April 10th, 2014

Game 7: A day in the life of Joe Nathan

This is what Joe Nathan told Sirius/XM Radio’s Adam Schein about his season to date when Wednesday began:

I think the club has overcome me not throwing as well as I’d like to. I think I’m still at a case of maybe some dead arm going right now. Usually that happens to the middle or later part of spring and hopefully you get through it. But mine is going more into the season and I’m still fine tuning things but fortunately it hasn’t hurt us too much and my tougher outings still resulted in wins for us. So [I’m] very happy about that and I just look to continue to improve for this ball club and be as consistent as I can.”

A few hours later, this is what Nathan told the Tigers beat writing corps when asked about his dead arm comments:

“It’s not an injury. It’s something that every pitcher goes through every year. It’s not even newsworthy. You guys shouldn’t even waste your time writing about dead arm, because it’s basically like knowing there’s second base on the field.”

About seven hours, two dozen Nathan pitches and three runs later, this is what Nathan said about his second blown save of the year and any relation to his dead arm:

“The results obviously [stunk], but I felt like I got better tonight, to be honest with you. I felt like my stuff was good. My stuff got better tonight. My stuff got closer to where I want it to be, especially with my slider. A lot of pitches, even ones that missed, were very close, if not good pitches that could have been called strikes, very borderline pitches, where I want them. …

“Results, not where I want them to be, but a lot of times you have to not pay attention to results and just pay attention to the way the ball’s coming out of your hand. Tonight’s one of those situations I got to feel good about the strides I made tonight. Fortunately, again, it didn’t cost us. We had some guys step up and Victor, huge in the top of the 10th, and then the boys came in after me and pitched outstanding.”

The quotes aren’t presented to suggest inconsistencies, though Nathan seemed clearly surprised and maybe slightly irked it had become an issue before the game. They’re meant to show the evolution. What began as a talk radio question and became an issue Nathan seemingly wanted to kill ended as a struggle he suggested he was already pitching through.

“You’ve just got to keep throwing,” Nathan said early in the day. “Unfortunately, there’s no secret to getting through it quicker. It’s just one of those things that will hit guys throughout the course of a year and you never know when it is going to be or how long it is going to last. All you can do is continue to throw and throw through it and hopefully one day you come there and the ball is coming out of your hand a lot cleaner and with a little more zip on it.”

If this is the turning point for a dead arm issue that wasn’t even a topic until earlier in the day, then the turn was well-hidden. But it wasn’t as complete of a disaster as the pitching line, either.

“His stuff looked as crisp as we’ve seen it,” manager Brad Ausmus said, “and he felt that was the best stuff he’s had, in terms of the break on the slider and the fastball coming out of his hand.”

He got an uptick in fastball velocity, a question that had popped up last week in Detroit as his fastball hid around 90 mph. His home-run ball to Adrian Gonzalez leading off Wednesday’s ninth inning was a 90 mph fastball. By the time the save situation became a mess, Nathan gave up Dee Gordon’s game-tying single on a fastball at 93.

“The pitch to Gordon, we doubled up inside and he just got quick on the second one,” Nathan said. “He’s been one of those guys that put together very, very good at-bats [this series]. When [catcher Victor Martinez] called a second fastball in, it actually threw me for a loop, so I thought he might not be looking for it. But he turned and burned on a pitch that was inside, so credit to him in a big spot.”

In this case, however, it was the command that doomed him, walking Andre Either and Matt Kemp to put the tying run on base with nobody out and in scoring position soon enough. Yet even the control, Nathan suggested, wasn’t as far off as the walks seemingly argued.

“I actually felt it in the bullpen, felt like the stuff was coming out, right from the start of the 10th inning,” Nathan said. “Even with the home run, I think it was more a result of Gonzalez. He can hit the ball away pretty well, and we went away with three pitches. Probably not the best idea to a guy that can hit for power going the other way.

“I think I threw some pretty decent pitches that could’ve turned the count from like 1-1 to 0-2 and change the at-bats. But again, I’m not paying attention to results here. I’ve got to think positive and know that my stuff’s getting where it needs to be. Fortunately it didn’t cost us a win. We had other guys step up and pick me up tonight. Now it’s about getting better for this club, and dwelling on what I’ve done to this point is not going to help us. It’s about getting better and doing what I need to solidify wins in the future.

“To be honest, the pitch I struck Puig out on [for the first out], I thought, was one of the sliders on that side of the plate that probably wasn’t a strike. There were other ones I threw throughout the inning that I thought were better pitches. ”

He’ll get ample chances to improve. Nathan’s outlook on dead arm continued to evolve Wednesday, but manager Brad Ausmus gave every indication that he’ll get the ball the next time the Tigers have to protect a ninth-inning lead.

Make no mistake, for all the current turbulence, this is the Tigers’ closer. There’s no Joaquin Benoit setup type in waiting, no new Bruce Rondon this early in the year. Besides, the rest of the Tigers bullpen has had struggles of its own. This is the closer who was by far the biggest acquisition the Tigers made this winter, and they didn’t sign him to a two-year deal only to give him a break barely a week and a half into the season.

“You can try and pinpoint what it is,” Ausmus said. “I think the fact that he said his stuff felt better tells me the first couple times, it didn’t feel that great. It means he’s moving in the right direction. I think also, closers are going to blow saves, and they seem to come in bunches, but they don’t come in bunches often. …

“Joe, he’s a proven commodity. He’s closed games. He’s blown saves. He knows how to deal with the failure. The mark of a good closer is one who can handle letting his entire team down and coming back the next day and closing the game.”