The best-laid schemes of mice and men often go awry. Of all the problems the Tigers could have expected to have in the bullpen entering this season, closer was not one of them. Yet here Joe Nathan stood, the first week of June, in front of his locker in the Tigers' clubhouse in Detroit answering questions after what can only be described as a very bad week. Fans booed. Reporters asked manager Brad Ausmus if it might not be time to swap Nathan's role with setup man Joba Chamberlain. It is not, though that time may come soon.
Nathan allowed 10 runs all of last season. His total this year reached 16 on Tuesday, another four runners passing home plate on his watch in eight in his last three games. His ERA climbed to 6.86, the highest among regular members of the Tigers' bullpen.
"No question, I've got to be better," Nathan said. "They can boo me all they want. I am my biggest critic. No one will put myself down more than I do. So as much as they feel like they're being tough on me, I'm way tougher on myself."
His confidence unshaken -- "I'm throwing the ball too good" -- Nathan answered question after question, a noted change from days earlier in Oakland after another bad outing when he told media members to write what they want..
"It's tough mentally, but this isn't the first time I've gone through a funk and come out the other end," Nathan said. "I've dealt with two injuries. I've pitched much worse than this, trust me. That gives me the knowledge and confidence to know I'm fine. ... I felt like I had a pretty sharp slider. I think a lot of things just didn't go my way that inning. No excuses, I gotta be better. But there was a lot of bad luck out there too."
The baseball's got eyes, is what Nathan is saying, finding its way to the large green gaps in the field. Sometimes that luck has been a little more man-made, and not just by the batters, though they ought to receive some credit here. Sometimes it's been the Tigers' fielders. Last week in Oakland third baseman Nick Castellanos let the second out of the ninth inning deflect off his glove and into left field before Nathan served up the no-doubt walk-off home run to Josh Donaldson. Tuesday in Detroit Jose Bautista split the infielders when shortstop Andrew Romine and second baseman Ian Kinsler let a moment of confusion allow the ball to go through up the middle. Of course, sometimes that luck is not luck at all -- Nathan issued a pair of walks to the Jays, both of which eventually came around to score.
Taken together, that's a pretty good depiction of Nathan's problems this year. Despite a .281 batting average on balls in play, he's allowing nearly nine hits per nine innings. He's allowing a career-worst home-runs-per-fly-ball rate. He's walking a near career-worst 12 percent of batters. He's stranding just 59 percent of runners -- roughly 20 percent worse than his career norm. His velocity is down. Batters aren't chasing pitches outside the zone, and they're making contact on pitches inside the zone as often as ever.
The only bright spot for the Tigers is the knowledge their reclamation project, Chamberlain, has had the exact opposite experience. Three years after undergoing Tommy John surgery, his walk rate has decreased to below his career averages. His strikeout rate has rebounded. Opponents have scored on him just twice in his past 24 appearances. His addition to the team did not cause excitement in December, but fans are sure clamoring for him to pitch in key moments now.
Nathan is undoubtedly not as bad as he has looked in the past week, nor is he as good as he looked during the stretch mid-April to mid-May during which he allowed one run and went a perfect 10-for-10 in save opportunities. You're never as good as you look when you're winning, nor as bad as you do when you're losing. Nathan can't possibly be as bad as he's been, and sample sizes with relief pitchers can distort the facts. That and he's owed the remainder of a $20 million contract that expires after 2015.
So the Tigers just have to roll with it for now, as frightening as it may seem. It's in everyone's best interest that Nathan get back on track -- and definitely not in the Tigers' interest to create any more of a closer controversy in the meantime.