DETROIT - 2014 has been a tough year on and off the field for closer Joe Nathan in his first season with the Detroit Tigers. After nine straight years of shutting down hitters around the league in the ninth inning, Nathan ran into the worst troubles of his career in Detroit.
Dislike between the fans and Nathan has reached a point where the 39-year-old is showered with boos every time he trots out of the bullpen. But what bothers the fans most?
Below are the top five reasons that Nathan has become the most disliked athlete on the Tigers' roster, and possibly in all of Detroit.
5. Fans love Nick Castellanos, but Joe Nathan was mean to Nick Castellanos
Up until May 28, Nathan's only problem was his simple inability to get batters out on the field. But when he served up a walk-off three-run home run to Josh Donaldson in Oakland on that fateful Wednesday night, his comments after the game provided the spark that turned into a blazing fire of contempt towards the reliever.
When asked about his performance in the ninth inning, Nathan pointed at the play before Donaldson's home run, when a soft line drive to Castellanos at third base should have given the Tigers the second out of the inning. But instead of landing in the rookie's glove, the ball bounced off it and landed in left field for a "single." Coco Crisp, who led off the inning with a double against Starter Anibal Sanchez, moved to third base on the play.
The rest is history: Donaldson hit a mammoth blast to left field, the A's partied at home plate, and Nathan got defensive in front of reporters. He claimed that if Castellanos had caught the line drive his approach would have changed against Donaldson, and he could have been more careful with first base open.
That may be true, but he still served up a 394-foot bomb without any help from the 22-year-old third baseman.
The bottom line is that Tigers fans tolerated Nathan's struggles while the team was winning and he kept his mouth shut. But when he threw the franchise's top prospect under the bus, he touched a nerve.
Castellanos has a wealth of talent on the baseball field, but more importantly, he plays hard and helps the team win. Nathan hasn't done that.
4. Joe Nathan's pitching has been, to say the least, poor
When Dave Dombrowski landed the top closer on the market this offseason, he did so with as much pent-up frustration as any other fan in Detroit. For a city that survived the Todd Jones era, the Jose Valverde era and the Tigers' version of Fernando Rodney, stability in the ninth inning would surely help the city of Detroit sleep a little better at night.
Nathan wasted little time setting the tone for a disastrous season, blowing his first save opportunity of the season on April 2 against the Royals. One week later he surrendered three runs to the Dodgers for another blown save, and his season has been littered with ninth-inning meltdowns ever since.
Detroit waited patiently for Nathan to regain his previous form, but six blown saves and a 5.11 ERA have run that patience thin after 47 appearances from the former All-Star. The Tigers are trying to win a World Series this season, and fans can't stand that Nathan is getting in the way of that.
3. Joe Nathan beats the Tigers, no matter what team he plays for
Plenty of relief pitchers have come and gone from the Tigers' bullpen because they just couldn't get the job done. But none of them garnered as much frustration from the fans as Nathan has. The reason: He tortured the Tigers for nine years since his first game with the Twins in 2004.
When Nathan came to Detroit, he joined a group that knew firsthand how unhittable he could be. In fact, the 39-year-old is 36/36 in save chances against the Tigers and allowed only four runs in 18 appearances in Comerica Park entering 2014. Dombrowski figured if the Tigers couldn't beat him, it would be in their best interest to join him, but that plan has crashed and burned.
If Nathan was a bad pitcher, then this season would be much easier for Tigers fans to swallow. But he was one of the greatest Tiger killers in the league over his career, so his collapse creates a special kind of disgust in Detroit.
2. Joe Nathan was not very considerate when he flipped off Tigers fans ... twice
On Wednesday Nathan was at it again when he came into the game with a four-run lead and proceeded to walk the first two Pirates he faced. Fed-up fans booed the closer even after a nifty double play turned by (ahem) Castellanos at third base saved Nathan from another disaster.
Nathan responded to the boos by gesturing toward the crowd, flipping his finger and glove under his chin. This move, which was obviously caught on camera, prompted a half-hearted apology from Nathan who probably spent the night tossing and turning as he realized the fans are the ones who allow him to make $10 million on a baseball field.
The simple truth is that fans have a right to boo Nathan. Comerica Park hosted 3 million fans last season, which gives Dombrowski and Mike Ilitch reason to overpay for stars like Nathan. His apology won't do much to silence the boos that provoked such a gesture.
1. Joe Nathan absolutely insists on blaming everyone but Joe Nathan for his struggles
Everyone remembers when Nathan threw Castellanos under the bus in Oakland, but that was just the first round of his version of the blame game. Nathan has blown six saves this season, which has birthed a variety of excuses.
As if blaming Castellanos wasn't absurd enough, Nathan hinted a few weeks ago that Miguel Cabrera had a hand in his latest blown save. Nathan began the statement by questioning the only person in Detroit that appears to have any faith in him: Brad Ausmus. Though his closer likely would have walked him anyways, Ausmus decided to intentionally walk Jose Bautista with the tying run on second base. The next batter hit a single into right field to tie the game before Nathan loaded the bases and was removed.
Nathan first questioned whether walking Bautista was the right move, then said Cabrera would have made the final out if he had been in position instead of holding the runner on first base.
Tigers fans just want Nathan to look in the mirror: there's only one person on the mound during those blown saves, and it's not Ausmus or Cabrera.
What can Nathan do?
Nathan's situation in Detroit seems like a lost cause, but there's a simple fix to the mess he finds himself in.
The most important step is for Nathan to pitch better. The Tigers didn't bring him to Detroit to make friends with the fans, they brought him here to get three outs in the ninth inning and help the team win a World Series. If he can't do his job then he will never shake the persistent boos.
When he does blow a save he has to own it. As Nathan so eloquently stated after his blown save in Toronto, relievers "aren't robots," and tough outings will happen. But blaming his teammates and taking his frustration out on fans won't get him anywhere.
There's still a chance for Nathan to fix his reputation in Detroit, but if he can't don't worry, he "won't let it ruin his day."
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