Tigers, Joe Nathan survive late scare, put away Orioles
DETROIT — There was a reason that the Tigers went after Joe Nathan in the offseason.
As ugly as Saturday’s ninth inning was, it ended with Nathan pitching out of a jam by retiring two of the toughest hitters in the game.
"I figured that if I could get the game down to Nelson Cruz and Chris Davis, that would be enough drama for everyone he said," he said with a wry smile. "One out, tying run on second, go-ahead run on first and I have to face two guys that can lift a building. That was fun."
Nathan got both outs, ending Baltimore’s ninth-inning rally at five runs and keeping Detroit as baseball’s only undefeated team.
"Our bullpen might be struggling a little, but we’re still 4-0," he said. "We’re going to get sharper — there’s no question about that — and it hasn’t cost us a thing."
It should have never been an issue. The Tigers went into the ninth inning with a 7-1 lead, and Brad Ausmus decided to give Phil Coke his first inning of the season. After barely making the team out of spring training, Coke didn’t do anything to help himself when he allowed a single, a triple, an RBI groundout and a walk.
That made it 7-3, but Al Alburquerque came in and got Matt Wieters to hit a harmless-looking pop fly behind third base. Don Kelly went back for it and Rajai Davis came sprinting in from left, but it was a ball that belongs to the shortstop 95 times out of 100. Alex Gonzalez, though, didn’t get there and the ball dropped for a fluke single.
At that point, with the game now a save situation — Baltimore had the tying run on deck — Ausmus made the move that has become almost mandatory in baseball. He brought in Nathan.
"I was ready," Nathan insisted. "When you are a closer, you know that things like that can happen in a hurry. The problem that, when a team has an inning going like that, it is tough to kill their momentum. The hardest part of my job is to stop the bleeding."
Nathan didn’t get off to a great start, as Steve Lombardozzi and Steve Clevenger hit a pair of rockets to right field, leaving runners on second and third and cutting the deficit to 7-5. A error on Gonzalez made it 7-6, but Nathan struck out Cruz on a 3-2 pitch and got Davis to fly out.
"Things happen," Nathan said. "It was ugly, but we got the win, and that’s the name of the game."
Still, the ninth inning didn’t do anything to ease worries about Detroit’s relief corps. Joba Chamberlain also struggled when given a low-pressure outing to start the season, while Nathan and Alburquerque have combined for a 5.79 ERA.
"I’m not overly concerned right now," Ausmus said. "But we certainly don’t want any repeats of this, at least not with any frequency."
The ninth inning stole much of the day’s attention from Torii Hunter, who had a three-run double and a two-run homer for his first five-RBI game as a Tiger. He now leads the team with six RBIs, but doesn’t expect to hold off Miguel Cabrera for long.
"The big guy is going to get more than his share of RBIs, so I’m going to ride this bike until the wheels fell off," said Hunter, who has all six RBIs in the two wins over Baltimore. "I’m seeing the ball really well right now and I’m putting good swings on it. This game is a lot of fun when you are doing that."
The game also saw Detroit’s rotation continue its hot start. Including Drew Smyly’s three innings of long relief on Friday, the five starters are 2-0 with a 1.90 ERA.
"I think we’re showing that we’re still capable of pitching like we have in the past," said Rick Porcello, who allowed one run in 6 2/3 innings on Saturday. "We’ve had a couple games where the bullpen has gotten the win, but we’ve all put together really nice starts."
So far, the Tigers are the team that everyone expected. The offense looks fine, the starting pitching is outstanding and there are serious questions about the defense and the bullpen.
No surprises yet, but there are still six months to go.