Can the Detroit Tigers trust Joe Nathan? When they signed him this past offseason for 2 years and $20M it felt right. The fit was perfect. Finally the Tigers had a guy that could be trusted to take the ball in the 9th inning in hostile situations and deliver smooth save conversions.
Fast forward to last night.
Anibal Sanchez is twirling a gem with one out in the 9th, holding tight to a 1-0 lead. Coco Crisp slaps a double down the left field line to put a man in scoring position with one out. The hit was merely the 3rd allowed by Sanchez all game, but the pitch that Crisp doubled on was his 111th thrown on the night, one more than his season high.
Manager Brad Ausmus, looking tormented as he approached the mound, had a quick conversation with Sanchez and then signaled for Nathan. It was a reasonable move by Ausmus. After all, that’s why they signed Joe Nathan, for moments exactly like Wednesday night.
Nathan was greeted by the always battling John Jaso who ultimately hit a moderate line drive just to the left of third baseman Nick Castellanos. Inexplicably, the rookie didn’t catch it. Instead the ball glanced off of his glove and put runners on the corners with still only one out.
In comes Josh Donaldson who is hitting the ball as hard as anyone in baseball right now. 394 feet later his game-winning home run landed, giving Oakland a 3-1 win and driving a stake through Sanchez’s heart after one of his best starts as a Tiger.
Given the messy starts of late by the Tigers rotation, Sanchez turned in an ace-like performance against one of the few elite offenses in baseball. 8.1 inning, 3 hits, 1 walk, and 9 K’s is a dream line against any club, let alone the hard-hitting A’s. But it only took six pitches for Nathan to undo his fine work.
Granted, if Castellanos catches Jaso’s liner it’s a different game. Two outs and a man on 2nd feels pretty safe even against a slugger like Donaldson. But the 39-year old Nathan has been around the block a time or two. He’s seen worse. And he failed.
Well then, can he be trusted?
Back to last night. As soon as Nathan got the call from Ausmus I texted a friend and said “60/40 he blows it”. That should tell you about all you need to know from a fan perspective.
In fact, I can count on one hand how many closers there are in baseball that I would’ve had complete confidence in sending into that situation. Aroldis Chapman, Craig Kimbrel, Greg Holland, Kenley Jansen…and that ends the list.
The point is clear; elite, truly lock-down closers are a rare commodity these days. Joe Nathan is still very good. He will save a vast majority of his opportunities. What is troubling is his early backslide with the Tigers. In 2012 and ’13 with Texas he converted 80 out of 86 save chances. So far in Detroit he is 12 of 16, or two-thirds of the way to the number of blown saves he had over two full seasons in Arlington.
Consider that from 2010-‘13, covering 130 regular season save opportunities for the Tigers, the highly criticized Jose Valverde only blew 11 saves.
Nathan is a veteran who should be fine. He operates best with pinpoint fastball control and a wipeout slider, neither of which have been exactly that so far in 2014. He’ll most likely rebound and be a steadying force in the 9th inning for Ausmus, but the rookie manager should take notes and implement the lessons learned come October.
I for one liked Jim Leyland. He was a terrific manager but he occasionally went to his bullpen quicker than I would have liked, especially in the postseason. When the rubber meets the road in October you need to win or lose with your best players and the Tigers’ bread will be buttered by their starting rotation. In them, Ausmus must trust.
In regards to Nathan, it is no time to panic. In regards to Ausmus’ decision-making, let’s hope he is playing for October. Pull Sanchez in this situation in late May? Fine…no worries. Execute similar strategy in October and we’ll have a far bigger problem.
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