By Ashley Dunkak
CBS DETROIT - Detroit Tigers closer Joe Nathan can go on autopilot for this question, the one about a possible correlation between his roller coaster season and his advanced baseball age of 39. His answer, always, is that age is just a number. After earning a save in Detroit's Wednesday win over the Los Angeles Dodgers, Nathan explained yet again that he feels better than ever.
"Do I know I've lost velocity? Absolutely, I lost velocity on my fastball, but my slider's still about the same," Nathan said. "My curveball right now, for some reason, I think I'm throwing harder than I've ever thrown, which is weird and I wanted to take a look at it. Maybe because I am dropping a little bit it might be just the simple fact that my curveball's getting closer to my slider, but still a different pitch, which works out.
"The stuff's still there," Nathan continued. "Physically I'm still there. I've always said age is a number, and that's it. As long as you take care of yourself on and off the field, I've seen people pitch until they're 50. I know I'm not [Jamie] Moyer, I'm not a crafty lefty, and I'm not trying to pitch 'til I'm 50, but hopefully I'll get a few more years out of this thing."
The age-related inquiries began when Nathan underwent Tommy John surgery at age 35. His slow start to the 2011 season only intensified outside worries about time taking its inevitable toll.
Nathan rebounded in 2012, however, and last season he recorded a stellar ERA of 1.39.This season, however, he has given Detroit fans reason to wonder about him once again. At times he has looked like a completely different pitcher than the one who gave up more than one earned run just one time over his 67 outings in 2013.
After a scoreless outing in his debut for Detroit, Nathan allowed five runs in his next three games. From May 28 to June 7, he endured a ugly span of five games in which he gave up 10 games. Recently the drama has lessened, with the Tigers managing to win each of three straight games - June 21, June 25 and June 28 - in which Nathan gave up a run.
On the flip side, Nathan has enjoyed stretches of success. Between April 20 and May 16, Nathan did not allow a single run through 10 outings. He had another scoreless run over four games from June 13 to June 20, and he is currently on another three-game scoreless streak.
Recently, Nathan dropped his arm slot, and improvement came quickly. His stat line has not been spotless since then, but Nathan looks at more than the statistics.
"Most important thing in this game is location, and I know through these last few weeks, my location has been much better, even when – my outing before this one I gave up two hits, but one was a chopper up the middle and the other one was a flare shot off the end of the bat on a pitch down and away that was probably a ball," Nathan said. "Sometimes you've got to tip your hat and know that other guy's pretty good too, on the other side, and he gets paid a lot of money to go out there and swing the bat. Can't always be concerned with hits against and if you give up a run. You can't beat yourself up."
When Nathan struggled during that particularly nasty stretch in late May and early June, he tried to go back to basics to correct the problem - staying tall, getting on top of the ball, using his angle. His attempted fix backfired, however.
"I went from being tall and being here to being taller and being out of line," Nathan said, holding his arm up to demonstrate the different arm slots. "I was forcing things and getting taller and basically fighting myself. I was making things worse by trying to fix something. In theory, I had to do the opposite thing and bring my arm a little lower to keep my head in line."
When Nathan struck out the side June 19, he said lowering the arm slot made pitching feel much easier. While the change felt awkward at first, Nathan said the adjustment has felt more natural with every outing.
"Each time out it has gotten more and more comfortable, especially with breaking balls," Nathan said. "That was the one concern was how comfortable and when would I feel comfortable with release point as far as throwing it in and out with breaking pitches, and that's getting better and better as we go along."
Nathan's age and intermittent struggles aside, Tigers catcher Alex Avila said he never doubted the closer.
"His stuff has always been good," Avila said. "For me, with Joe, when he's struggling, he's not throwing strikes. That's just the bottom line. That's normally the case for most pitchers. When he's able to command all of his pitches in the zone, be able to throw them for strikes, and then throw them out of the zone when he wants to, his stuff hasn't left him. It's just a matter of being able to command it."
Avila said it has been exciting to see the progression of Nathan, one of the most important - and most expensive - acquisitions for the Tigers this offseason.
"We're going to need him, for sure, especially where we want to go," Avila said. "Get into the playoffs, hopefully we can achieve that. He's going to be a big part of that. And in the playoffs, we're going to need him."
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