By Ashley Dunkak
CBS DETROIT - Detroit Tigers closer Joe Nathan never got much grace from Tigers fans, not after he came to Detroit with a reputation as one of baseball's best relievers only to give up five earned runs in his first four appearances for his new team.
A stretch between late May and early June in which Nathan gave up 12 earned runs in eight games made matters worse.
Wednesday fans booed Nathan from the first pitch he threw - a ball - and got predictably louder as he walked two batters. Eventually the Tigers got the victory anyway, and Nathan pointedly made the sign language gesture for "f--- you" to the crowd at Comerica Park.
Nathan has since apologized and continues to do so, but he also says fans might be a little too rough on Detroit's relievers, particularly him and Phil Coke.
"Do I agree sometimes with how hard they are on us coming out of the pen? No, I don't," Nathan said.
"I know what this city's about," Nathan continued later. "It's got hard-working, blue-collar people, and I think they want respect, and that's pretty much all I'm asking for too, is to give some support and some respect for what we're trying to do. This isn't an easy gig pitching late in the game, and sometimes things are going to happen that aren't going to go your way. Not just with me, I said it's with guys like Phil Coke, too, who has absolutely busted his butt while he's been here I think the last five years and shoot, basically almost got these guys into the World Series by himself when he was pitching out of the pen that year, and I just feel like sometimes they don't realize how hard it is to do it year in and year out and stay on top of your game year in and year out, and you're going to go through some slumps, and I did these first couple months, but I think I'm also have been scratching and clawing, and the last three months has gone pretty much like I want it to."
Nathan and Coke - who struggled last season also and later revealed that injury played a role - both had trouble early this year. Nathan had a 6.37 ERA through June, and Coke had a 5.16 through those first three months. In July and August, however, both have ERAs of 2.93.
Nathan has pitched 22 innings over 23 games since June 13, and he has allowed earned runs in six of those appearances, and only in one of those has he given up more than one earned run.
Coke has pitched in 21 2/3 innings over 24 games since June 16, and he has allowed earned runs in just three of those outings.
The Detroit bullpen as a whole leaves much to be desired, but there has been improvement. Nathan said part of the continued harshness by fans could stem from the fact that fans might not see that improvement.
"I think a lot of it is lack of knowledge," Nathan said. "I think they got frustrated from the first couple months of how I pitched – rightfully so – but the thing is for me the last couple months recently, things have gone well. I've pitched well, and not just myself but other pitchers coming out of the pen, just to name one Phil Coke, who threw the ball outstanding.
"Sometimes they just fall a little hard on us," Nathan added, "and I'm just asking them to give us support because honestly sometimes that little extra can help us out down this stretch when we are tired in August and into September."
When Nathan returned to the mound Saturday for his first outing since his gesture to the crowd, there was a mixture of booing and applause, with cheers eventually overruling the negative noise. Nathan described the relationship with fans as a hate-hate one, though he said there might be a few fans who still like him.
Nathan does not expect the fallout from his gesture to just go away, but he does want fans to understand that he cares about getting better and performing well for the Tigers.
"Sometimes I feel like, I don't know, maybe they think it's just show up to the park at 9:30 and pitch and hope things work out for the best and if it doesn't, who cares, we'll get 'em the next day," Nathan said. "That's not the case.
"People who have played with me for a long time that are in this clubhouse know me and know how much I care, and sometimes have to back me off because I care so much," Nathan added. "When I feel like fans don't realize what I've put in to get better this season, it hurts."
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