DETROIT — It would have understandable if 35,715 Tigers fans cringed when they saw Joe Nathan heading for the mound in the ninth inning Thursday afternoon.
After all, Detroit only had a 2-1 lead, and the 39-year-old closer has a 13.50 thus far in June. And, the way the Tigers are playing, if anything could go wrong, it probably would.
Fifteen pitches later, the worrying was over.
Nathan struck out Billy Butler, Salvador Perez and Lorenzo Cain without giving up as much as a loud foul ball, ending the game — and Kansas City’s 10-game winning streak — with a nasty slider that Cain missed by a foot.
For one of those hitters, it felt like the bad old days were back.
That looked like Joe Nathan from a year ago.
"That was the same Joe Nathan that I’ve been facing for years," said Butler, who first batted against him in 2008. "That looked like the guy with hundreds of saves and a bunch of All-Star Games."
Nathan has been working extensively with Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones to try to find the velocity and command that have been a problem all season. In the last few days, that work seemed to have paid off.
"I felt great," Nathan said with the biggest smile anyone has seen from him in a while. "I’ve been working really hard to fix the things that have gone wrong, and this week in the bullpen, we found something that really seemed to help."
The problem seems to have been a tiny mechanical issue, but Nathan knows that, as simple as throwing a ball might seem, it doesn’t take much to gum up the works.
"Somehow along the way, my arm slot got a little higher than it has been in the past," he said. "We just tried to go out there and consciously make an effort to get it down and away from myself — get my arm away from my body."
Nathan also had to get his head right, but not in the sense of self-belief or confidence. He literally needed to fix the position of his skull.
"I have to keep my head in line," he said. "That’s the biggest thing. I think my head has been leaking, and that kind of altered some mechanics. My location has been out of whack, so I’ve been walking way more guys that I’m accustomed to, and that’s when you get hurt by flares and bleeders. A walk or two and then something finds a hole, and all of a sudden, they’ve got something going."
Bryan Holaday didn’t care what had changed, he just knew that Nathan looked like a dominant closer again.
"The ball was coming out of his hand great today," he said. "He was really free and easy with a nice, smooth delivery, and the ball was just exploding out of his hand."
Nathan knows that one solid inning doesn’t mean he’s fixed everything that has gone wrong lately — it is never that easy when you are battling Father Time and mechanics at the same time.
"I’m not saying this one outing means I’m back," he said. "We’ve got three-and-a-half months to go, and every day is going to be a grind. This is a humbling sport, and if you think you’ve got it, the next day it is going to turn around and kick you in the butt."
It’s only a start, but Brad Ausmus was still happy to see it.
"It’s a baby step," he said. "That looked like Joe Nathan from a year ago. He hit 94 on the radar gun, he kept the ball down, and it was crisp. That was really very encouraging. We need Joe Nathan to pitch in close games for us to win, so we needed to get him back on track.