First place on the line for Tigers

Tigers lost 5-3 Sunday night

By Rob Parker - Sports Columnist
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DETROIT - Three weeks ago, it was totally inconceivable.

First place in the American League Central was owned by the Tigers. In fact, it appeared as if it was just a foregone conclusion that the Tigers would not only win the Central Division for the fourth straight year, but head to the ALCS for the fourth season in a row as well.

That's how well things were going for first-year manager Brad Ausmus. Everything was perfect. They were a well-oiled machine. The Tigers had just swept the Red Sox in Boston, giving them an 11-game road win streak. It was almost an impossible feat.

They were at the top of the power rankings. Vegas had them as favorites to finally win the World Series.

That victory in Boston was on a Sunday night in front of a national TV audience back on May 18th. It shook up MLB America.

 Just three weeks later, the Tigers are in bad shape.

It's not just a slump. That's usually a week or 10 days. The Tigers are in a full blown crisis as their poor play enters a full month.

The Red Sox's comeback 5-3 victory over the Tigers at Comerica Park on Sunday night - courtesy of David Ortiz's three-run jack off Joba Chamberlain - really stung.

It stopped the Tigers from sweeping the Red Sox again.

Somehow, the Tigers have now lost 14 of their previous 20 games.

Somehow, the entire AL Central is back in play, just five games separate the Tigers at the top and the Twins at the bottom.

The Tigers have an important stretch of games, 13 straight games within the division. It starts tonight in Chicago with a four-game series against the White Sox.

After that, they are back home for six - three against the Twins and Royals. Then back on the road for three in Cleveland.

If things don't improve as soon as possible, the Tigers could find themselves out of first place in the next week or so.

The worst part about Sunday's collapse is a brutal reminder that those bullpen woes that plagued the Tigers a year ago against the Red Sox in the ALCS are still there, still in the way of the Tigers winning their first World Series since 1984.

Yes, the Tigers have a major problem securing games at the end. Without a good bullpen, the Tigers' starting pitching and lineup will be negated.

Most thought the problem was first Phil Coke, who pitched well Sunday night. But the lefty has a bloated ERA and has been bad this season.

Then, the panic meter went through the roof when closer Joe Nathan came unglued. He's already blown more saves (four) this season than he did a year ago in Texas (three).

Nathan was supposed to be key this season. He was supposed to be the fix, the one guy you could count on in the backend of the bullpen.

On Saturday, Nathan gave everyone a scare. Despite having a four-run lead when he came into the game in the ninth inning, Nathan gave up two runs on four hits en route to throwing 32 pitches. It was another shaky outing.

Nonetheless, Ausmus still believes in Nathan. And he thinks Nathan will be able to pitch himself out of his woes.

"Generally, you don't get through a pitching or hitting slump by hitting on your hands," Ausmus said. "That was kind of the reason we got him in there the last few days, hoping we can help him work through this.

"The first day worked well. (Saturday) not as well obviously."

On Sunday, Chamberlain, in Nathan's role for the night, gave up three runs on the homer to Ortiz.

In all, the Tigers have given up 46 runs in the ninth inning so far this season. It's an incredible number, a number that should scare GM Dave Dombrowski.

The Tigers need Nathan, 39, now. There's no way around that. "We need this guy to pitch for us," said Ausmus about Nathan, who signed a two-year contract for $20 million.

The Tigers have to fix this problem - and fast. They won't reach their goal without a reliable closer.

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