By Ashley Dunkak
CBS DETROIT – The Detroit Tigers bullpen looked questionable going into the season, and 59 games in, questions remain.
Expected to be the most reliable reliever for Detroit this season, six-time All-Star closer Joe Nathan has an ugly ERA of 7.04. The Tigers signed Nathan during the offseason after bullpen woes derailed their World Series bid in 2013. Recently, however, the 39-year-old Nathan has faltered.
After a shaky beginning to the year, Nathan enjoyed a 10-game stretch from April 20 to May 16 in which he did not allow a run, but his ERA over his last eight appearances is 17.05.
While Nathan’s inconsistency has been a problem, the bullpen as a whole has an ERA of 4.77, the worst in the major leagues.
Joba Chamberlain, who has otherwise been quite solid for Detroit, gave up a three-run blast to David Ortiz in Sunday’s loss to the Boston Red Sox.
With that big hit included, the Tigers have allowed 46 runs over 51 2/3 innings of ninth-inning work this season, the most in the major leagues by a large margin and more than they allowed throughout the entire seasons of 2011, 2009 and 2006.
“You certainly don’t want to be giving up runs like that in the ninth inning,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said Sunday. “I’m not overly concerned about it, but it’s got to stop at some point. I do think Joe’s going to find his, get his groove back, so to speak, and be fine, and I think once Joe returns to form, those numbers will come back to earth.”
Tigers fans can only hope. Among 29 other teams, only four have given up more than 30 ninth-inning runs. No other team has given up more than 40. Detroit is currently on pace to allow 126 ninth-inning runs this season. In the extremely unlikely event that happens, the total would be more than double the average of ninth-inning runs allowed by the Tigers in each season over the past 10 years.
After Nathan helped the Tigers in Friday’s win over Boston, he seemed confident he had figured out how to get back in rhythm.
“I stayed tall today,” Nathan said after pitching a scoreless ninth. “That was the one thing I was really concentrating on. I think I almost forgot that I was 6-4, 6-5, and throwing downhill has always been my strength, so today just really tried to focus on staying over the rubber, staying tall and using angle.
“I think I’ve gotten away from it in part probably trying to do a little bit too much, trying to do more than I have to as opposed to staying within myself,” Nathan continued. “So today just tried to have whatever was in my arm today and just be more mechanically sound and staying tall and working angles, and obviously working ahead in the count was key.”
On Saturday, Nathan gave up two earned runs, but the Tigers won regardless, 8-6.
On Sunday, in the finale of the three-game series, Ausmus did not use Nathan since he had pitched in each of the last two games. Instead the Tigers went with Chamberlain, who gave up the game-winning homer to Ortiz.
At least for now, Ausmus believes that incident was an anomaly.
“Joba’s been outstanding for us all year, ” Ausmus said. “Since that one outing in Los Angeles against the Dodgers, he’s been outstanding. He pitched the last couple days, going today, so I think he was a little tired, but it’s just one of those things. What are you going to do? He came up against a very good hitter, and the hitter won.”
That has been the case more often than not for Detroit when it comes to the ninth inning, and with an inconsistent closer and a relief staff with the game’s worst collective ERA, the bullpen problems seem likely to continue hampering the Tigers.