Game 69: When the Tigers had a closer again
Admit it, your stomach churned when the Tigers couldn’t drive in Bryan Holaday from third base with one out in the bottom of the eighth inning Thursday. Instead of giving Joe Nathan an insurance run to work with against the red-hot Royals, Detroit handed its beleaguered closer a one-run lead to close out against KC’s fourth, fifth and sixth hitters in the bottom of the ninth.
Then Joe Nathan looked like the old Joe Nathan again.
“Well, we figured something out the last couple of days,” Nathan said afterwards. “We’ve been working on it in the bullpen, side sessions. Yesterday was a really good time to work on it, because it was with some adrenaline, because I got up in a one-run game, with a chance to go in.”
He didn’t get in, because the Tigers couldn’t put a run across. He still got to throw.
“Always helps to have some energy when you’re working on something that’s … maybe not new, but trying to get back to the form it was.”
It was his old arm slot, he said, lower than it has been this year. He adjusted that, worked to keep his head in line with his delivery, focused on location, then stopped focusing on location. The result was some pretty good stuff.
“Obviously, the one thing you worry about when you work on mechanics, is location,” Nathan said. “You’re sitting there, working on mechanics, working on mechanics, and you do something that feels so strange, sometimes you get away from going out and actually competing. So when I got out on the mound today, I had a little bit of extra focus on, all right, be ready to compete. It’s not about mechanics now, it’s about getting after it.
“Fortunately, everything came out very natural. Location wasn’t an issue at all. Actually helped my location.”
After getting just a dozen swings and misses out of 220 pitches over a month-long stretch, Nathan’s first pitch drew a swing and miss from Billy Butler on a slow breaking ball. After back-to-back fastballs out of the strike zone put him behind, Nathan nailed the outside corner with consecutive pitches — the first an 87 mph slider, the second a 94 mph fastball.
Down went Butler, 6-for-13 lifetime against him before that strikeout.
“We’ve missed Joe. We wanted him back to where he was,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “That looked like him.”
The Royals weren’t arguing.
“That looked like the Joe Nathan I’ve faced for years,” Butler said, “all those times with the Twins and then with Texas — the one with a few hundred saves and all those All-Star Games. He’s had some tough moments in his career, but that looked like the same guy today.”
From there, Nathan got a life. He put Salvador Perez in an 0-2 count and didn’t let him out of it, forcing him to foul off a slider diving outside and a high fastball before dropping a curveball on him. Perez got a piece of it, but right into catcher Bryan Holaday’s mitt.
With that, Nathan had just his third multi-strikeout performance of the season. Once Lorenzo Cain swung and missed at back-to-back sliders off the plate, Nathan had struck out side for the first time since Aug. 20 of last season. He also had his first save since May 29, and his first 1-2-3 inning for a save since May 27, both in Oakland.
“I’m not saying this one outing is ‘Oh, I’m back …’ That’s not it at all,” Nathan said. We’ve got 3 1/2 months to go. It’s a grind every day, and it’s a humbling sport. So if you think you got it, the next day, it’s going to turn around and kick you in the butt, and you won’t think you got it.
“Right now, it’s a positive. I think we found an arm slot that works. I got more whip on my pitches, I think. From what everyone was telling me, it was coming out a lot harder, a lot crisper. The breaking balls were a lot sharper. But for me, the most important thing was, I worked ahead in the count, and I was able to put guys away, which is the biggest sign for me.”
It’s a huge sign for the Tigers, whose bullpen gets a little more stable if Nathan can run with this form. They still need more depth, maybe get one more reliever going to mix into the seventh and eighth innings. If Nathan can own the ninth again, it makes the bridge more stable.