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Joe Nathan resurgence becoming Tigers' only hope

Tigers closer Joe Nathan has had an up and down season, but with a depleted bullpen, the Tigers have no other choice.

Tom Szczerbowski

Wanted: A dependable closer for the Detroit Tigers

The big piece the Tigers have been looking for all season long as been a lock-down closer, but in reality they've been looking for it for a few years now. The Tigers have been engaged in a game of mirages when it comes to finding one, and retaining a bullpen without the May Spontaneously Combust fine print has been high on the list; it still is.

The Tigers have echoed the same statement throughout the season, Joe Nathan is the closer and they need him to be able to close games. Understandable, it's why he was hired in the first place and Nathan was given a sizable salary to shut the door to near perfection.

Except, that didn't happen, not nearly to the level of expectation that fans, or even the Tigers had hoped for. The offense may not give Nathan an extra cushion, but eventually it boils down to whether he is capable of actually closing a game in any given situation.

Kurt's column: Joe Nathan only the closer by default

Since the All-Star break, the starting rotation and the bullpen have needed to be perfect on several occasions because of the team's offensive struggles. Since July 15, nine games were decided by one run and six resulted in a loss. When the playoffs begin, things aren't going to get any easier for the Tigers and runs will be even harder to come by.

Saturday night the Tigers found their lead in the AL Central down to just 1½ games. The last time the lead was that low was on June 21 when Nathan blew his last save and the Tigers had just regained first place in the division. A Sunday afternoon marathon loss to the Toronto Blue Jays cut their lead in the division to a half-game entering play Monday.

Nathan has, of course, fallen short of perfect. But despite fans' desires, the Tigers can no longer afford the luxury of taking Nathan off closing duty or putting him in low-pressure situations while he figures it out. The Tigers had some major shuffling to do with the loss of Joakim Soria (15-day disabled list) and Anibal Sanchez (pectoral muscle strain) to injuries. Then a 19-inning loss only made the situation worse for the bullpen, so much so that the Tigers were forced into bringing Tuesday's original starter, Rick Porcello.

All talk of Nathan doesn't have to be negative, however. He has been getting the job done lately and doing it well, with two exceptions; only now, the Tigers' bullpen has the responsibility of ensuring that work doesn't become undone by stepping up to meet the challenge.

For all his struggles this season, before Saturday's blown save Nathan hadn't given up a run in 11 of his last 12 starts. Since July 2 Nathan had faced the minimum three batters on six of those occasions and only twice had he seen more than five. Nathan retained a 2.25 ERA and opponents were batting just .182/.280/.227 and he'd tallied 16 strikeouts in that time.

Until Sunday, the Tigers had some options. Joba Chamberlain has been lights out his season and the acquisition of Joakim Soria gave the Tigers breathing room if Nathan completely fell apart. Whether due to being overworked or falling back to Earth, Chamberlain has taken the loss in two of his last seven outings, blown a save, and given up six runs. He's allowed at least one run to score in all but two of those outings so the role of closer probably isn't going to be his anytime soon.

Soria had garnered a lock-down season with the Texas Rangers but he got off to a shaky start with the Tigers. However, Soria had settled since his first three outings, making those outings more of a blip rather than the status quo. Unfortunately, it also makes Soria's injury even more of a blow to the stability of the bullpen, one the Tigers couldn't afford at this point in the season. Ideally, Soria could have taken the ninth-inning reins until Nathan stabilized, or permanently if it didn't work out, but that's not an option for the time being.

Asking Nathan to be perfect every single time might be a tall order, but he was brought on to be able to close games in tight situations. Now, with every game seemingly more important than the last, Nathan's just going to have to rise up to be the "dependable closer" the Tigers thought they were purchasing.