Tigers closer Joe Nathan (7.04 ERA) has given up at least two runs in four of his last five outings. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
Chicago — Trauma is probably too strong of a word. Anxiety is too weak.
The Tigers on Monday pulled into U.S. Cellular Field for four games against the White Sox, and they could have been in a merrier state of mind. Manager Brad Ausmus’ bunch was dealing with stress, if not depression, brought on in its latest episode by Red Sox menace David Ortiz and the game-destroying home run he sent rocketing far into Comerica Park’s right-field seats Sunday evening.
The ninth inning, specifically, is haunting Detroit and its 2014 season. The Tigers have the ugliest ninth-inning ERA in all of baseball: 7.71, more ghastly than the next-worse team, the Angels at 6.08.
Joe Nathan, once the portrait of game-closing supremacy, has four blown saves and a 7.04 ERA. He also has a two-year contract through 2015 and the better part of $20 million headed his way. And, yes, a 40th birthday is also on the docket in November.
Ausmus and his boss, Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers general manager, are dealing with a crisis that defies any real or immediate remedy. The simple fact, as Ausmus and Dombrowski acknowledged separately Monday, is the Tigers have no practical choice in early June but to hope Nathan finds his old competence and saves games his team is often winning through eight innings.
Ausmus has said the right things since he was hired last November. When it was suggested Monday he could only play the roster cards he has been dealt and not overly agonize about personnel beyond his control, he protested.
“No, I’m in charge of this team,” he said, sitting in the Tigers dugout a few minutes before batting practice began, “and we have to find ways to get areas of this team not performing well to perform better.
“The ninth, obviously, has been a weakness. But we’re only one-third of the way through the season and if we can get the ninth inning to perform better the last two-thirds of the season, we’ll be fine.”
Dombrowski, at this stage, has few options and thus takes the same approach. He and Ausmus have been dealing with bullpen breakdowns that have been an intermittent menace since Bruce Rondon was lost to surgery during spring camp and Nathan began having occasional problems in early April.
Dombrowski is not the only GM looking for help or wondering what he might have done differently during the offseason. The A’s and their front-office general, Billy Beane, the game’s supposed sage, have seen Luke Gregerson and Jim Johnson take turns coming apart. Gregerson is the only pitcher who has blown more saves (five) than Nathan.
That there are other division-leading teams in occasional panic about their back-end relievers isn’t of comfort to Dombrowski. One reason misery doesn’t enjoy company here is it will simply make July’s trade deadline more complicated if too many teams are hunting bullpen back-ups.
That might or might not be the Tigers, depending in great part upon Nathan’s ways during these next days and weeks. Dombrowski was asked Monday if this Nathan mystery was, in fact, simply explained. Nathan is almost 40. Players are generally out of baseball or on their farewell tour on the eve of 40.
Could the Tigers GM accept Nathan’s failings as a simple matter of baseball and age no longer meshing?
“It would be different if his stuff was considerably down — and it’s not down from last year,” Dombrowski said, referring to the fastball-slider combination that led to some standard Nathan numbers for the Rangers in 2013 (43 saves, 1.39 ERA, .162 opposing batting average).
“We knew, analyzing things, he didn’t have the 97-mph fastball he had five years ago. But he didn’t throw 97 last year. His stuff really hasn’t fallen off. He’s just not being as consistent with his command.
“I’ve talked with Jonesy (Jeff Jones, pitching coach) and Brad, and they feel comfortable that they’ll get him straightened out and get our bullpen back to where it should be.”
If it doesn’t work out in quite that fashion, Dombrowski will have little choice but to spend heavily next month. His trade deadline wizardry is well-known and he will find as July’s contenders and pretenders separate that the market probably will cooperate to some degree.
He also has Joel Hanrahan rehabilitating in Lakeland, Fla., 13 months after Hanrahan had Tommy John surgery. The Tigers signed him in May with one thought in mind: Hanrahan might be able to help during the season’s second half. The timeline hasn’t changed, which means Hanrahan and the trade market enjoy the same status. Neither can be of much support 10 days into June.
Precisely what Dombrowski and the Tigers can otherwise do is, again, limited. Joba Chamberlain is important and effective as Detroit’s set-up man.
Corey Knebel, a rookie, has the pitches but not the experience to close and is probably soon headed back to Triple A Toledo. Chad Smith, his likely replacement, has no big-league background and is by no means a closer.
“We have to straighten out our own guys,” Dombrowski said. “ I know people are concerned. I see what the numbers are in the ninth inning. But we’re early in season. We’ve struggled. We need to get Joe back and straightened out.”
Nathan had another tough go of it Saturday, throwing 32 pitches, and sat out Sunday evening’s ninth. It was Chamberlain, until that point one of the bullpen’s few happy stories from 2014, who got the latest dose of Ortiz’s devilry.
Ausmus assured everyone Monday that Nathan would be back in the closer’s cockpit as the Tigers got ready for the White Sox.
It was not clear how confident was a manager, or his boss, with that thought. Not when a playoff ticket hinges so heavily on a single pitcher. Not when the Tigers on Monday were dealing with baseball’s most troubled bullpen closer.