By Ashley Dunkak
COMERICA PARK (CBS DETROIT) – Leaning back in a cushy chair by his locker in the newly re-carpeted Detroit Tigers clubhouse, 39-year-old Joe Nathan did not look like a particularly high-strung individual. In fact, he seemed completely relaxed, an easy smile often popping up as he answered questions Sunday, the day before his first Opening Day at Comerica Park.
He has 13 years of major league baseball under his belt, but Nathan still gets butterflies – and not just for the season’s first game, either.
“I get nervous every time I get out there – forget Opening Day, it could be Game 152 and we’re up 10 games,” Nathan said. “I still get nervous when I get out there, for sure.”
As odd as it might sound, Nathan said Sunday he looked forward to feeling those nerves. In eight spring training games this year, Nathan recorded an ERA of 4.70, but as with many other players, those statistics do not necessarily match his regular season performance. Nathan’s ERA has been 2.10 or lower in five of the last seven seasons. In 2013, Nathan’s ERA was 1.39. The nerves, he believes, help him out.
“I need that adrenaline rush to try and get where I need to be, and in spring, it’s almost like I’m searching for it,” Nathan said. “I’m looking for some energy out there, so I’m looking forward to [Monday] having some nervous energy and having that excitement of stepping on the mound when it counts.”
He might look calm on the field, but any sign of serenity is usually just part of a carefully crafted facade.
“I try to appear that way when I get out there,” Nathan said with a smile. “It’s not like because I’ve got adrenaline I’m going to start going crazy. I still try to appear very laid-back, but under the surface, things are definitely churning.”
Over the years, Nathan has found that those feelings are part of the process, and he uses the nerves to his advantage. With them, he pitches better.
“I always tell people, you better be able to control – not so much control, but let that feeling be a part of you,” Nathan said. “Use it as positive energy because it allows you to do things that you normally could not do if you didn’t have them. It allows you to push your body a little bit further than you think you can. For me, it’s always about using it to a positive and not a negative.”
Nathan played for San Francisco, Minnesota and Texas in his career before signing with Detroit this past offseason. He will be the team’s closer, and so far he is the only reliever with a defined role. Bruce Rondon was expected to be the setup man, but he needs Tommy John surgery and so is out for the entire season. With that development, questions about the bullpen grew dramatically.
None of that bothers Nathan too much, particularly the concern from outside the team.
“Sounds like a familiar tune that just keeps playing over and over again,” Nathan said Sunday. “It seems like, shoot, I’m waiting for one year where someone goes, ‘Wow, the bullpen is really solid,’ because I’ve never heard that. Every team I’ve been on, every year, it’s been the same tune. All you can do is go out and perform. Just because there’s some younger guys, some new guys, doesn’t mean you can’t get it done.
“For me, the most important thing is for guys to relax,” Nathan continued. “We’ve got to go down there, continue to have fun. When the bell calls and it’s time to go to work, then you can become serious, but try to stay as relaxed as you can down there. We’ve got guys down there that I think we’re going to have some fun and hopefully take some heat off of the guys that are going out there and getting put into some pressure-packed situations. Like I said, even though there’s a question mark, it doesn’t mean that we’ll be the weak link. It just we’ve got to go out and have some guys step up and get it done.”