Tuesday, January 28, 2014
It was something out of a cartoon. Warner Brothers would have been proud.
The right fielder chases the well-hit baseball all the way to the wall, where he then tumbles over said wall and disappears, like the Coyote vanishing in yet another attempt to chase down the Road Runner.
Only, this scene was hardly funny to Tigers fans.
It was Game 2 of the ALCS last October, in Boston’s Fenway Park. The Tigers swiped Game 1 behind a combined one-hit effort from five pitchers. And they led Game 2, 5-1, in the eighth inning. A 2-0 series lead and a surprisingly easy path to the World Series beckoned.
Then disaster struck, like a horror movie. The Red Sox weren’t dead, after all. The Tigers looked at the Bosox, lying prone on the ground, turned around to hug the girl, and when they turned around, the Red Sox were gone.
So was the baseball hit by David Ortiz, off Joaquin Benoit, the Tigers de facto closer by process of elimination.
The bases were loaded with Red Sox when Benoit served up a beach ball to Ortiz, whose nickname is Big Papi, and it’s not one of those “opposite” nicknames, like a bald guy they call “Curly.”
Ortiz slammed a laser to right field, and Torii Hunter, bless his heart, gave it his all, but Hunter ran out of grass and ran smack into the wall, spilling over it and disappearing into the Boston night.
With one dagger of a swing, Ortiz tied the game and as Benoit sagged on the mound, visibly shaken, the Tigers took on the persona of their makeshift closer, eventually losing the game in the ninth inning.
You could say the series was 1-1, in favor of Boston.
The Tigers, of course, lost the ALCS, 4-2, and the fourth loss was punctuated by another grand slam in the late innings, the second one off the bat of Shane Victorino, who teed off on reliever Jose Veras.
Two grand slams into the Boston night, in two different games, both off late-inning relievers. Two swings that effectively canceled out the brilliant starting pitching the Tigers received the entire series.
The bullpen was the Tigers’ fickle lover all year long in 2013. Every time the team felt its advances, it would turn its back on them. And the Tigers got rebuffed one final time, at the worst possible moment.
As the Joker said in “The Dark Knight,” let’s wind the clocks back a year.
A year ago at this time, the Tigers thought they had their new closer to replace the deposed Jose Valverde. He was big, young rookie Bruce Rondon, the roly-poly kid with the big arm and the big smile.
It was a risk and a half. Plunging a rookie into a closer role is like tossing a grenade into a fox hole to test whether it will detonate. You turn your back, stick your fingers in your ears and hope for the best.
Rondon went boom.
It was clear from the get go, after the season started, that Rondon was too green to close anything other than a door.
In May, the Tigers actually brought back Valverde. Papa Grande went boom, for the second time in eight months.
That left Benoit, the Accidental Closer.
It was makeshift, but it sort of worked. Benoit navigated the Tigers out of troubled waters, with the occasional banging into an unlit pier along the way.
The rest of the bullpen was shaky—just unreliable enough to make it a source of worry for Tigers fans heading in to the playoffs.
When FDR said that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself, he obviously hadn’t seen the Tigers bullpen.
The starters were terrific, and the bullpen tried to hold it all together, but then the playoffs arrived and there was a blown game in the ALDS in Oakland, then the debacles in the Red Sox series.
But opposing hitters beware. There’s a new sheriff in town.
“Yeah, there’s pressure. But I will take that pressure with a chance to go out and win, a chance to get to the World Series.”
The speaker is Joe Nathan, talking to the Detroit Free Press during the Tigers’ winter caravan.
Nathan is a real closer. There’s nothing accidental about him. After a few years in the San Francisco Giants bullpen, setting up games in the late innings, Nathan was traded to the Minnesota Twins before the 2004 season and became the Twins’ lock down man in the ninth inning.
He’s been at this closer thing for 10 years now.
Nathan has 341 career saves. The man he’s replacing in Detroit, Benoit, had 13 career saves prior to last season.
Don’t let anyone tell you that moving from set-up man to closer, as Benoit did last year for the Tigers, is like switching lanes on the freeway.
Well, it could be that way, if you’re talking about moving from the shoulder of the road to the fast lane from a dead stop.
There’s a different mentality that the ninth inning man has—that’s why so many of them are nuts.
The closer is the Red Adair of baseball—fighting fires with a ferocity and stubbornness that just isn’t in every man. When the game is the tightest, when the stakes are the highest, that’s when the closer licks his chops.
Nathan signed with the Tigers last November, despite having a very similar offer from his old team, the Texas Rangers. And Nathan is a Texas kid, born in Houston.
The decision to come to Detroit was about winning, and about being the ninth inning man for a team whose bullpen and makeshift closer fizzled out in the playoffs, when someone like Nathan likely would have led the Tigers past the Red Sox and to the World Series for the second straight year.
“All around, I was attracted to … how much this team can do,” Nathan told the Free Press. “Especially with the speed they brought in, (with) the improvement of their defense, which I think is going to be their biggest difference.”
He is too modest.
The Tigers gambled last year with the back end of their bullpen, anointing an unproven rookie and then bringing back a guy who crashed and burned in 2012. They ended up with a set-up man as their closer and the risk caught up to them at the worst possible time.
No risks this year. No messing around. The Tigers, three-time defending division champs, are once again a World Series contender. They were burned once, so now they hired a fireman by trade.
If the Tigers falter in the ninth inning this year, it’ll be because the other guys beat one of the game’s all-time great closers.
Nathan has made the All-Star team six times, all as a closer. In 2013, for Texas, Nathan saved 43 games and had an ERA that you needed a microscope to see (1.39).
He’s 39 years old, but so what? Nathan had Tommy John surgery a few years ago. He’s 39, but his new arm is four.
Nathan’s style of closing is quick and to the point. He doesn’t do the rollercoaster thing with the fans’ emotions. He gets in and he gets out. He works fast. He closes games like he has a plane to catch.
It’s a breath of fresh air from recent years, when Tigers closers often turned ninth innings into a soap opera.