By Ashley Dunkak
@AshleyDunkak

COMERICA PARK (CBS DETROIT) – The road of the 2014 regular season included more bumps than expected, both for the Detroit Tigers as a team and for new Tigers closer Joe Nathan, who joined the team as a free agent in the offseason.

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Despite occasional jarrings, however, the Tigers won the American League Central Division, and Nathan got Detroit the final three outs of Game 162.

The Tigers offense had managed to scrape together a three-run lead Sunday, and when Nathan entered in the top of the ninth, fêted by the dramatic introduction video that suddenly seemed more goose-bump-inducing than cheesy, he did exactly what the crowd wanted.

As fans chanted “Let’s go, Joe! Let’s go, Joe!” and stood together, Nathan threw a one-two-three inning, sealing the deal for Detroit, which has now won the division in four straight seasons.

“To be in this situation is what I came here for,” Nathan said, smiling as he spoke over the music in the champagne-drenched clubhouse. “Guys stepped up. We’re stronger for having gone through what we’re gone through. We know we’ve got a tough task ahead of us in Baltimore, with their home field advantage, but we’re going to enjoy this one tonight. After a grind, a grind of a season, we’re going to enjoy it.”

For Nathan in particular, this season has been a rather difficult one. Nathan, a six-time All-Star, came to Detroit from the Texas Rangers, where in 2013 he recorded an ERA of 1.39, cementing a reputation as one of baseball’s premier closers.

The 39-year-old struggled to live up to his own lofty standards upon his arrival in Detroit. Over the first three months of the season, Nathan recorded a 6.37 ERA over 29 2/3 innings. Many fans disapproved of him remaining the closer and expressed themselves by booing during the pitcher’s appearances at Comerica. In one instance, Nathan heard booing begin as soon as he came out of the bullpen, heard it increase dramatically after he threw a ball, and – once he got out of the inning without surrounding a run – responded to the crowd with a chin flick that further soured an already tenuous relationship with aggravated fans.

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Nathan apologized quickly and repeatedly for that indiscretion, but more likely to earn the forgiveness of fans is the improvement Nathan has experienced in the season’s second half.

After turning in ERAs of 5.59 in April, 5.40 in May and 9.00 in June, Nathan recorded averages of 3.00 in July, 3.48 in August and 3.00 in September. He has 34 saves this year and has not allowed an earned run in his last four outings.

Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski spoke Sunday, after Detroit clinched the division. The usually besuited Dombrowski wore a team T-shirt, shorts and Reebok flip-flops as he expressed confidence in Nathan – and conceded that the ninth inning is generally a stressful one for him regardless of which pitcher works for those final outs.

“The role of a closer makes me uneasy right off the bat because every time they come in, it’s a close game,” Dombrowski said. “I don’t know about you – if it’s 3-2 I don’t care who’s in the game … It’s a tough job, and in Joe’s case, he’s had some ups and downs, but he’s also stepped up – he’s got a lot of saves … He’s been through the battles before and I think he’ll pitch well for us in the postseason.

“I thought we were [getting a shutdown closer in Nathan], and he has not had quite the same year as what you’d have expected, but in the end, it’s what do you do today,” Dombrowski continued. “I’ve had shutdown closers that haven’t felt real comfortable pitching in the postseason, I will tell you that. That’s not the case here. We’re in a situation where I think he’ll step up and do well for us.”

Teammates, who have supported Nathan throughout the season, agree with Dombrowski.

“Obviously you have years where you struggle,” reliever Joba Chamberlain said. “That’s this game, but [Nathan] still held strong for us. He was our anchor in our bullpen all year, no matter what he was going through. He always held us together, and he made us a stronger group, and I think for that we became stronger toward the end, and it’s not necessarily how start. It’s how you finish, and we’re going to carry this momentum into everything.”

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