It seemed Joe Nathan was pointing the finger at Nick Castellanos Wednesday night, but perhaps not. (Denis Poroy / Getty Images)
Oakland, Calif. – No two Tigers have probably felt worse about one play this season than Nick Castellanos and Joe Nathan did in the stunning 3-1 walk-off loss to the Oakland A’s on Wednesday night.
That was evident in their postgame comments.
But was the reaction handled the right way?
Nathan gave up a three-run home run to Josh Donaldson with one out in the bottom of the ninth to lose the game.
Anibal Sanchez had been outstanding for 8.1 innings but exited after a one-out double by Coco Crisp.
What happened next lit the fuse to an explosive finish.
On a soft liner near third by John Jaso, a ball that Nick Castellanos should have caught – and said he should have by labeling it “catchable” – the play was not made.
The ball went off Castellanos’ glove, putting runners at first and third with one out instead of Nathan facing a two-out situation with a runner on second.
Nathan repeatedly said the inability to get Jaso out changed the entire inning. But he never once mentioned Castellanos by name, never once called him out for not making the play, never even once referred to it as a play that should have been made.
But by focusing on it without first establishing that the biggest mistake of the inning was his meaty pitch to Donaldson has led to varying interpretations of his reaction.
Here’s mine, and it starts with this: Sometimes blame is so blatantly obvious, it doesn’t have to be self-assigned.
Nathan hasn’t become one of baseball’s premier closers by ducking blame on a big home run or by assigning it to others. If he didn’t first establish in so many words that Donaldson’s home run was “all my fault,” it was a mistake of omission not commission.
He’d just given up a three-run boomer on a wheelhouse slider to lose the game. Everyone knew whose fault it was.
A proven pitcher who doesn’t raise his hand every time in an obvious blame situation can be excused.
So then why did Nathan focus on the play at third – the one Castellanos didn’t make? And did he throw Castellanos under the bus for not making it?
I say he did not.
To some extent, a rookie who doesn’t make a key play that needs to be made must be spared, especially when it’s a veteran such as Nathan doing the talking.
But that’s why Nathan never called it a mistake, or referred to Castellanos by name.
However, as an upfront player who doesn’t hide from comment in good times or bad, Nathan couldn’t explain his own predicament without mentioning what led up to it.
It’s like discussing a sequence of pitches – except this sequence involved a play before a costly pitch.
Asked what was the difference between coming into the game with the bases empty and a runner in scoring position, Nathan said, “It’s the same. It’s still about getting outs. The big out there was getting Jaso.
“You get him and it changes everything. It changes your approach against Donaldson. It changes how you can pitch to him, how you can play with him a little bit.
“When we didn’t get Jaso, it puts you in a tough spot: First and third with a real good hitter at the plate. It kind of forces me to go after one of their better hitters in the lineup.
“Like I said, Jaso was the out we thought we had. But, unfortunately, it didn’t happen.”
At that point, Nathan – who’s been around long enough to know how he’s sounding – should have said, “But, look, I gave up the home run. This one is on me.”
But he didn’t say it.
So his comments have been taken by some as criticism of Castellanos for not making the play.
Because Nathan kept going back to the importance of the out.
(Before Thursday’s game, Nathan was approached at his locker for additional comment but had to excuse himself for some on-field work.)
When asked about the speed the A’s had on the bases before the home run, for instance, Nathan said Wednesday, “My focus and my attention is still on Donaldson. Like I said, though, it’s a tough spot when it’s first and third with one out as opposed to two outs and a man on second.
“Like I said, again, the whole inning was Jaso and getting him out.”
Ever think that could have been a self-indictment by Nathan for giving up a hit to someone on a 2-2 pitch whom he once was ahead of at 0-2?
“The Jaso at-bat was the one I wanted,” he said. “It definitely would have changed a lot of what that inning ended up being.”
Either way, it was incumbent on Nathan not to make it sound like he was criticizing a teammate instead of himself – because if you don’t make it crystal clear every time, no matter how long you’ve pitched or played, there’s no guarantee how your comments will be interpreted.