By Ashley Dunkak

COMERICA PARK (CBS DETROIT) – Entering Thursday’s game against the Cleveland Indians, new Detroit Tigers closer Joe Nathan had allowed runs in three of his five appearances this season, and those subpar performances contributed to an early but ominous ERA of 9.64.

On Thursday, Nathan looked more like the steady bullpen veteran the Tigers desperately need, retiring three straight batters in the ninth inning and preserving a victory for Detroit, which prevailed 7-5.

“I felt like I was finishing pitches a lot better,” Nathan said. “Hopefully that’s a sign that things are getting stronger for me, and usually it is with location for me. If I’m a little off, that usually means something’s not feeling right mechanically or physically, but the last couple times out, everything’s seemed to be in sync.

“Command was the key today, especially with my fastball,” Nathan continued. “I was able to go in and out with it, get [Carlos] Santana on a good fastball inside, be able to run a couple inside on [Mike] Aviles on the first at bat, run a two-seamer to kind of jump him back off the plate and then get him out with a slider away and mix in some off-speed pitches. I was even able to sprinkle in a couple of change-ups. I think that might be the first time I’ve ever done that in a two-run game.”

Nathan entered the game after a solid inning and a third from fellow reliever Joba Chamberlain, who in the last few games has appeared to settle down after a rough couple of first outings as a Tiger. Detroit manager Brad Ausmus appreciated Nathan’s performance.

“Good, clean inning, great location today,” Ausmus said. “He was hitting the corners, which is what he did so well last year. He had a tough at bat against Santana and was able to get him, but really overall it was a good inning. Good inning, good outing.”

For the bullpen as a whole, Ausmus had slightly less enthusiasm. Though the trio of Phil Coke, Chamberlain and Nathan did not give up a run, Al Alburquerque and Ian Krol each let one by, allowing the Indians to reduce Detroit’s three-run lead to one.

“For the most part they all did very well,” Ausmus said. “They held the lead.”

Nathan elaborated on the iffy situation of the Tigers bullpen, which could be tested thoroughly Friday when Drew Smyly will likely be on a strict pitch count in his first turn as a starter after spending last season as a reliever. While the bullpen looked decent Thursday, Nathan evaluated the group as one that still has plenty of improvement to make.

“We’ve got work to do,” Nathan said. “We didn’t get off to the start we wanted to. This is a marathon, not a sprint. We know we’re going to get stronger. We know we’ll get better. Last couple nights have been good for us. [As] we go along here, we’ll start to learn when guys are going to go in the game and when their role is going to be called upon, so that’ll help with preparation and getting yourself mentally ready to go in. Always weird, with the start of the season, figuring out where you’re going to be, and then you’ve got young guys, too, trying to figure themselves out at this level also, and then some veteran guys that didn’t get off to a start that they wanted to, so that mix calls for a rough start for a pen, but keep plugging along.”

“We know we’ve got to be better,” Nathan added. “If we’re going to have a chance to win, we’ve all got to start picking it up and stepping up and throwing the ball where we want to.”


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