Joe Nathan has a problem, which means the Tigers have a problem, which means the fans have a problem. Oh, I know I crack wise and joke about the Tigers' bullpen elsewhere on this site, but there's really nothing too terribly funny about what we've seen from the 'pen so far this year. I'm sure most of us have seen the horrifying numbers: in seven games, the team has allowed thirteen runs from innings one through eight, and has allowed twelve runs in the ninth inning. It's mind-boggling to think that nearly 50 percent of the runs allowed so far have been given up in that one apparently cursed inning.
Joe Nathan, for whom the Tigers paid a pretty price to be the lights-out closer in 2014, already has two blown saves in four appearances, and is sporting a hefty ERA of 12.27 with an ugly 2.727 WHIP on the side. His "Win Probability Added" is actually in the negative numbers.
He has openly said that he is pitching with a "dead arm" right now, and that the only way to fix it is to keep throwing through it until it comes back to life. Presumably, that's why Brad Ausmus brought him into last night's game when the score was 6-3 in the bottom of the ninth. It wasn't exactly a high leverage situation, and if Nathan is saying he needs to keep throwing in order to right the ship, then it makes sense for Ausmus to bring him into the game when he did.
Of course, not everyone agrees on the remedy. Craig Monroe gave his opinion on the matter last night in the post-game show, saying that the cure for "dead arm" is to let it rest, not to throw through it. I'm sure if you ask ten Tigers fans which of these two treatments is correct, you'll get at least eleven different answers.
The point is, Joe Nathan's arm isn't where he, personally, feels it should (and could) be right now, and that's a little scary. If you were paying attention to his facial expressions and body language last night, you saw a veteran closer with a long history of success, looking more than a little flustered and at the end of his rope. He knows what he's capable of, he knows the mechanics and the expected results, he just can't access any of it right now, and it's visibly confounding him.
I suppose it doesn't make much of a difference to the fans in the end, but it is worth pointing out that the Tigers aren't the only ones suffering from blown-save-itus. Jim Johnson has two blown saves in three attempts. Jose Veras has a blown save to his credit in only three outings. Jason Grilli, Brian Wilson, Bobby Parnell, Greg Holland, Jonathan Papelbon, Neal Cotts - all have either blown one or more saves or taken a loss in late-innings relief. While we were busy freaking out over the Tigers' bullpen performance during the last two games in Los Angeles, it may have slipped our notice that Kenley Jansen also had two bad outings, blowing a save in one game and taking a loss in the other.
Blame the economy, blame Obama, blame the weather, but things are tough all around the league right now. The only two closers who come readily to mind as having perfect records so far in 2014 are Craig Kimbrel and Koji Uehara, and let's face it, those guys are so lights-out they haven't paid an electric bill since Benjamin Franklin invented the concept (of "closers," that is - I have no idea who invented electric bills).
On the lighter side, the side that hopefully keeps us sane, Joe Nathan now has two wins to his name this year, which is more than the entire starting rotation combined. Brian Kenny, call your office.
So now what? Now we wait. We adjust our expectations slightly. If we trust Nathan to know his own body and what he needs to do to repeat his past successes, we can anticipate that the "dead arm" issue is not permanent. And if we take Brad Ausmus' actions and post-game comments seriously, we can pretty well plan on him continuing to use Nathan as his closer. His quote from last night's post-game sounded very Leyland-esque: "Joe's the closer. No question in my mind he was going to pitch the ninth." We've heard that mantra before, and we know what it means. So plan on buckling up in the ninth inning for a little while, until Nathan finds his groove.
Which he will, by the way.
As for the rest of the bullpen in 2014? Well, let's just hope that Dave Dombrowski has a plan in mind for the July tradefest. Otherwise, we're all going to be spelling "relief" R-O-L-A-I-D-S by October.