Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
On Friday night a familiar situation presented itself to Tigers’ fans. The Tigers were taking a 1-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning against Boston in their first meeting since Boston ousted the Tigers from the playoffs last year, making this game, perhaps, the most meaningful that’s been played so far in the 2014 season. Joe Nathan took the mound, and the Tigers’ faithful peered through split fingers, unable or unwilling to believe that it could be easy. That Nathan could come in and, without drama, end this game with the win. It’s hard to blame them.
It’s been a long time since the Detroit Tigers and their fans had a closer they felt comfortable with. Many of us still have a hard time believing that a save can be earned without mound hopping antics and/or bases-loaded, heart stopping panic leading up to the (barely grasped) final out. Even when Jose Valverde went 49 for 49 and didn’t blow a save for the entirety of the 2011 season, it was never easy. In his perfect season, Valverde gave up 21 runs on 52 hits and 38 walks(four intentional).Of course pitchers, even closers, are human beings. Even the greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera, gave up save blowing home runs to Miguel Cabrera every once and a while. But for the greats like Rivera, those Cabrera homers were the exception, not the rule.
When the 2014 season started and Joe Nathan struggled, then let the words “dead arm” slip from between his lips, Tigers’ fans groaned. We had thought we were getting a closer closer in caliber to Rivera than to Valverde. What happened? For a few games, it seemed as if it would be the same old story. The Tigers’ would have a one, two, maybe even a three run lead, hand the ball over to the closer, and watch the lead shrivel and vanish, taking games that should have ended in nine into extra innings. People were upset, some even jokingly(I hope…) speculated that Nathan and former Twins’ teammate Torii Hunter were undercover operatives, sent by the Twins to sabotage the Tigers from the inside.
But then something happened. Maybe it was the schedule and weather calming down, finally giving the team the opportunity to play regularly, to find a routine and flow. Maybe it was just shaking off the rust, Nathan seemed almost bemused by the public’s reaction to his dead arm comment, so maybe it was just an older player needing a little extra time to find his rhythm. Whatever it was that happened to Nathan, it worked. In his last 10 games, he’s recorded 9 saves(one of the games could not be classified as a save), with a 0.00 ERA, 0R/ER, 3H, 4BB and 9K.
And Friday night? While fans were peering through their fingers, waiting for the other shoe to drop and that well known heartbreak to reappear? Joe Nathan was being Joe Nathan, starting the ninth by sitting the red hot David Ortiz down swinging, and following by getting Mike Napoli and Mike Carp to fly and ground out to end the game. A one-two-three ninth inning in Boston with a one run lead. I’d say the closer we’ve been waiting for has arrived. And just in time.