Ausmus: Nathan not plagued by old age

Where Tigers closer Joe Nathan is struggling is with his command, and Friday it was especially bad.

Paul Sancya/AP

DETROIT — Brad Ausmus was clear about one thing Friday night.

Whatever is wrong with Joe Nathan — and even Ausmus is ready to acknowledge that there’s a problem with his closer — it doesn’t have to do with his age.

"Everyone keeps asking about the fact that he’s 39 years old," Ausmus said. "But he’s six months older than he was last year, and that might have been the best season of his career. Age is the last thing I’m worried about with him."

Home woes continue for Tigers

Ausmus’s theory is, if Father Time had caught up to Nathan, it would show up in his fastball velocity, which it hasn’t. Although Nathan has seen a drop-off in his last few outings, his average fastball this season has been 93.3 miles an hour. That’s only a tenth slower than last year, when he saved 43 games and made his sixth All-Star Game.

Where Nathan is struggling is with his command, and Friday it was especially bad. He hit one batter and walked two more, the last with the bases loaded.

That’s been an ongoing issue all season. Even when he’s in the strike zone, he isn’t able to hit the spots that will get batters to swing and miss.

In Friday’s series opener, Nathan had a 2-2 count on Eduardo Escobar with the bases loaded and two out in a 1-0 game. Escobar, the ninth hitter in Minnesota’s lineup, is hardly in the majors because of his ability to draw walks. His career on-base percentage is just .303.

But he was able to foul off five straight two-strike pitches. Nathan then missed the zone with a pair of fastballs to bring home the final run of a 2-0 loss.

"Obviously, you never want your pitcher to walk guys — that’s just giving them a free base runner — and that’s what happened tonight," Ausmus said. "You aren’t going to get a lot of swings and misses on fastballs in this league. That just doesn’t happen.

"You get them mainly on off-speed stuff, and if you aren’t able to command your breaking pitches, you aren’t going to get them."

For Nathan, though, the fastball numbers do indicate a problem. Last season, hitters made contact with his fastball on 73 percent of swings — a number that has jumped to 89 percent this season.

Opponents are also hitting more line drives and batting .323 against a pitch that no one could touch (.105 batting average) a year ago.

Those numbers do look suspiciously like the signs of an aging pitcher, but they could also have another cause.

Nathan’s velocity and location stats are very similar to his 2011 season, when he struggled after returning from Tommy John surgery. And he did complain of a "dead arm" early this season, although he seemed to have righted the ship somewhat before his latest slump.

Whatever’s ailing Nathan could be hugely important for the Tigers in the long run. He might recover from an injury, but no one has been able to reverse the aging process.

In the short term, it doesn’t matter to Ausmus.

"My concern isn’t any different than it was 24 hours ago," he said. "We need Joe Nathan to pitch well, and we need Joe Nathan to close out games for us.

Right now, that isn’t happening, which isn’t good news for a rookie manager who’s also trying to fix a slumping offense and a struggling Justin Verlander.

Ausmus and his team will get their next chance Saturday afternoon when they take on the Twins at 4 p.m. on Fox Sports 1. Anibal Sanchez, who has been very good since returning from the disabled list, will face Minnesota’s Samuel Deduno.