Tigers have a dependable finisher in Joe Nathan
DETROIT — Detroit Tigers closer Joe Nathan had 36 saves in 36 opportunities against his new team when he pitched for the Minnesota Twins and Texas Rangers.
"I don’t know if we ever scored a run off him," said Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones, shaking his head.
Well, they did. Detroit scored 10 runs off Nathan in 66 2/3 innings. That computes to a 1.44 ERA for Nathan versus the Tigers, who batted .151 against him. He also posted a 0.894 WHIP against the Tigers, treating one of the game’s top offensive teams and its leader like easy marks.
Nathan remembers the run-scoring single up the middle that Miguel Cabrera hit off him on Aug. 17, 2011 at Comerica Park.
"He gets to first base," Nathan said, "and says, ‘Finally!’"
Nathan had no idea what Cabrera was exulting about and asked him what was going on.
"I finally got you!" Cabrera shouted. "I was 0-for-11 before that hit."
That he was. Counting the postseason, Cabrera was 2-for-13 (.167) with one walk, five strikeouts and one RBI against Nathan.
How did he get the reigning, two-time AL MVP out with such regularity?
"I don’t know why," said Nathan, looking down and smiling. "I was fortunate. But on the last two at-bats he hit scud missiles."
He paused and raised his eyebrows, adding, "It’s great to be on his side now."
The Tigers signed Nathan, 39, for two years at $20 million with a club option for a third season at $10 million or a $1 million buyout. The six-time All-Star has 341 saves, and has reached 40 saves on four occasions — including 43 last year for the Rangers. Nobody has saved games at a higher rate than Nathan’s 90 percent.
"I played with and against him," said Tigers right fielder Torii Hunter, who wooed Nathan to Detroit with text messages and an initial contact with the club. "And I know he’s a bulldog. He does not want to take a day off, and is up there with Mariano Rivera over the last seven years."
Rivera, the all-time saves leader who is generally accepted as the best closer ever, had 239 saves in the last seven years. Nathan had 217 — or an average of three less per season than Rivera.
And so Detroit has secured one of the game’s rare commodities: a dependable finisher.
I came here to win, just to win. It’s the biggest reason — to win and to win now.
"You always want to know what you have coming in for the ninth inning," said new Tigers manager Brad Ausmus. "It’s good to have that guy there — Joe Nathan. He knows how to control his emotions and get the job done."
Nathan said, "I do not show a lot of emotion one way or the other. I am high-strung out there, though. But it’s all held inside. On the outside, I’m like a duck swimming on water."
Though, his song will cause a commotion when he jogs in from the bullpen at Comerica Park.
"Stand Up And Shout," a heavy metal song from the 2001 movie "Rock Star," starring Mark Wahlberg, has been his entrance anthem for over a decade.
"The crowd gets into it," Nathan said. "It’s always fun when you get to hear it in a new stadium and see what it sounds like. I know this place — they like to play some loud music. I know every time we’d come here, I’m like, ‘Man, that’s a good sound system. I’d like to hear my song on that.’ "
Fans almost always stand up and shout when he leaves the mound, too. Nathan has blown only 38 saves in his nine seasons as a closer for a .8997 success rate that is tops for anyone with 250-plus save opportunities. Rivera finished his career second at .8907.
What sets Nathan apart from most other successful closers is having five effective pitches: curve, slider, changeup, two-seam fastball and four-seam fastball. Many top closers have just two strong pitches, and Rivera almost totally relied on the cut fastball. Pitchers with a repertoire like Nathan’s generally start, but he became a reliever after returning to the San Francisco Giants in 2002 after missing a season following shoulder surgery.
Two years later, Nathan joined the Twins along with future All-Star starter Francisco Liriano in a deal that sent catcher A.J. Pierzynski to the Giants. Nathan became a closer in that 2004 season. He’s never faltered over the last decade, and maintains endurance and durability with a demanding off-season conditioning program for his legs, back and upper body that includes distance swimming.
His "duck swimming on water" approach and mixing five pitches became his keys to ninth-inning success.
When I asked Nathan which pitch he considers his out pitch, he said, "I think they all are."
There wasn’t a hint of braggadocio in that comment. That’s simply the way it is.
"My approach to hitters changes every time I face them," Nathan said. "I throw strikes with not that many walks (9.6 strikeouts with 3.3 walks per nine innings). I make them hit it, and staying ahead in the count is important.
"Guys can’t sit on one pitch. I’m less predictable and that’s my strength."
And now, despite his uncanny ability to help beat the Tigers, he is joining them on a quest for a World Series triumph.
"I came here to win, just to win," Nathan said. "It’s the biggest reason — to win and to win now."