DETROIT -- With Joe Nathan undergoing tests and the Detroit Tigers awaiting word on the next steps, the bullpen was fully exposed for the first time this season. It wasn't pretty, and Ian Krol, who has an ability to be a strength for the Tigers out of the bullpen, is struggling with his mechanics, which is heavily contributing to his inability to find the strike zone effectively.
Nathan was only days removed from coming off the disabled list and rejoining the team. Hearing the news that Nathan had felt a "pop" in his elbow was unexpected and concerning, especially when a healthy Nathan would have potentially given the Tigers bullpen a boost, desperately needed after Tuesday night's bullpen meltdown.
"(Nathan) felt a pop on a fastball and had actually been throwing well," Ausmus said. "The bullpen went well before he went into the game. The first two hitters went well, then he felt it, thought maybe it was scar tissue, tried to throw another pitch (practice) but it didn't go so well. So we're going to get him checked out."
For Nathan to come so close to joining the bullpen again and his progress be brought to a sudden halt isn't just concerning, it's "frustrating." Frustrating for the Tigers, and for Ausmus, who, while he wasn't watching Nathan's outing at the time, just watched his bullpen collapse for the first time this season.
With Nathan undergoing tests at the moment, Joakim Soria will remain the Tigers' closer for the foreseeable future. But apart from Soria's stability in the ninth inning, the bullpen is anything but stable. Until Tuesday night it had rarely been needed this year. Call it luck, or combination of impressive starts by the Tigers' rotation, but the bullpen had been well-protected from exposure -- until Tuesday.
It's easy to simply hope that Tuesday isn't a trend, but considering the Tigers' history with repeated bullpen disasters it wouldn't be surprising if it was -- unfortunately. Putting aside Nathan's 2014 numbers for a moment, a healthy and effective Nathan, who could come into any late-inning situation -- not necessarily the ninth, either -- was what the Tigers were hoping to see after Nathan's time on the DL.
"I thought he was real close," Ausmus said. "I think he thought he was close until that one pitch. It hurts. Like I said, we're a better bullpen with Joe in it, no question. So if it's extended, it hurts but until we know what it is, I really don't want to speculate how long or what the impact's going to be."
Head athletic trainer Kevin Rand later confirmed that Nathan had made a brief stop at Comerica Park before leaving for consultations and tests on his arm. Ausmus said the Tigers will know more about Nathan's situation later in the afternoon or evening, following those tests.
Ausmus would not discuss the likelihood that Nathan would return to his former closer position, but regardless of his role, used properly, Nathan would have been valuable in the 'pen. Now, the Tigers are left with yet another question, and with Ian Krol's continued struggles in relief -- particularly his affinity for giving up home runs -- the bullpen is beginning to show signs of its former colors in years past.
In Krol's case, the Tigers would like to see the reliever who made an appearance two outings back. The Tigers see a left-handed reliever who has the ability to throw strikes, and throw them well. When Krol is able to throw strikes and control the strike zone, he's effective. But that's an issue for the lefty, specifically, his ability to find the zone to consistently throw strikes.
"I think he gets out of whack, mechanically," Ausmus said. "He ends up flying open, falls toward the third base dugout a little bit. His arm drags, and he has trouble finding his release point. So he's inconsistent with his release point, and he has trouble locating the ball."
But that can be a difficult thing to overcome, and fixing an issue like Krol's varies from pitcher to pitcher, Ausmus added. Until that happens, Krol is going to continue to struggle, and that one issue -- throwing strikes -- is the main thing, and the only thing that Ausmus is waiting to see. In order for Krol to consistently throw strikes, he'll need to fix his mechanics. And that may take time. Time the Tigers may not have if it drags on deep into the season.
In reality, the starting rotation isn't going to go eight or nine innings on every single occasion for the remainder of the season. There are going to be more days when the bullpen will need to make an appearance well beyond the final one or two innings. Soria is dominant and there is realistic hope for one or two other relievers, but on the whole the bullpen still has holes that need to be fixed sooner rather than later. And with Nathan shelved once again, someone is going to need to step up.