DETROIT — Tigers fans have cheered on their closer, Joe Nathan, by name just once this season. Tuesday night was that one time and it's the first time they've cheered him in any capacity since the incident with Nathan's gesture towards fans on August 13.
Nathan hadn't recorded a 1-2-3 inning, let alone on nine pitches, since August 5 in New York against the Yankees when he retired all three batters on the same number of pitches. Nathan has been relatively steady for over two months now, however easy innings have been hard to come by.
Asking Nathan to pitch against what is currently the hottest team in baseball, has given fans a reason to be nervous once again. For once, those nerves were calmed and Nathan took a moment to appreciate the "let's go, Joe!" chants he was hearing as he stood on the mound, before getting back to the business at hand.
"I did hear them," Nathan said. "I actually for a second sat there and kind of enjoyed it. Then told myself, all right, make it some white noise and get back to work, concentrate on a tough hitter in Beltran. Fortunately I was able to get him and kind of settle into the inning from there." (h/t Dana Wakiji, FOX Sports Detroit)
It's been a rough relationship between Nathan and Tigers fans, who were never really given the rock solid closer they were hoping for to begin with. The fact that Nathan has been steady for the better part of two months, and has blown only one save in that time says a lot.
Tuesday's cheers went even further than that though because it holds out hope that all isn't lost between fans and Nathan. For his part, Nathan has been quick to acknowledge his shortcomings repeatedly, and has begged the fans for another chance.
To be able to put the cherry on top of a short and sweet two hour, 30 minute game for the Tigers and fans in attendance was one way Nathan could show and not just speak about how he's improved on the mound.
"Good feeling, good feeling to know we're on the right track to hopefully mending and erasing a mistake that I made," Nathan said. "Hopefully it means that we're putting this thing behind us and now we can concentrate on a very difficult task in trying to win this division and get to the playoffs. Very good feeling to hear that."
Nathan has pitched well for some time and feels comfortable with where he's at pitching-wise. The rest will come and by no means is he perfect, but Tuesday was the latest example of what can happen when Nathan is the closer the Tigers hired him to be.
"Obviously you're not going to go out, you want to throw a one-something every year but it's hard to stay at that level and do that on a consistent basis," Nathan said. "I know I did it for a while."
Results speak volumes. While there is always room for improvement, Tuesday Nathan showed he has been better and the numbers speak for themselves. There aren't many games left but Nathan is demonstrating he can change, both on and off the field.
"It'd really be a great side-story if Joe could run the gamut here the last 30-or-so games and endear himself to the Tigers fans again," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said.
Perhaps over time Nathan will earn more than a save when he's called upon. He may yet win back the trust of the fans by the time the season reaches its end.