Nathan seeks elusive World Series with Tigers
Closer has posted 341 saves over 13 big league seasons
DETROIT -- Joe Nathan was responsible for a lot of Tigers anguish when he became one of baseball's best closers in Minnesota. With nary a save opportunity blown against Detroit, just the sight of him on the mound would bring a feeling of dread around Comerica Park. The calendar says those days were long ago, but Nathan's success at age 39 does not.
He couldn't take the mound at Comerica Park on Wednesday, not with the field being readied for Winter Classic festivities. But the sight of him taking the podium inside the Tiger Club and donning a Detroit jersey sufficed. The shutdown closer Tigers fans always quietly wished could pitch for them was now theirs.
"Should be good for 100-plus saves the next couple years," team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said as Nathan slipped the jersey on, his familiar No. 36 on the back.
"That's the plan," Nathan, fittingly 36-for-36 in save chances against Detroit for his career, said with a smile.
He did not come to finish off the Tigers this time, but complete them. With a two-year, $20 million contract, plus a club option for a third season, Nathan becomes the veteran closer the Tigers hope will help bolster their next run at a World Series title.
"We've tried to address our closing situation this wintertime," Dombrowski said. "We think that we've come up with one of the best in the game. We've seen him work throughout the years, and he really sets our bullpen situation up very well. We're thrilled to have him on board."
The Tigers, in turn, become Nathan's last shot at the World Series appearance that has eluded him for all these years.
"Why would I come here? Shoot, I think the question is why wouldn't I?" Nathan said. "This team is ready to win. They're ready to win now. It's not just about getting to the postseason, but for me it's about getting to the big one, to get into the World Series. It's something that's not been a part of my career. It has eluded me, and that's what it's all about now for me."
In this case, his dream was Dombrowski's priority. He promised the Tigers had moves coming after freeing up payroll space by trading Prince Fielder two weeks ago and Doug Fister on Monday.
It didn't take long, though it might have felt that way for Nathan. The Tigers had their share of candidates on the open market, topped by Nathan and Brian Wilson. The Tigers had also been in discussions with Wilson, who reportedly was seeking a three-year deal, before talks broke off on Monday.
"There were two guys that were really at the top of our list," Dombrowski said. "Joe and Brian Wilson were the two guys we thought were established closers that we liked a little bit more than the other guys, even though they were good out there. Those were the two guys we kept a focus on, but still kept a pulse of what was going on."
Nathan, meanwhile, kept the Tigers at the top of list.
"From the moment we became a free agent," he said, "this was the No. 1 club that we had our eyes set on and were hoping this day would happen. And for us to be sitting here and getting it done, signing the papers today and getting the chance to talk to you all, it's a dream come true."
If interest ever waned, there was a familiar face making sure to revive it. Both Dombrowski and Nathan said Torii Hunter, Nathan's old teammate in Minnesota, was a key recruiter, both encouraging the Tigers to make a run at him and telling Nathan to take a serious look at Detroit.
"We needed him," Hunter wrote Tuesday in a text message to MLB.com. "I had to sell the vision of winning it all to him."
He had to sell it with an old division rival.
Nathan has saved 340 games over the last 10 years and owns 341 saves over a 13-year Major League career, the most of any active pitcher now that Mariano Rivera has retired. The vast majority of those saves came with the Twins during their reign over the Tigers atop the AL Central.
Nathan has never blown a save against Detroit, going 36-for-36 in his opportunities while allowing just 33 hits over 62 2/3 innings with 23 walks and 75 strikeouts. He apologized for saying the 2009 AL Central tiebreaker at the Metrodome was the greatest game he has ever played, even though the extra-inning Twins victory that sent the Tigers home wasn't a game he could close.
"Obviously, the games that we played, the Minnesota-Detroit games, were unbelievable," Nathan said. "Honestly, I did not even realize the streak that I had going until a couple of years, because there were so many games I got my brains beat in by Detroit as well, but it just happened to be a non-save situation."
For that matter, Nathan has converted 90 percent of his save chances over his career, the highest conversion rate of any Major League pitcher with at least 200 career saves, just ahead of Rivera.
Just as important, at age 38, his statistics remained strong. He allowed 10 runs on 36 hits over 64 2/3 innings with 22 walks and 73 strikeouts for the Texas Rangers this past season, racking up 43 saves in the process. He has predictably lost some velocity on his fastball, down to a career low average of 92.2 mph this year, but he made up for it with a nasty slider that drew hitters to swing and miss a third of the time according to STATS.
After missing the 2010 season to surgery, Nathan has proven durable in his late thirties. He pitched three consecutive days on four different occasions this past season, and pitched four days in a row twice down the stretch. However, he pitched more than three outs in only one of his 67 outings, though that wasn't so much a restriction as the product of a deep Rangers bullpen.
He says he has no different approach at 39 compared to age 29, other than a two-seamer that has allowed him to pitch for contact outs.
"I think mentally I go out there, I don't want to say with more confidence, but I'd say I've learned some things along the way," Nathan said. "Some things I'd say I've consciously learned, but some things just kind of happened naturally when I'm out there. Just being out there so much, things just happen second nature, and I've definitely learned how to pitch in this league.
"I think everybody knows my velocity's not the same as it was when I first got to Minnesota, but at the same time, I've picked up pitches along the way."
He's no longer that overpowering, intimidating figure, but he's still as close to a sure thing as there is in the ninth inning. And as his last stop takes him to a familiar spot, he's hoping it takes him to a place he has never seen.
"Everybody has one goal in mind, not just to win but to win a championship," he said. "That's why we're here."