DETROIT -- The latest bout of struggles from Tigers closer Joe Nathan turned what began as a four-run lead in the ninth inning Saturday night into a game-on-the-line situation. One bad pitch, one big swing from Red Sox shortstop Stephen Drew, could've put Boston in front of a game it hadn't yet led.
"We're going to need Joe Nathan," manager Brad Ausmus said. "Wanted to get him out there and throw some pitches, and kind of work through this."
None of the hits Nathan allowed Saturday were crushed -- in fact, all four hits were singles -- but they marked a season high for him. He hadn't given up four hits in an outing since Sept. 13, 2012. He gave up multiple runs for the fourth time in his last five outings. Two of his three outs were hit well, including a sacrifice fly that sent Torii Hunter back toward the track in right field, and a Drew fly ball that Austin Jackson had to run down.
Though fastball velocity has been a recurring theme, command seems to be hurting Nathan more. He fell behind five of the seven hitters he faced Saturday, including a trio of 2-0 counts.
For the season, Nathan's strike percentage is down 2 percent from last season, from 65.1 to 63.1. It's the type of strikes that present a more dramatic difference. Just 13 percent of his strikes so far have been swings and misses, the lowest percentage of his career. Conversely, nearly a third of his strikes have been called, the first time he has been over 30 percent in his career.
Opponents are making contact with 80 percent of their swings at Nathan's pitches for the first time since 2000, when Nathan was a starter in San Francisco.
For all the numbers and all the correlations with age, however, the Tigers have to get the 39-year-old right. They signed Nathan to a two-year contract in the offseason to close, and they plan to give him every opportunity to do so. Even if Nathan didn't have a long-term contract, the Tigers have neither the bullpen depth nor the logical successor at the moment to make a move.
"Like I said, we need Joe Nathan to be our closer," Ausmus said. "He'll work through this. I'm not concerned about him. He's a professional. He and [pitching coach Jeff Jones] are looking at video, and talking to find any little mechanical flaw that could be the root cause of this. He will get it ironed out."
Rookie shortstop Suarez says he's ready to help Tigers
DETROIT -- Give this to the Tigers: With so many veteran players in the dugout, they know how to give a hot-shot rookie a good silent treatment after a big home run.
"Everybody down in the dugout said nothing," Eugenio Suarez said of his triumphant trip back into the dugout after his first Major League home run Saturday night. "After I put my towel in my locker, everybody said, 'Hey, man, congratulations.'"
It was not coordinated, Torii Hunter said, but it was pulled off pretty well. Not even manager Brad Ausmus or the coaches acknowledged him on his way in.
"It wasn't well-orchestrated," Hunter said with a laugh later, joking around with J.D. Martinez, "because [Miguel Cabrera] was pumped up: 'That's my boy! That's my boy!' Miggy was funny. It was pretty cool."
Once Cabrera, the fellow Venezuelan, broke the ice, the rest of the dugout swarmed in.
"Miggy gave me a hug, Torii gave me a hug, said, 'Congratulations, man, welcome to big leagues,'" Suarez said.
It'll forever be a memory from a first Major League start that Suarez had to wait a few days to get thanks to a sore left knee. With more performances like Saturday, Suarez will be welcome for a while.
When Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski made the trip to Triple-A Toledo to watch Suarez two weeks ago, Suarez put on a hitting display that included a no-doubt home run that cleared everything in left at Fifth Third Field and hit the street outside the park. Suarez's home run Saturday looked a lot like that, a pulled shot for power to punish a left-hander for a fastball over the plate. It was a Jon Lester's cutter that didn't cut much, and Suarez was waiting for it.
"He threw me two cutters in a row," Suarez said. "In the first at-bat, he threw me a cutter, same cutter. In the second at-bat, at 3-2, he threw me a cutter, foul. He threw me a cutter again. That's a good pitch, but I was ready for that pitch. Hit it good, so it's a homer."
Two line drives into left field off John Lackey accounted for bigger runs Sunday. The first scored Austin Jackson in the third inning to open the Tigers' scoring, tying the game after Dustin Pedroia's sacrifice fly in the top half.
