July 9, 2014 at 9:03 pm

Lynn Henning

Tigers closer Joe Nathan finds it's a game of inches

Detroit — Joe Nathan stood in front of his locker Wednesday answering a stream of questions aimed at a bullpen closer whose season has been somewhere in the vicinity of unusual.

“Now it’s your turn for a one-hour press conference,” Justin Verlander, his next-door locker mate, quipped as Nathan laughed.

It’s easier to grin after your team has just beaten the Dodgers, 4-1, as the Tigers did at Comerica Park, helped by Nathan’s 1-2-3, two-strikeout ninth that earned him his 18th save.

What has not added up is how a pitcher of Nathan’s stature and past reliability could have been so bad for so long this spring. After a brutal June 8 loss to David Ortiz and the Red Sox, Nathan had an ERA that looked as if it had been typed backward: 7.04.

Now he is behaving like the Nathan who tortured the Tigers for years and who treated other teams almost as cruelly. His remedy was as ironic as the mechanical malady that in earlier games had him walking batters and getting bashed.

He dropped his arm slot. Yes — dropped it. A full 2 inches. You are familiar with most pitchers who find, when times are tough, that they need to “get on top of the ball” and pitch more “downhill”?

Nathan had it backward.

“So minor, yet so huge,” he said, crediting his coaches, Jeff Jones (pitching) and Mick Billmeyer (bullpen), with doing some frame-by-frame video analysis that showed how far and how high Nathan’s delivery had drifted.

“This is the first time in my career something like that happened,” said Nathan, whose ERA (5.79) has at least begun its descent to a destination he can accept. “I never had to worry before about arm angles.”

It was mentioned to Nathan that, given the consistency of his previous 14 big-league seasons, it was natural to wonder if another issue — age — might have become a factor as he prepares for November and a 40th birthday.

Nathan said no, emphatically. His physical conditioning, he insisted, is Marine Corps-grade. He does not believe he has lost anything but a few natural mph from his fastball. In fact, he has been proving during his recent run — no runs, two hits, four strikeouts in his last three appearances covering three full innings — that he might, as he said, “pitch until I’m 50.”

The Tigers would settle for a strong closeout. And, yes, for something along those same lines in 2015, when Nathan will make $10 million, as he is doing this season, and as he will do in 2016 should the Tigers decide to absorb an option year rather than pay him a $1 million parting fee.

It’s an unconventional tale, Nathan’s 2014 season. It has also involved more drama than either Nathan or the Tigers can revisit if their playoff drive is to deliver them into October’s tournament.

Stay tuned. It looks as if he’s back. And if he is, Tigers Nation’s antacid pills can perhaps be tucked away, in the medicine cabinet, rather than be placed conveniently alongside that TV clicker you were threatening to throw through the screen following an earlier blown save.

And, upon further review …

I remember that Thursday morning in December at the winter meetings in Orlando, Fla.

Dave Dombrowski, who had been stymied in his safari for bullpen help, hinted as he and the Tigers left for their flights home that the Tigers might be closing in on a reliever who could be a modest add-on to the bullpen.

A few hours later, we learned Joba Chamberlain was headed for Comerica Park. And some of us (ahem) wrote, several times, the Chamberlain’s signing made no sense. He had been hurt, and ineffective, and he was hardly known for conditioning or for the discipline required by a constructive reliever, which is what the Tigers absolutely needed.

And here they are today, the Tigers and Chamberlain, each feeling exceptionally good about the wisdom of that December deal. Chamberlain, in his last 10 games, has a 1.11 ERA. He has eight strikeouts in 813 innings.

He is also four months from potentially cashing in on a contract of pure gold, which is what a 28-year-old reliever with his fastball and slider (the slider, especially) can expect to grab this autumn.

Some smart moves

Credit to Dombrowski and his scouts, all of whom believed Detroit was just the right place for a pitcher of Chamberlain’s makeup, for a smart move that has helped calm a bullpen known for some past upheaval.

And while we’re at it, the same goes for Phil Coke. The Tigers stuck with him for reasons that seemed foolhardy earlier in the season. But they saw the fastball and the potential for a turnaround and now, it seems, they have a left-hander who on his own quirky timeline is also becoming a plus.

It’s been a weird season. And that it’s only slightly more than half over means interesting times are ahead if you follow baseball in Detroit.


Tigers closer Joe Nathan earned his 18th save Wednesday, striking out two in a scoreless ninth inning. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News
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