April 2nd, 2014

Game 2: The greatest trick the devil ever pulled

Joe Nathan has inflicted plenty of pain on the Tigers over the years. He’s 36-for-36 in save chances against them, including 19-for-19 at Comerica Park. He pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings against them in Game 163 back in 2009. He held Detroit to 2-for-20 with no runs scored in 2005, then 2-for-26 with no runs in 2008.

None of that damage he inflicted against the Tigers would compare to the damage he could do as a Tiger if he had nothing left. And as the tweets chimed in after Nathan’s blown save Wednesday, one blown save, you could sense the panic in Tigertown.

“89 mph on Nathan’s fastball,” one tweet read. “Two years/$20 million down the drain without getting any productive outings out of him.”

“Glad we got that lockdown closer!” another tweet read.

“Joe Nathalverde,” chimed in another.

It’s like the grand final act in his tormenting the Tigers! Except, well, no. It’s one outing, and he’s still Joe Nathan.

That doesn’t mean the Tigers got Nathan near his prime, because they didn’t. But they also didn’t get a broken-down closer, either.

More than a few people remarked about Nathan’s velocity, but he has averaged 94 mph on his fastball only once since 2008. He averaged just over 92 mph last year during his dominant season, and he averaged just over 91 mph on Wednesday, according to data from brooksbaseball.net. The power-throwing closer from the Twins days changed his game a while ago, well before he turned 39 years old, focusing on three different pitches and different looks. Besides, Max Scherzer averaged exactly 92 mph on his fastball Wednesday, so Nathan had company.

Second, to say the Tigers didn’t get any productive outings out of Nathan not only panics after two outings, it ignores the scoreless ninth inning Nathan threw on Opening Day before the Tigers scored the winning run in the bottom half.

Third, the only base hit Nathan allowed Wednesday was a one-out ground-ball single up the middle from Omar Infante.

“He hit a pretty decent pitch, got it on the end of the bat but got enough of it to get it to the outfield grass. Pretty good pitch,” Nathan said. “That’s the difference between two out, nobody on and a man on that ends up stealing a base and now you’re facing some good hitters with the tying run in scoring position.

“Fell behind Hosmer 3-0 and tried to make some really good pitches away, tried to be as fine as I can. You don’t want him hurting you when you’re down 3-0, especially when you’ve still got a chance to maybe get a double play ball with Butler. He gets up and we had a grinder at-bat. I thought I might have had a chance when we got to a spot to throw a curveball after feeding him a bunch of sliders and fastballs. Went to a curveball that might have had a chance and he fouled off a pretty good pitch that I felt I might have been able to get him on, and then from there you’ve just gotta hope you can get him to maybe chase one. You don’t want to give in to him and feed him a slider for a strike. He’s been known to hit some gaps and he could have done some more damage.

“Bases-loaded, one out with Gordon, you never want to give up the lead but you also don’t want them taking the lead either. So we’ll take a fly ball the opposite way to tie the game and try to at least extend that game, give ourselves a chance to win it or go extra innings.”

The fly ball to left from Gordon carried deep enough to easily score Pedro Ciriaco. That was all Nathan allowed. It wasn’t pretty, but it wasn’t disaster either.

So, everyone take a deep breath. And please, if you still need to vent and compare Nathan to past Tigers closers Todd Jones, Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit, at least give Fernando Rodney the professional respect to put him on the list, right?

Play of the game: By the game Wednesday’s game ended, it seemed like hours since Tyler Collins made his diving grab in short left field to rob Alex Gordon on a leadoff hit in the second. But it was no less important with the game’s late developments, because it helped Max Scherzer settle in and take over the game from there.

Biggest out: Long before Billy Butler battled to get a walk out of Nathan in the ninth inning, he swung at Scherzer’s 3-0 pitch with two men on and one out. Even for a guy who’s 11-for-29 with four home runs lifetime when putting 3-0 pitches in play, it was amazing.

“I’m not mad at myself for swinging at that,” Butler said later. “I got the green light, got a good pitch to hit and just got a bad result.”

Strategy session: Brad Ausmus went with the reverse splits and not only started Collins in left field, but batted him second. He went 0-for-3 with a fielder’s choice, reaching base when replay confirmed he had beaten a double-play throw to first.

Strategy session, part 2: For those who grew used to seeing Jim Leyland visit the mound only to make a pitching change or line up the infield, rarely ever to judge his pitcher, seeing Ausmus have a lengthy mound visit with two outs in the ninth and Alcides Escobar at the plate had to be a throwback.

“He asked me how I’m doing,” Scherzer said alter. “I was honest. I told him I was tired. When it got down to it, I wanted to face Escobar, I wanted to get out of that inning. Fortunately I was able to make the pitches to do that.”

Shortstop watch: Alex Gonzalez went 1-for-4 with an infield single, and was thrown out at home plate on a ground ball to third. He did not have any glaring misplays at short.

Line of the day: Ian Kinsler had half of Detroit’s hits, going 3-for-5 with a solo homer, a walkoff single and two RBIs.

Stat of the day: 1: No-decisions Scherzer has taken as a Tiger when delivering six or more shutout innings in an outing. After the highest run support in the Majors last year, perhaps it was karma.

Game 2: Tigers vs. Royals

Tyler Collins didn’t have to wait as long as expected for his first Major League start. Not only is in the lineup for the second game of the season, he’s batting second, directly in front of Miguel Cabrera.

It’s a pretty big spot to have a left-handed hitter facing a left-handed pitcher, but in both cases, the splits are reversed. Left-handed hitters batted .327 (53-for-162) off Jason Vargas last season, and .263 off him the past five seasons, five points higher than righties have hit him in the same span.

At the same time, Tyler Collins raked against lefties last year at Double-A Erie, hitting them for a .289 average (41-for-142), 11 home runs and a .953 OPS, compared with a .219 average (71-for-324), 10 homers and a .676 OPS against righties.

By hitting him second, too, Ausmus freed up Torii Hunter to bat fifth behind Victor Martinez. That bumps down Austin Jackson, whose tendencies to struggle off lefties presents a bad matchup against Vargas.

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

TIGERS (career numbers off Vargas)

  1. Ian Kinsler, 2B (12-for-44, 5 doubles, HR, 3 walks, 2 K’s)
  2. Tyler Collins, LF
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 1B (3-for-8, double, HR, 4 walks, K)
  4. Victor Martinez, DH (1-for-1)
  5. Torii Hunter, RF (8-for-29, 4 doubles, 4 walks, 7 K’s)
  6. Austin Jackson, CF (2-for-14, 3 K’s)
  7. Alex Avila, C (2-for-6, double, HR)
  8. Nick Castellanos, 3B
  9. Alex Gonzalez, SS (2-for-3, double)

P: Max Scherzer

ROYALS (career numbers off Scherzer)

  1. Norichika Aoki, RF
  2. Omar Infante, 2B
  3. Eric Hosmer, 1B (5-for-25, 2 doubles, 2 walks, 8 K’s)
  4. Billy Butler, DH (12-for-47, 2 doubles, 2 walks, 9 K’s)
  5. Alex Gordon, LF (11-for-28, 3 doubles, 2 HR, 7 walks, 4 K’s)
  6. Salvador Perez, C (7-for-18, double, 2 HR, 2 K’s)
  7. Mike Moustakas, 3B (3-for-23, double, 7 K’s)
  8. Lorenzo Cain, CF (0-for-9, 3 K’s)
  9. Alcides Escobar, SS (7-for-29, 2 HR, 6 K’s)

P: Jason Vargas