September 3, 2014 at 11:50 pm

Tigers closer Joe Nathan appears to, finally, be finding groove

Cleveland — This is one of those fate-tempting notes. You know the kind.

As soon as you think it, but especially as soon as you write it, the reverse happens.

But here goes.

If Joe Nathan’s ERA drops as much with his next outing — or even close to as much — as it did with his 29th save on Tuesday night in the Tigers’ 4-2 victory over the Indians, it will be under 5.00 for the first time since May 28.

More than three months, in other words.

That’s how rough a road it has been for the Tigers’ closer this year. He dug himself a hole from which it’s taken forever to climb.

But while dealing with other problems, such as the one Nathan acknowledged he caused by gesturing to the fans, his performances on the field have become less erratic.

Of his last 15 save situations since June 25, he’s blown just one. But he also lost a game by giving up three runs to Cleveland on July 19.

In his last 23 appearances, therefore, Nathan is 0-1 with 14 saves and a 3.63 ERA.

Considering that in his first 23 appearances as a Tiger he was 2-2 with 13 saves, four blown saves and a 6.86 ERA, his season has settled down considerably.

In fact, when Nathan emerged from the trainers’ room after Tuesday night’s game, he viewed it as a sign of welcome normalcy that no writers were at his locker with questions about how good it felt to save a game uneventfully.

With a two-run lead, Nathan retired Michael Bourn on the first pitch, Jose Ramirez on the third and after a two-out single by Michael Brantley, Carlos Santana flied out to center on a 1-0 count to end the game.

It was an efficient 11-pitch save — without any hint of “here we go again” when Brantley singled.

So do we dare say that the turmoil which has surrounded Nathan, whether performance or gesture generated, has finally settled down?

Well, let’s just say that through Tuesday night’s game, it is trending in that direction.

“It’s gone pretty well for some time now,” Nathan said. “I don’t think last night was the start of it.”

That’s not to say there aren’t more white-knuckle rides to come, though.

“Everyone talks about being on the edge of their seat when he’s closing,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “But closing is a tough situation.

“Shoot, you’re on the edge with every closer. It’s a one, two or three-run game. That’s why he is in there. Of course, you are on the edge.

“There are very few Mariano Riveras around here.”

What has made Nathan more effective than he was earlier?

“It’s always about location,” he said. “Obviously we wish we could have the same stuff we came into the league with, and to have that stuff for 20 years, but that’s not being realistic — or being fair with yourself.

“You have to be honest with yourself about things you can and can’t do, but some things stay the same. That’s why I say it’s always about location and trusting your stuff.

And while Nathan at 39 isn’t going to say he throws as well as he did at 29, he believes he has “plenty enough” to succeed while remembering “not to be too fine, or trying to be perfect.”

Does that sound as if a pitcher who’s been in the majors since 1999 and recently passed Jeff Reardon to climb into seventh place on the all-time saves list with 370 has learned a lesson this late in his career?

Could be.

“Hey, what’s the one thing you always hear from baseball players?” said Nathan. “You will be learning something until you’re done playing — and even when you’re done, if you’re a fan of the game, you still can learn.

“Sometimes reality comes and shows you the truth in that. You need to continue to learn, to adjust — and even then, (good) results don’t always happen. Sometimes the guy on the other side of the diamond is going to be better than you.

“But I’ve gone my whole career trying not to worry so much about results,” said Nathan, “as much as controlling what I can.”

And what he can control has ended more favorably for Nathan lately.

But with an ERA that’s still high while it is falling, he’s not up and out of the hole yet.

Around the horn

Going into Wednesday night’s game, Ausmus called catcher Alex Avila “usable” after Avila had to come out in the sixth inning on Tuesday night because of the dizziness and headaches caused by a hard foul off his mask.

“I just thought it was probably smarter not to throw him back there and maybe take another shot 24 hours since the last one,” Ausmus said.

... Joakim Soria threw 25 pitches off a mound as he continues to recover from a left oblique strain. Before rejoining the Tigers, though, Soria will have to throw at least one more bullpen session and probably follow that with a simulated game.

... Why not a start for prospect James McCann on Wednesday night with Avila out?

“He’s not as familiar with our pitchers (as Bryan Holaday) or with opposing hitters,” said Ausmus said. “In the middle of a pennant race, it wouldn’t be fair to McCann or to our pitchers.”

... For hitting .350 with six home runs and 30 RBI, Victor Martinez was named the American League’s Player of the Month for August. It’s the first time he’s been named Player of the Month.

tom.gage@detroitnews.com
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Of his last 15 save situations since June 25, Tigers closer Joe Nathan has blown just one. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News