By Ashley Dunkak
COMERICA PARK (CBS DETROIT) – Detroit Tigers closer Joe Nathan cautions that he is not out of the woods yet, even after striking out the side in the ninth inning of a one-run game Thursday.
The six-time All-Star had an ERA of 13.50 over his last five appearances going into the series finale against the Kansas City Royals, so one stellar outing hardly erases all doubt about the 39-year-old Nathan.
The verdict on the mechanical adjustment Nathan made this week may not be final, but the results are looking good so far.
“It felt so much easier today,” Nathan said. “It felt like I’d been fighting myself, and I think maybe because of those mechanics I was physically fighting myself out there. I felt like today I was just playing catch and the ball was coming out harder, where every other day I felt like I was busting my butt working so hard and not seeing the location, not seeing the velocity, not seeing anything.
“My mentality is always, ‘All right, just work harder,'” Nathan continued, “and the problem was, where I was mechanically, I couldn’t do anything to get better. It was just coming out and things weren’t sharp. When I located well, they were able to get bat on the ball; even if it wasn’t hit hard, they were able to get bat on the ball, find a hole and create some traffic on the bases.”
When Nathan took the mound Thursday, he did not know exactly what to expect. He had worked on throwing from a different arm slot during the week, and coaches told him the pitches looked better, so he had reason to be optimistic, but he was not getting his hopes up.
“To be honest, I knew it felt okay in the pen, but you don’t know how it’s coming out until you get into the game, so it’s nice to get out there today and see the results, see what everyone’s been telling me,” Nathan said, “because until you see it, people can tell you all they want, but I’ve been around so long I need to see something to believe it.”
The Royals had blasted the Tigers early in the series, scoring 11 runs in each of the first two games. Kansas City had scored just one run Thursday, however, and Nathan needed to keep it that way.
He did. Once he got in the game, it did not take long for him to realize something had clicked.
“I knew right away with location,” Nathan said. “I was down in the zone much easier today, so I knew as far as that, and it felt easier. Like I said, I didn’t feel like I was laboring to get there, so that let me know right away. I could tell it was a lot sharper by swings I was getting.
“I hung, actually, a slider to [Salvador] Perez, but it was after I threw him a really good fastball by him, and I think getting away with a mistake also lets me know my stuff’s better because I wasn’t getting away with anything throughout the course of this season,” Nathan continued, “so it was nice to actually hang one and be like, ‘Oh! He didn’t crush that one!’ So it’s nice to get away with mistakes now too.”
The win snapped a three-game losing streak and allowed the Tigers to avoid a four-game sweep, but for Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, the best part of the game was watching Nathan pitch so well.
“It kind of looked like Joe Nathan from a year ago,” Ausmus said. “In talking to him, he had dropped his arm slot a hair, back to where it normally is, and he said it was much easier for him to keep the ball down. It was crisp. He might have even hit 94 on the radar gun, which is the hardest we’ve seen from him all year. That was really very encouraging at the end.
“That’s the best he’s looked all year, for sure,” Ausmus added. “I’m sure he feels good about it. He should feel good about it. It was a good outing.”