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Detroit — The Tigers did what they did, and they certainly felt good about that, their magic number shrinking to two — they can actually clinch a playoff berth today — not long after their lead in Tuesday night's game had shrunk to zero.

But in that gut-wrenching ninth inning, Joe Nathan, the Tigers' veteran reliever, did what you did, whether you were one of the 33,213 in attendance at Comerica Park or at home watching on television or perhaps listening to the radio with your head buried under the covers.

And though this knowledge probably won't make many Tigers' fans feel any better, I'm telling you, it's probably best you follow Nathan's lead at this point.

"I just prepared myself for the worst," he said.

Nathan was talking about staying ready, of course, just in case he was needed. Which he was, in the end, though really what the Tigers need is a closer everyone can trust. One that won't bring the crowd to its feet booing the possibility he'll be brought in from the bullpen to, you know, close a game?

Sure, everyone at the ballpark wanted to see David Price complete that game on his own Tuesday night. And there was not much to debate about Price, who'd thrown just 95 pitches through eight innings, coming back out to start the ninth.

As Torii Hunter put it afterward, "With David Price and a three-run lead you think, 'Oh, we've got this game in hand. But this game is never easy. It's never easy."

Not so fast

No, it's not. But this one grew difficult in a hurry for manager Brad Ausmus, who watched the White Sox string together three hits off Price and slice the lead to 3-2 with one out in the ninth. That brought the Tigers' manager out of the dugout, and with Nathan busy warming up in the bullpen, the crowd immediately made its feelings known.

Whether that reaction was more about sticking with Price or fearing the alternative is subject to debate, I suppose. But assuming the Tigers go on to win the American League Central this week, or even settle for a wild-card berth, this is a subject we'll undoubtedly be revisiting again.

Nathan, with his 4.98 ERA and seven blown saves this season, had allowed 11 baserunners in his last five outings (4 2/3 innings), including the ninth-inning collapse at Minnesota a week ago.

But Ausmus remains steadfast that Nathan's his closer, at least publicly. When I asked the manager later if closer-in-waiting Joakim Soria was available — he'd pitched the last two days — Ausmus said he was. When I asked him if he'd considered going to Soria in the ninth Tuesday, he said no.

So now what?

Well, Ausmus gave his starter — the lefty with arguably the game's sturdiest arm — the chance to close it out himself this time. He asked Price if he felt OK. Price looked him straight in the eye and told him he was good, just as he had last month in the eighth inning of a game against Seattle.

"It might have been the same (conversation), word for word, actually," said Price, who has gone eight innings or more 17 times this season. "I didn't lie. I felt good. Just nothing good happened."

Something did, eventually. But only after Price gave up two more hits and the tying run, and after Nathan came in and walked the bases loaded, and then fell behind the next hitter. Finally, he decided to challenge a hitter, elevating a four-seam fastball to Carlos Sanchez that mercifully landed in the glove of Rajai Davis in center field.

Stress merchants

"That was a little more stressful than we wanted to make it," Ausmus joked afterward, "but we'll take it."

And I'll give them this much. These Tigers have done an admirable job of ignoring all the frayed nerves they've caused over the last several months.

Monday, Ausmus called a team meeting before the Tigers' final homestand. His team promptly responded by getting shut out. Then they followed that up 24 hours later by coughing up a shutout of their own in the ninth, before winning it on Miguel Cabrera's walk-off RBI single. Then they all collectively shrugged it off as just another day at the office.

"I think this team has done a pretty good job with the Texas Cyclone roller coaster we've been on this season," said Nathan, who actually was credited with the win Tuesday. "We've done a pretty good job of keeping this clubhouse where it needs to be, and keeping ourselves positive going down to the wire."

They're almost there now, I know. But just be prepared. For these Tigers, finishing what they've started is never as easy as it should be.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/JohnNiyo

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