By: Kurt Snyder
Not until Joe Nathan arrived in Detroit from Texas in the spring of 2014 did I notice. Not until he started struggling to close games did I notice.
Joe Nathan was not used to failing. And he didn’t seem too good at handling it. Of course, one of the traits shared by the best closers in the game is the ability to forget the bad day and get ready to be good again the next. The good ones can all do that. And Joe Nathan was no different.
But when you are used to consistent success, and being one of the top closers in the league year after year, and it starts to get away, it must wear on you. When it looks like the end is getting close, you can’t prepare for how you’re going to react. Some can handle it with grace, treating it as a great run, but some are not so accepting, not ready at all for the cheers to wane. They fight it. They find themselves angered by the process.
Nathan struggled most of last season, got a little impatient with reporters in the locker room, and made gestures to fans he would certainly take back if he could. And during spring training this year, he reacted poorly to some booing fans in Lakeland, another instance where, if he could reel it back in, he would.
But maybe, finally, I am ready to give Joe the benefit of the doubt. I’ve been quietly pretty hard on him. But he’s had too great of a career. He’s earned much more respect than he has been given. The Tigers, plain and simple, just signed Nathan too late. It’s nothing they saw coming. Joe had shown little sign of slowing down prior to coming to Detroit.
At age 39, his skills began to degrade. And as he has continued to age (now 40), his velocity has decreased and his overall “stuff” has become very ordinary, and quite hittable; traits not listed anywhere on the resume of a ninth inning closer. He’s just not fooling anyone anymore, and you know who hates it more than we do? Joe Nathan.
I wasn’t pleased with his antics last season and how he handled his bouts of frustration. But I guess, if I were in his shoes, having experienced so much success as a closer, any sign of it potentially coming to an end, would be tough to handle gracefully.
We have speculated on this forum about what the Tigers might do when it is time for Nathan to return to the team and pitch again. And Brad Ausmus has insinuated that the plan would be to return him to his spot as closer.
But something has happened while Nathan has been on the DL. A new sheriff has emerged in this town. Joakim Soria has taken the job and frankly, he has run with hit. And I don’t think it would be too wise to take it from him.
Soria has calmed things down in the ninth. In fact there is only one way to describe ninth innings since he took over the role; short and sweet. Soria has come in and shut the door quickly over the course of the first couple weeks of the season. And it has been a welcomed sight for Tiger fans. Suffering again like we did last season, during so many agonizing ninth innings, is nothing we are at all interested in again this year.
But this week, Joe has made it known that maybe he has come to the realization that this is probably it for him after this season. And winning a championship is really the only goal, and he doesn’t necessarily have to be the closer to help. He need only help, whenever it is needed.
Joe had this to say regarding his role with the Tigers going forward:
“I am 40 years old …. my worries are never about where I am pitching. My worries are about helping this team to get where we want to be.”
Well, don’t worry Joe. Because that’s the attitude this team will need from everyone if we are to get this thing done.
I think Joe knows we can’t win without the Joe of Old. Unfortunately, that Joe never came to town from Texas. All we got is Old Joe. And I think he may be coming to terms with that.
At first, the emergence of Soria made me think Nathan would never sign up for a lesser role with this team. I didn’t think his ego could stand for it. But you know what? Joe may have already volunteered to step aside.
I think we have our closer. The decision may have already been made. And Joakim Soria’s biggest fan may be Joe Nathan himself.