DETROIT — The booing that closer Joe Nathan heard as he walked off the mound Tuesday night wasn’t deafening or some edict from Detroit Tigers fans that he must be replaced. But there were enough boos to let him know he was failing.
When asked about the fan response, Nathan said, "Fortunately, I don’t give a s*** about that. They can boo me all they want."
He added that the fans can feel they are being tough on him if they choose, but he added, "I’m way tougher on myself."
Nathan was trying to make the point that he’s his own worst critic, but the comment isn’t going to win him any patience with the fans among the 33,488 at Comerica Park who did not boo. And it will make those who jeered him Tuesday night during a 5-3 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays boo even louder if he fails again.
He has saved 354 games in the majors — good for No. 9 on the all-time list. He entered the season having been successful 90 percent of the time to rank just ahead of Mariano Rivera as the most dependable closer the game has known.
But he’s 13 for 17 in save opportunities in his first season with the Tigers — who signed him for two years at $10 million. A 76-percent success rate isn’t going to cut it. Neither is the 6.86 ERA he now owns.
However, he’d been sailing along quite nicely until the past six outings. Nathan is 0-2 (with two saves) and a 20.77 ERA in those half dozen appearances. He’s given up nine hits (two homers) and walked three in 4 1/3 innings.
Tigers manager Brad Ausmus was asked if he’d stay with Nathan as his closer, and he didn’t exactly provide a ringing endorsement.
"I certainly wouldn’t answer that right now," Ausmus said. "I would talk to Joe before I made that public knowledge."
When asked if there was a possibility Nathan could be shelved as the closer, Ausmus said, "I didn’t say that. Somebody asked me if there was (a chance). I never said anything. I just said I wouldn’t make it public before I talked to anybody."
Nathan said there were times when he actually asked Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire to take him out of the closer role until he could regain sharpness.
"I’ve pitched worse than this," said Nathan. "Trust me."
But when asked if he might ask Ausmus for a break at this point, Nathan didn’t hesitate.
"Not at all," he said. "I’m throwing the ball way too good."
Nathan said his right arm had been "dinged" recently and credited team trainers with getting him on the mound. But he added, "I feel as good as ever right now."
He walked leadoff hitter Anthony Gose on a close full-count pitch, and gave up an opposite-field single to Jose Reyes before getting Melky Cabrera to pop out with runners on the corners. Then Jose Bautista hit what could’ve been an inning-ending double play. Tigers shortstop Andrew Romine said the ball he appeared to have shouldn’t have gotten through.
But that strange single scored only one run, and J.D. Martinez would hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth for Detroit.
However, Nathan’s night was over when Edwin Encarnacion walked on a full-count pitch that easily could have been ruled strike three instead of a checked swing. Nathan also was frustrated by a near pick-off of Reyes at third base on which the runner was ruled safe. His frustration was clear, and it was time for him to come out.
Al Alburquerque came in and another run scored on a sacrifice fly. Then Brett Lawrie tagged Alburquerque for a three-run homer, and two of those runs were charged to Nathan.
Nathan, 39, said Derek Lowe once told him the tough thing about getting older is that everybody thinks you can figure everything out for yourself. But Nathan said having "other eyes" on you helps, and Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones helped him considerably with a post-game conversation.
Nathan said, "Jeff Jones said, ‘I’ve seen some bad luck, and then I’ve seen what’s happened with you the last week.’"
And Nathan has asked himself, "What is going on with me now? Do I need to go to church more…say more prayers?
"With us, results are so important. But sometimes, we have to take a step back and say, ‘Results aren’t everything.’"
I don’t give a s*** about that. They can boo me all they want.
However, Joba Chamberlain, who pitched a 1-2-3 eighth inning, hasn’t allowed a run in his past 10 appearances and has lowered his earned run average to 2.59.
Nothing shakes the confidence of a team more than a struggling closer. Jose Valverde is a recent reminder of that.
Nathan is no Valverde, though.
Nathan has good stuff and a longer track record of success. Nathan was 6-2 with a 1.39 ERA and 43 saves just last year for the Texas Rangers.
He added that he didn’t care if he had an "18.00 ERA" if the team won. But Nathan also took a deep breath and said, "No excuses. I’ve just got to get better."