July 21, 2014 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Ilitch must bolster Tigers bullpen to make good on promise

Detroit — Mike Ilitch sat in his Comerica Park suite and waved to the crowd as it serenaded him on his 85th birthday. He looked good on a day of great promise, with the unveiling of dramatic plans for a $650-million Red Wings arena and entertainment complex.

It’s unclear if Ilitch stuck around for the ninth inning, because a man who loves to build knows how hard it is to finish. The bullpen did it this time, with Joba Chamberlain and Joe Nathan pitching two scoreless innings as the Tigers averted a sweep and beat the Indians, 5-1.

Their first-place lead is back to 5˝ games and another sellout crowd was satiated, for now. Of all Ilitch’s grand projects, this is the one he needs to see to completion, virtually at any cost. GM Dave Dombrowski watched from a suite one level below, surely contemplating how big a move he has to make before the non-waiver trade deadline July 31.

Frankly, I think it has to be a big, bold one (or two). If that means surrendering top prospects or paying top dollar for a reliever (or two), the Tigers have to do it. They can’t risk heading toward October with a battered bullpen and an incomplete team.

Dombrowski has patiently waited to see if Nathan could work through his issues, and after a mechanical adjustment a month ago, he has improved. But he gave up three runs in the ninth inning of a tie game the night before, and the fans’ angst gurgled back to the surface. Nathan zipped through the Indians in the ninth inning Sunday and has started finding his command –— 17 strikeouts, three walks in his last 11 innings — so there are hints of progress.

But he’s a long, long way from the dominant Nathan the Tigers hoped they were getting. He’s 39 and still tough when his slider is working, but he’s not yet dependable, and there’s no guarantee he’ll get there.

That’s why there’s no guarantee he’ll be the closer the rest of the way. Brad Ausmus backs him, as he should. Dombrowski desperately wants to back him, but if he can get Joakim Soria from the Rangers, or Joaquin Benoit from the Padres, or both, he’d have to do it. Chamberlain has been tremendous in the eighth inning and the Tigers don’t want to mess that up, which also makes Nathan’s spot more tenuous.

“I’m way too old to worry about that stuff,” Nathan said. “I’ve done too much in this game, in my career, to be unfair to myself and beat myself up over that kind of stuff.”

Bullpen can't wait

Nathan is baseball’s active saves leader, so he knows all about pressure. But he usually doesn’t have to wonder about his role.

I asked if it would bother him if the Tigers traded for a closer, and he shook his head.

“If that’s what we need to win games, we’re about getting to the playoffs and ultimately winning this whole thing,” he said. “That’s why I came here. … I know my stuff’s better. I’m still that same guy, and hopefully the timing works out and we get to the playoffs and I’m pitching my best then.”

Patience can be prudent, but it also can be painful. And costly. Just 11 days before the deadline, Dombrowski can’t hide his bullpen problem much longer. Of course, it helps when the Tigers’ vaunted starters pitch deep into games, something they must do more regularly. Drew Smyly delivered seven stellar innings Sunday, which nicely set up the Joba-Joe combo.

Chamberlain has been the only reliable bullpen guy, which is why the Tigers might add two relievers. Other contenders already made big trades, adding top pitchers such as Jeff Samardzija (A’s) and Huston Street (Angels).

Closing strong

Maybe it was just a birthday coincidence Ilitch was there, looking hearty in a suit and tie as he recovers from an undisclosed medical procedure. He doesn’t speak publicly as much, but that doesn’t mean the championship urgency has lessened. Whatever guidelines the Tigers tried to follow in the offseason to adjust their significant payroll can’t be stringent now.

This has been a World Series favorite all season, and other teams know what the Tigers are missing. Dombrowski won’t exactly be dealing from a position of strength. The best thing about having title aspirations is knowing you’re capable of it. The worst part is, everything is viewed through that narrow prism, and every rumored trade has to be the immediate answer.

When a team has been trying to win it all for nearly a decade, tough decisions, even ruthless decisions, sometimes have to be made. For instance, if the Tigers can land Soria, he’s been so dominant closing games — 42 strikeouts, four walks in 31 innings — wouldn’t they want to keep him in that role here? Last season in Texas, Soria was the setup guy for Nathan, who was brilliant then.

“This isn’t about me, or where I’m at, or what I need to do,” Nathan said. “I’ve been around the game a long time. I know as bad as things can get, they can also turn around real quick. The point of playing this season is to get to the playoffs, and if you make it, what you did the first 162 doesn’t matter.”

We’re approaching legacy-polishing time for some on this team, and certainly for the owner. Ilitch has proven, with determination and the right resources, almost anything can be built, but not everything can be bought, or won. It’s about closing the deal, in baseball and business, and very soon, the Tigers will have to close it strong.


Joba Chamberlain has been the Tigers' only reliable guy in the bullpen, mostly proving lights-out in the eight inning. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News
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