyond VerHagen, multiple teams are expected to have scouts at Double-A Erie to watch Jake Thompson, Detroit’s top pick in 2012 and now arguably their top pitching prospect after Robbie Ray, start Wednesday afternoon.

Monday’s lineups: Tigers at Diamondbacks

Miguel Cabrera makes his third start at third base this season, and his first since April 11. That opens up first base for Victor Martinez, getting him into the lineup without the DH slot and without having to put him behind the plate. We’ll see if this happens again during this three-game series, because Martinez is not going to catch.

The big surprise is in the outfield, where J.D. Martinez gets the night off. Rajai Davis and Torii Hunter start in the corners, leaving Torii Hunter to bat fifth and Eugenio Suarez sixth (!!!). Bryan Holaday again starts against the left-hander.

Gameday | TV: FS Detroit, MLB.TV | Radio: 97.1 FM, AM 1270, Gameday Audio


  1. Austin Jackson, CF
  2. Ian Kinsler, 2B
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 3B
  4. Victor Martinez, 1B
  5. Torii Hunter, RF
  6. Eugenio Suarez, SS
  7. Bryan Holaday, C
  8. Rajai Davis, LF
  9. Justin Verlander, P

DIAMONDBACKS (career numbers off Verlander)

  1. David Peralta, CF
  2. Aaron Hill, 2B (4-for-13, 2 doubles, 2 K’s)
  3. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
  4. Miguel Montero, C (0-for-3, K)
  5. Mark Trumbo, LF (1-for-6, 2 K’s)
  6. Gerardo Parra, RF (2-for-3, 2 doubles, K)
  7. Martin Prado, 3B (2-for-3, double)
  8. Didi Gregorius, SS
  9. Vidal Nuno, P

Nathan: I understand their frustration

Hours after Joe Nathan’s three-run ninth inning Saturday night, he had a clean ninth inning with a four-run lead Sunday afternoon. His postgame interview with reporters seemingly lasted longer than his inning Sunday.

He didn’t want to talk about Saturday’s loss, though he referenced what went wrong to get it out of the way. 

He understands fan frustration, he says, though he struggles to understand the emotional, game-to-game roller-coaster that goes with it. He’s trying to do his part to even it out, hoping fans will do the same on their end.

“I think the tough part for that is: When things go bad, they’re all over you. When things go well, they cheer,” he said. “Do we always want the fans supporting us? Yes, and I think they do here. And I think they’re so into it and want to win so bad. But as bad as they want to win, we want to win 100 percent more than they do. I understand their frustration.

“All I can do is say I’m busting my butt to get better every day and I’m grinding away every day and I’m in the gym every day. When things don’t go as well, I go out and beat my legs up running around the field so I’m stronger for the next day.”

He is not quite as preoccupied by mechanics at this point. He continues to work off of the lower arm angle he put into practice last month, but it’s not a cure-all. It’s a route to get where he wants with his pitches.

“I know my stuff’s better,” he said. “For me now, it’s a matter of getting more and more comfortable. Working ahead is always key. When I’m out there and I’m throwing strike one, it seems to be results-wise and putting hitters into defensive modes is much better when I’m getting strikes. But that’s the same with every pitcher. For me, I think the mechanical thing was more getting myself confidence. I’ve really noticed a difference with the slider especially. Earlier in the year, I was fighting to get it down in the zone and velocity-wise, it was more 84-85. Now it’s been easier to get it down in the zone and I’m noticing 87-88-89 at times. …

“It’s hard to work on stuff in the game regardless. It’s extremely hard when you have a week of downtime. As much as you need the four days, the thing you’re worried about the most is getting too much time off. I’m not doing anything major. It’s been easier for me, and I think that’s why, even if I do go out there and have a bad game like yesterday, you can’t always pay attention to results. You’ve just got to pay attention to how your stuff’s coming out and the swings you’re getting from hitters. I know I’m getting a lot more swings and misses in the last 10 or 15 outings since I made that adjustment.”

He’s definitely getting more of those than he was early in the year. Even during Saturday’s debacle, two of his three outs came on strikeouts. He had one strikeout and two swings and misses out of nine pitches Sunday, both to Saturday night Indians hero Chris Dickerson.

One was off the slider, the other off a 91 mph fastball.

“I feel like my stuff is there a lot of times,” he said. “Is it a work in progress? I hope not. I hope it clicks and like today, everything goes smooth from here on out. But it’s baseball. That won’t happen. I am still that same guy and hopefully it works out that we get to the playoffs and I’m pitching my best then.”

Every indication so far has been that the Tigers will give him the chance to close if they get there. They have not been looking for a pure closer. 

“I’m way too old to worry about that stuff,” Nathan said. “I’ve done too much in this game, too much in my career. I think it’d be unfair to myself to beat myself up over that kind of stuff after all the things I’ve been through in my career. That’s part of the game, and I know stuff’s going to be talked about, but that’s not for me to worry about.”


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