Detroit — Joe Nathan said his arm feels fine, his spirit isn’t broken, his luck will turn. He stood up and said it again and again, as if grasping for something, anything.
Whatever he’s searching for, the Tigers need him to find it soon, because they have no desire to search for another closer. Nathan hasn’t given up on himself and the Tigers haven’t given up on him, and they shouldn’t. But the concern is growing.
This might become the first big test for manager Brad Ausmus, after another gruesome outing by Nathan in the Tigers’ 5-3 loss Tuesday night to the Blue Jays. Ausmus said he wouldn’t publicly discuss how to remedy the situation, and he expected Nathan to return to form. But the manager and the closer and everyone at Comerica Park heard the boos as Nathan left the mound in the ninth, a 0-0 game blown apart, a gem by Anibal Sanchez wasted.
“Fortunately, I don’t give a (bleep) about (boos), pardon my French,” Nathan said. “They can boo me all they want, I’m my own biggest critic. As much as they feel like they’re being tough on me, I’m way tougher on myself.”
It was a flash of defiance from Nathan — not against the fans, but against the notion he’s losing confidence, or velocity, or control of his craft. At 39, any bad stretch can look like the end. Nathan has blown four saves and been roughed up in his last three outings. His ERA is 6.86 and he has given up 16 runs, after allowing 10 all last season with Texas.
Tough luck contributes
After this one, he sat at his locker for a while with pitching coach Jeff Jones, then patiently fielded questions from the media. He was trying hard to look calm, not frustrated.
“It’s tough mentally, but this isn’t the first time I’ve gone through a funk and come out the other end,” Nathan said. “I’ve dealt with two injuries. I’ve pitched much worse than this, trust me. That gives me the knowledge and confidence to know I’m fine. … I felt like I had a pretty sharp slider. I think a lot of things just didn’t go my way that inning. No excuses, I gotta be better. But there was a lot of bad luck out there too.”
Nathan said when he was in Minnesota, he once was in such a funk, he told Ron Gardenhire to take him out of the closer’s role. Is he approaching that level of crisis?
“Not at all,” he said. “I’m throwing the ball way too good.”
There’s some rationalizing going on, but hey, whatever it takes for a closer to right himself. Nathan did pitch in some tough luck Tuesday night, but he began the ninth in horrible fashion, walking No. 9 hitter Anthony Gose after starting 0-2. Jose Reyes followed with a soft single to left. The Blue Jays didn’t hit the ball hard, which compounded Nathan’s visible frustration. When Jose Bautista’s grounder up the middle eluded shortstop Andrew Romine to break the 0-0 tie, Nathan threw his arms up in exasperation and stalked around the mound.
Romine should’ve fielded the ball but appeared confused by second baseman Ian Kinsler. Unclear who was going to get it, Romine halted, then lunged and missed. The run probably would’ve scored anyway because a double play was unlikely, but when pinpointing culprits in the Tigers’ struggles, Romine and Nathan have emerged as leading candidates.
Romine’s situation has become problematic. Nathan isn’t to that point, yet.
“I was out there fighting myself a lot, hoping things aren’t gonna go south on me,” Nathan said. “But I still made good pitches. I gotta pay attention to the positives, keep my head up, and think about how I threw the baseball. I feel I’m throwing better than my numbers.”
Shouldering the blame
He also didn’t throw anybody under any proverbial bus after this one. His troubles began last week in Oakland, when he gave up a walk-off three-run homer to Josh Donaldson, one pitch after a liner glanced of Nick Castellanos’ glove. He mentioned that play more than he took blame for the home run, and he didn’t make the same mistake here.
That said, the left side of the infield with Romine and Castellanos is a concern. It’s up to the veterans on this team — including Nathan — to settle things down. Ausmus gave no indication he was contemplating any move and again supported his closer, as he should. Joba Chamberlain has pitched very well and would be a candidate, but the Tigers invested way too much in Nathan to change directions so quickly.
“If he’s struggling mentally, there’s certainly gotta be something we can do to help him,” Ausmus said. “Joe’s been very good for a very long time, and I expect him to be very good for the Tigers. And he expects himself to be very good. Even the best have rough times.”
This was as rough as it gets. The Tigers have lost 11 of 15 to drop to 31-23, and with their scoring woes and bullpen issues, they can’t afford to have a clunky closer. Nathan sounded certain he would get this figured out, and the Tigers will give him time to do so. But the deeper it goes, the tougher it gets.