Springtime isn’t the right time for Joe Nathan. So says the man himself.
During each of the two spring camps he spent with the Texas Rangers, Nathan cautioned that he is typically not good during exhibition games and usually not all that sharp at the beginning of the season.
He needs a little time to get his velocity up and to sharpen his command.
It was a subtle warning to media and fans, but often his efforts backed him up.
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But Nathan usually figured out a way to get the final three outs of the game without surrendering a Rangers lead. The key was to not walk many batters, something that has been a Nathan calling card throughout his All-Star career.
So, when a lack of control caused him to start coughing up leads in his first season with the Detroit Tigers, the right-hander knew something other than just his early-season woes was the culprit.
His mechanics had failed, an issue that coincided with the Tigers kissing away their hot start and getting caught and passed atop the American League Central.
As all players in this game say, June is way too early to be worried about the standings. But the Tigers received a jolt when Kansas City passed them two weeks ago for first place, and now the Tigers are back where they, and everyone else, expected them to be, and Nathan believes that he has righted his wrongs going forward.
“Obviously we would want to be 20 games up, but that’s not always reality,” Nathan said. “Kansas City started playing great baseball, and we weren’t. No big deal. It is June, but we just want to get back to playing consistent baseball.
“You still need to stay in the race, so it was nice to give up the lead and give up first place and two days later we’re back in first place.”
The Tigers led the Central by a season-high seven games May 18, when they lost the first in a three-game sweep at Cleveland and then came home to Comerica Park and lost three of four to the Rangers.
“Things just kept snowballing from there,” Nathan said.
It didn’t stop until after the Royals went to Comerica Park and won the first three in a four-game series, vaulting into first place by 1 1/2 games.
The Tigers hadn’t lost again until Houston beat them Friday.
Their seven-game winning streak, including three straight last week against the hapless Rangers at Globe Life Park, allowed them to gain six games in the standings and move 4 1/2 games up in the Central. It was 3 1/2 games entering Saturday.
There’s that mid-June jolt.
“It’s getting better,” Nathan said. “We’re getting more consistent. We’re scoring some runs. We’re pitching better and staying in a lot of ballgames and have the chance to win a lot of ballgames. That’s all you can ask.”
The Tigers’ offense is starting to separate itself from the rest of the division, and the rest of the league. The Tigers lead in batting average and slugging percentage, though their 353 runs were only fourth best and just one ahead of division foe Cleveland.
But none of the other Central lineups create the same amount of fear, and none has a 1-2 punch like Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. And what’s up with J.D. Martinez, who was cast aside last season by the 111-loss Astros?
The Tigers’ issues are on the mound, where Justin Verlander sits at an ineffective 6-7 with a 4.80 ERA. Opponents are hitting .275 against him as his velocity has dipped to a career-low 92.6 mph.
He had allowed at least five runs in six of eight starts before issuing three Friday, and Max Scherzer, the reigning Cy Young winner, had allowed at least four runs in five of seven starts entering Saturday. That includes a 10-spot June 17 against the Royals.
Then, there’s Nathan, who has blown five saves. His ERA hit a hat-sized 7.04 at one point and was at 6.28 after allowing a run while saving an 8-6 win Wednesday against the Rangers.
Age has caught up with the 39-year-old, said the Twitter and Internet machine, though Nathan is a fit as anyone in the game.
Nathan scoffed at that notion. As the free passes, 13 in 28 2/3 innings, suggested, his delivery just needed some fine-tuning. He hadn’t walked a batter the past five times out.
“It was just tweaking a few things mechanically,” he said. “I don’t know where I picked them up, but I picked up some bad habits along the way. I just had to go back and tweak things.
“The last three or four for me have been really good. As far as sharpness, velocity and command, everything has been as of old. It was nice to at least be able to figure something out.”
Maybe a June jolt from Kansas City helped, too. Yeah, it’s only June, but the Tigers have responded and once again are the class of the AL Central.