The Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins developed a nice little Midwestern tug-of-war in the mid-to-late 2000s. Although it never quite reached the magnitude of the historic rivalry between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees on a national scale, the competition may have felt just as intense for some Tigers fans who were around during the 1987 ALCS when the Twins, who won 13 fewer games than the Tigers, ended up winning the series four games to one.
Throughout the Tigers-Twins rivalry of the early 21st century, a man by the name of Joe Nathan, the Twins’ closer, was a constant thorn in the Tigers’ side. Whenever Nathan trotted out of the Twins’ bullpen, a feeling of impending doom would sweep over and engulf Tigers fans as the sight of No. 36 would essentially mean that the game was over.
Nathan’s career eventually hit a snag in 2010, and he was sidelined for the entire season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. But he returned to the Twins in 2011 and has spent the past two seasons as a member of the Texas Rangers where his dominance of the Tigers has continued.
In his career, Nathan is 2-1 and a perfect 36-for-36 in save opportunities against the Tigers with a sparkling 1.44 ERA and 75 strikeouts in 62.2 innings pitched.
Nathan, who recently turned 39 years of age, is now a member of the Tigers as he agreed to a two-year deal worth $20 million to come to the Motor City this past December. Tigers fans have been more than happy to forget about the past and let bygones be bygones. They have embraced their former nemesis with open arms for two reasons: They finally have a real closer and they are elated by the fact that they will not have to face him anymore.
In a matter of days, Nathan will be reporting to Spring Training, suiting up and going to work for the team he once tormented.
The Tigers became contenders again back in 2006, but the closing role has been the one area they have never been able to shore up — until now. Nathan has a chance to become the first real, dominating lockdown closer the Tigers have had since Willie Hernandez as long as he can just stay healthy.
Nevertheless, it may still seem a little strange to see Nathan come trotting out of the Tigers’ bullpen with the Old English D on the left side of his chest — at least at first. However, that feeling will likely fade once Nathan records his first handful or so saves as a member of the Tigers.
Nathan was as good as ever in 2013 as he saved 43 games and posted a 1.39 ERA. Pitching in the hitter-friendly confines of Rangers Ballpark in Arlington did not seem to phase him either as his ERA was actually lower at home at 1.31 than it was on the road at 1.48.
Pitching in spacious Comerica Park, which is quite arguably the best pitcher’s park in the American League, could only bode well for Nathan. Thus far, Nathan has a career ERA of 1.52 in 25 appearances at Comerica Park, and he is going to have an excellent defense behind him in 2014 as well.
If Nathan can keep his ERA under 2.00, he will accomplish something that no other Tigers closer has done in a full season since Mike Henneman posted a 1.87 ERA and recorded 22 saves in 91.1 innings pitched in 1988.
At any rate, Nathan is liable to solidify an area that has been the Tigers Achilles’ heel for several years now. The Tigers, as a team, blew 16 saves last season which is far too many for a team trying to win a championship. The addition of Nathan should most certainly shrink that number.
The Tigers have come so close to winning it all in recent years, and it could very well be the help of a former adversary that finally pushes the team over the finish line and allows them to win their first World Series title in 30 years.