Tigers must make Joakim Soria closer before title bid blows up

Lynn Henning

Minneapolis – In coffee shops, at your cubicle, in chance meetings at grocery stores, in countless gab fests on your cell phone, today’s merry Metro Detroit and state of Michigan topic should have been J.D. Martinez’s gallant ninth-inning home run Tuesday that sent the playoff-closing Tigers to an indelible victory over the Twins.

But another subject outlasted Martinez’s stirring exploits Tuesday.

The Tigers bullpen and, specifically, Joe Nathan.

His blow-up in the ninth inning, following a weekend of escape acts against the Indians, and too many such incidents in 2014, have made for an uncomfortable but necessary decision by the Tigers.

Nathan requires replacing. Joakim Soria, whom the Tigers paid heavily to bring to Detroit by way of a July trade, can, and really must, become the Tigers’ remedy for a closer’s job that Nathan no longer can handle nine weeks before he turns 40.

The Tigers cannot stop there. They have a back-end bullpen situation that is equally toxic. And they have a potential antidote: Anibal Sanchez, who has made a sudden recovery from his pectoralis ills and who is about to rejoin a pitching staff that will not need five starters, assuming – if the bullpen doesn’t decide otherwise – the Tigers make the playoffs.

The Tigers will resist. They do not want role issues distracting from their focus on winning a fourth consecutive division title. They will not want to remove Nathan, a proud, stand-up reliever of immense past accomplishment who is in the middle of a $21-million contract and whose only slip-up in 2014 is that he is like everyone else in the world: He is declining because of age.

Baseball rarely accommodates players on the cusp of 40. Baseball even more rarely allows a player two months from 40 to compete at a level he maintained in earlier years. Nathan is nothing more than a high-profile example in how and why big-league careers are almost always over at this point in a man’s life.

Nathan’s fastball has all but vanished. His slider, his one trustworthy pitch, is often sharp. But no closer relies on a slider. Unless you are Mariano Rivera with a cutter from another realm, closers are strikeout pitchers who miss bats and who jar any hitter who makes contact with an overpowering, closeout repertoire.

Age issues

Tuesday night’s ninth inning was a portrait of what happens to aging pitchers who no longer hammer batters or get strikeouts that vanquish potential big innings.

Nathan got the first out of the Twins ninth on a ground ball. So far, so good for Detroit and its closer.

But Nathan, as too often has been his ominous pattern in 2014, steered away from the next man, Trevor Plouffe, and his power (14 home runs in 2014) and walked Plouffe. It must be noted: In his last 14 outings, Nathan has walked nine batters and struck out six. It’s a dramatic statement about how a man’s former gun-slinging, shutdown ways have become history.

To the next hitter Tuesday, Kurt Suzuki, Nathan threw an 0-and-1 slider that hung high enough for Suzuki to mash on a line at center fielder Ezequiel Carrera. He, ironically, was part of an outfield rearrangement designed to boost Detroit’s defense in the ninth.

Carrera got overly brave and tried to make a diving catch. The ball skipped past him and his glove and rolled to the fence. Game tied. After another groundout, Aaron Hicks took Nathan to 3-and-2 (so often, Nathan deals with three-ball counts) before spanking a grounder up the middle that was gloved by Andrew Romine.

But there was no shot at nailing the fleet Hicks. Chris Herrmann, a pinch-runner who had moved to third on the second-out ground ball, scored. Game over. Martinez-spawned party in Motown, also over.

What should have been a historic night, a testament to a hot Tigers team and to its September surge and playoff march, a celebration of the heist Detroit pulled off in signing the abandoned Martinez in March, instead became an indictment of Detroit’s two most serious soft spots: a bullpen you cannot trust, and outfield defense that has been compromised by the departure of Austin Jackson.

The Tigers say all the proper, supportive things about Nathan. In fact, he has 32 saves on the season. But he also has an unfathomable ERA of 5.10 and his WHIP, a better barometer of a pitcher’s effectiveness, is 1.58, or about 50-percent above that carried by most quality closers.

The Tigers have had three seasons of September-October bullpen issues. Jose Valverde nearly cost them a division series, and threatened their ALCS bid against the Yankees, when he disintegrated in 2012. A year ago, it was an infamous eighth-inning bullpen meltdown, with Joaquin Benoit inheriting a mess and getting socked by David Ortiz’s grand slam, which blew away what could have been a Game 2 ALCS death knell for the Red Sox and might have pushed Detroit to a World Series parade the Red Sox instead held.

Now, after too many years of their farm system failing to produce back-end bullpen help, they are dealing with another crisis that cannot be wished or prayed or rationalized into not existing.

Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers’ front-office chief, has spent the past year piecing together one transaction after another designed to cure his bullpen virus: Nathan, Joba Chamberlain, Joel Hanrahan, Jim Johnson, Soria, etc. There have been interludes when everything came together. Chamberlain, for example, had a smashing first half and now has been the one getting smashed during his risky shifts.

Nathan was able to hold it together long enough and well enough to handle most ninth-inning missions from June into this month. But, again, at some point a man of his vintage was going to unravel. And clearly the time, if it hasn’t arrived, is casting an enormous shadow on him and his team.

Don’t wait to change

Soria remains the answer for the ninth. His work in Monday’s game – relaxed, efficient, one hit allowed on a good pitch – is consistent with what he did for the Rangers ahead of July’s expensive trade.

Make him the closer. Now. And if not today, for reasons the Tigers will not embrace – they are true practitioners of faith, hope, and charity – they may risk a playoff ticket they absolutely deserve to punch. If they wait to make the kind of call the Tigers made two years ago with Valverde, after he was sacked with back-to-back meltdowns in Oakland and New York, they are tempting fate and endangering a playoff run they have worked steadily, and spent mightily, to fulfill.

Chamberlain is a secondary character here, but there is no reason to believe he is any more reliable than Nathan. Sanchez is the Tigers’ best option as a late-innings substitute.

Sanchez has the pitches and the comportment to pitch relief. He has been on the shelf for six weeks and is dying to become part of the Tigers’ late push toward at least a playoff seat. Unlike Justin Verlander, who is not suited to bullpen work either in terms of his repertoire or his personality, Sanchez could become, alongside Soria, a double-switch that turns one team’s frightening weakness into a surprising strength.

If the Tigers see a different scenario, go for it. But I don’t. And it’s doubtful, deep within their seasoned baseball minds, they seriously disagree.