Nathan pitches perfect ninth, finishes crucial victory for Tigers
Aug 27, 2014 at 12:17a ET
DETROIT -- Everyone knew that Derek Jeter was going to get a huge ovation when he batted for the first time in Tuesday night's game.
The unexpected ovation was the one for Joe Nathan.
A sold-out Comerica Park crowd, which had waited out a 68-minute rain delay before the first pitch, chanted "Let's go, Joe!" as the embattled Tigers closer retired the first batter of the ninth inning. Nathan seemed slightly surprised by the support -- he's heard boos as often as cheers this season -- but he quickly recovered to pitch a perfect ninth and finish Detroit's crucial 5-2 victory over the Yankees.
"I heard them," Nathan said. "I actually sat back for a second and just enjoyed them. Then I told myself that I had to just treat it as white noise and get back to work.
"(Carlos) Beltran is a tough hitter, and I knew I had to focus. But I got him, and I was able to settle into the inning from there."
Nathan has kept the closer's role all season despite a 5.25 ERA, and had allowed at least one baserunner in each of his last seven appearances. He's pitched 10 times in August and his only 1-2-3 innings have both come against the Yankees -- Tuesday at home and Aug. 5 in the Bronx.
On top of that, he angered many Detroit fans with a dismissive chin-flick gesture after they booed him earlier this month. He's hoping that Tuesday's cheers mean that he's finally been forgiven.
"It is a good feeling to know that we're on the right track to hopefully mending and erasing a mistake that I made," he said. "I want to put that behind us and concentrate on a very difficult task -- winning this division and making the playoffs -- so it was very nice to hear that tonight."
On a lot of teams, Nathan's rough year would have cost him the closer's role, but manager Brad Ausmus is a firm believer that a contending team has to have a ninth-inning pitcher with experience as a closer, so he's never seriously considered moving Joba Chamberlain into the role.
The Tigers do have three other pitchers in their system that are "proven" closers, but Joakim Soria got hurt shortly after joining the team, Jim Johnson has been ineffective and Joel Hanrahan was never able to get healthy enough to make it to Detroit.
That leaves Nathan.
"It would really be a great side-story if Joe could run the gamut here in the last 30 games and endear him to Tigers fans again," Ausmus said. "That incident (the chin-flick) was obviously a mistake, and he's talked to the media and apologized.
"He wants to perform well and I'm sure that, like any ballplayer, he was happier to hear cheers than boos tonight."
Unfortunately for the Tigers, Nathan's successor as Minnesota's closer didn't have the same kind of night. With Detroit poised to pull within a half-game of the Royals atop the AL Central, Glen Perkins allowed a leadoff single in the ninth to Alcides Escobar, then hung a slider that Alex Gordon blasted for a game-winning homer.
"Kansas City is playing really, really good baseball, and all we can do is continue to go out and win as many games as we can," Nathan said moments after the Tigers saw Gordon's homer. "At the end of the day, we'll see how the results turn out."