The second one came four innings later with the game tied once again, and it made fellow rookie infield Xander Bogaerts pay for an error on a potentially double-play grounder that instead left two runners on with nobody out.
That made Suarez just the 13th Tiger since 1914 to record an RBI in each of his first two starts in the big leagues. The previous, ironically, was Danny Worth, who Suarez replaced. He did it in 2010.
Suarez has enough offense that Ausmus let him swing away with runners on first and second and nobody out his first time up Saturday. With a weaker-hitting shortstop, it might have been a bunt situation, but Ausmus played for the big inning.
"We're not playing for one or two runs," Ausmus said. "We'd like to play for four or five. Generally, the big innings win you a game."
Suarez gives a little more capability to play for the big inning. The key to whether he becomes more than a midseason placeholder for the Tigers at shortstop ahead of next month's Trade Deadline will be whether he can mix some key hits with solid defense, something that wavered at the spot for the Tigers in recent weeks before they decided to give Suarez a shot.
Suarez wants the chance.
"I feel very good," Suarez said. "I feel ready to help the team, defense, offense. If they give me a chance, I think I'm going to work hard every day, helping the team. I feel, right now, that I'm ready to help the team."
Worth accepts assignment to Triple-A Toledo
DETROIT -- Tigers shortstop Danny Worth, designated for assignment earlier in the week to make room for Eugenio Suarez, decided to accept an outright assignment to Triple-A Toledo and is expected to join the Mud Hens soon.
As a player who was designated for assignment for a second time, Worth had the option to decline the assignment and opt for free agency. Considering Worth has been moved back and forth between Detroit and Toledo eight times since 2012, the decision would've been understandable.
The tradeoff would've been giving up a Major League contract, which still pays him even though he was taken off the 40-man roster. Though another team would've surely signed him if he hit the open market, there's no guarantee they would've signed him to a big league deal.
Worth played 20 games for the Tigers before the move, batting 7-for-42 with a double, five RBIs, two walks and 12 strikeouts. He made 11 starts at shortstop without an error, and he pitched two innings in relief to help out a short bullpen. Though Worth's success throwing a knuckleball has set up the question of whether he could try pitching full-time, team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said earlier this week that it hasn't been discussed.
Avila returns, will be watched closely by Tigers
DETROIT -- Alex Avlia returned to the Tigers' lineup Sunday night after missing a day with what team officials termed a mild concussion after taking a David Ortiz backswing to the helmet on Friday night. Still, everyone from manager Brad Ausmus to the team medical staff indicated they'll be keeping an eye on him.
When Avila took a foul tip that knocked him out of a game last August in Cleveland, he cleared a doctor's examination, passed concussion tests, flew to the next stop on the road trip and returned to action for a full game before the worst of the symptoms emerged the next day, three days after the actual injury. That forced him onto the concussion DL for just over two weeks.
"He had what's called delayed onset symptoms," head athletic trainer Kevin Rand said Saturday. "Obviously, we have to keep an eye on that."
Avila indicated Sunday he's feeling fine, with no lingering effects.
• Bryan Holaday's bunt single Saturday was his third bunt hit of the season. The Tigers' backup catcher not only leads the team, he entered Sunday tied for seventh in the American League. All six hitters ahead of him -- Nori Aoki, Asdrubal Cabrera, Michael Saunders, Jarrod Dyson, Alcides Escobar and Leonys Martin -- are considered speedy players. Holaday's seven infield hits trail Ian Kinsler by one for the team lead, and lead speedster Rajai Davis by one.
• Matt Martin finished out his first-base coaching stint Sunday night. He spent the weekend filling in for Omar Vizquel, who left the team to attend his son's high school graduation. With Martin on the field, video operations assistant August Sandri took over replay-review duties, relaying to bench coach Gene Lamont and Ausmus whether a close play is worth challenging.
• Nick Castellanos' 3-for-4 performance Saturday marked his third consecutive three-hit game, making him the fifth Tigers rookie in the last 100 years to put together such a streak. The others were Rick Peters in 1980, Willie Horton in 1965, Paul Easterling in 1928 and Fred Haney in 1922.