Joe Nathan right to apologize, but saves only thing that will satisfy Tigers fans

Lynn Henning

Saying you’re sorry, no matter how heartfelt are the words, no matter how deeply you understood your offense, will do Joe Nathan little good with Detroit’s baseball world.

That’s because his great insult to the base isn’t so much about an in-your-face chin-wave at Comerica Park’s customers following Wednesday’s game in which Nathan got himself into hot water with a pair of leadoff walks.

It’s about pitching. Bad pitching. Frustratingly bad pitching, with both Nathan and the Tigers fed up and out of answers as to what has gone wrong with an old Tigers tormentor now that he belongs to Detroit.

Nathan’s words Thursday morning at Comerica Park, a couple of hours ahead of a rematch with the Pirates, were uttered with all the fervency expected. Nathan, in fact, is a good and civil gent, as any of his previous teams or followers will tell you.

He was absolutely going to apologize, no matter that he surely had conversations with Tigers staffers ahead of Thursday’s clubhouse reflections. Nathan knows he messed up. Even when fans are lighting into you with verbiage that proves Neanderthals are still with us, you must be above it. You can’t give in to the attackers or you are reduced to their level and a counter-offense occurs, just as it did Wednesday.

The onus is placed on the athlete to keep his cool. Nathan didn’t. He and the Tigers ended up with a first-class crisis Thursday that could only be eased by a long and meaningful act of contrition.

The dark reality for Nathan — and for Detroit’s fans — is that this experience probably is not in the rear-view mirror. In far too many games in 2014, Nathan has been a poor pitcher. He has had his happy interludes. But the story through two-thirds of his first season with the Tigers is that Nathan has been nothing close to the devastating bullpen closer he had been at Minnesota and Texas, where, of course, he tortured teams, none more than the Tigers.

An enemy reliever who seemed almost to delight in destroying Detroit for so many years had now crossed to the other side. And fans were giddy. They were free to love him. They could now relax as he stepped to the mound and wiped out batters in the fashion he had scorched them 30-plus times.

But things have changed, as inevitably would be the case for a man 39. He is not the same pitcher. Not close. The Tigers were correct to believe a star of his power and prowess who had blow-away numbers in 2013 would probably pitch somewhere in the vicinity of his amazing ways as he began work in Detroit. But it looks — and for some time has looked — as if the end is near.

Wednesday night it boiled over. Nathan trotted to the mound with the Tigers leading Pittsburgh, 8-4. It was a non-pressure situation. All a pitcher of his skill and savvy had to do was throw strikes and send everyone home.

Nathan walked the first two batters. And the fans, scarred by so many bullpen breakdowns and by Nathan’s failings, in particular, let him have it. It’s difficult to imagine what he was hearing, but on the one-way street athletes must travel, that’s irrelevant.

It’s difficult to see a happy resolution here. Nathan is struggling so severely to throw strikes and to avoid being ripped by hitters who no longer fear him, the Tigers are likely hoping for the bare minimum.

Get him through 2014. Hope that he’ll be semi-effective in these closing weeks, even if, almost surely, he is on borrowed time as the team’s closer. Joakim Soria should be back from the disabled list in a couple of weeks, while Jim Johnson, recently signed and reviving during his rebirth at Triple A Toledo, looks as if he might make it back to the big leagues and more resemble the Johnson who torched hitters when he was in Baltimore.

The Tigers will worry about 2015 and Nathan during next year’s spring camp. For now, it’s imperative — competitively and politically, given the $10 million owed to him next year, with a $1-million option buyout for 2016 — that he at least survive these 2014 stints and help keep a team afloat.

The customers aren’t confident. They won’t trust Nathan until he can string together strikes and finish games in a way that doesn’t leave their nerves pulverized.

And if that happens, the flak will subside, the early affection will return, and Nathan won’t be tempted to do things that led to Thursday’s apology, as if that truly was what bothers a fan base, which wants only for him to polish off victories as he did when the Tigers — and their followers — were his perpetual victims.