By Ashley Dunkak
CBS DETROIT – 39-year-old Detroit Tigers closer Joe Nathan has seen his share of pennant races, and for him, Sept. 1 marks the start of scoreboard watching.
When Nathan spoke last week, after a celebrating Detroit clubhouse had its proverbial parade rained out by news of a walk-off home run by Alex Gordon, he said the Tigers will be watching Kansas City Royals in particular.
“With the pace they’ve set, the Royals here the last – shoot, probably since the All-Star break, you can’t help but take a look at what they’ve been doing and admire it,” Nathan said then. “Unfortunately, we’re the team that’s trying to chase them.”
The Tigers – winners of their last two games, as are the Royals – trail Kansas City by just a half-game for the lead in the American League Central Division, but the Royals have been the hottest team of the second half.
While their unbelievable pace has slowed some, the Royals have yet to set the minds of Tigers fans – and players – at ease.
“We don’t have to scoreboard watch when we’re playing against them, but for the majority of the games, we’re going to be scoreboard watching and seeing how they’re doing,” Nathan said. “It makes it fun, though. I’ve been a part of it a lot, and that’s part of the fun going into September.”
The Tigers entered 2014 as a World Series favorite, cemented expectations by starting 27-12, and looked like a lock for the American League Championship Series when they acquired ace David Price at the deadline.
In reality, Detroit has struggled in stretches, and the heralded starting rotation has not been as wonderful as expected. The Tigers still dwarf the Royals (and most other teams) in offensive statistics, but Kansas City’s pitching has been remarkably solid.
The team’s bullpen has been stellar, putting away games in which the Royals lead and keeping Kansas City within striking distance in games in which the team trails.
With the Royals rising and the Tigers tepid, the division is up for grabs, a status that to most observers would have been inconceivable at the beginning of the season.
“We try to tell other people and tell the fans through you guys that there’s nothing automatic in this game,” Nathan said. “This game is full of unpredictable things that you just can’t guarantee, and just because you look good on paper doesn’t mean you’re going to win it, and we say it every day, every time, we’ve got to go out and we’ve got to earn this thing, but sometimes expectations are what kind of lead the race.
“We knew we had a tough club in the Royals to play against, and the Indians, and this division,” Nathan added. “The Twins play us very tough too. We’re going to have to go out and play good baseball because we’re playing in our division a lot, and we know how tough it’s going to be.”
The Tigers and Royals play each other six more times this season, and Kansas City has what looks like a sure loss on the docket Sept. 22, when the team resumes a suspended game against the Cleveland Indians – a game in which the Royals trailed, 4-2, in the 10th inning.
As vulnerable as the Tigers look, Kansas City has for years been the team with plenty of promise that eventually fails to deliver. The Royals have not reached the playoffs since 1985, before many of their players were born.
This season, however, Nathan said it might not be fair to describe a Tigers-Royals matchup as the experienced veterans versus the young guns.
“How long do you say ‘the young Royals’ when it’s still pretty much the same team I’ve seen come up when I was with the Twins?” Nathan said. “Yeah, they’ve got a few other guys that they’ve pieced in like an unbelievable catcher in [Salvador] Perez and pieces like that, and their pitching staff has changed for the better for them, obviously. Their bullpen’s always been good, but they’re pitching lights-out. But yeah, there’s only so many times you can say the young Royals. They’re veterans.
“The only thing they aren’t veterans in is playing meaningful games in September,” Nathan added. “Only time will tell how they perform, but we hope it’s for the worse.”
He punctuated the final comment with a good-natured laugh, but the sentiment rings true for the Tigers. If the Royals keep winning the way they have – although they have cooled some recently – it would be hard for Detroit to catch them. Even manager Brad Ausmus has conceded that much.
Still, there are several weeks to go. Any notion of a division race could be just a blip on the radar by the time the season concludes. The Tigers could get hot, just as they did at the beginning of the year, and leave the Royals in the dust.
If Detroit does not do that, however, it could be for the best.
Designated hitter Victor Martinez said he thought it could be beneficial for a team to compete in a tight race rather than to seal the deal early, and Nathan agrees that more often than not, the hard-fought victory best prepares a group for the upcoming battle.
“I’ve seen it more times than not help when a team has to grind into a postseason,” Nathan said. “You’ve seen now how many teams climb into the [playoffs] as a wild-card team and end up going to the World Series. I think you see it a lot more that a team does better if they can get into the postseason and have to claw and scratch to get in there.”