DETROIT -- Joe Nathan became a closer in a Twins uniform. What he did with the role made him a hero in Minnesota, and built the track record that Tigers manager Brad Ausmus is leaning on as he counts on a turnaround for his closer.
It made for a striking intersection of past and present, then, as Ausmus walked to the mound to pull Nathan with two outs in the ninth inning, having watched Nathan walk in an insurance run for the Twins in their 2-0 win Friday night.
It wasn't a save situation, but it was a game the Tigers needed to keep close. It was also a night when Ausmus needed to get Nathan some work, having not pitched him since last Saturday. At the same time, he reiterated, he needs to get Nathan going.
He ended up having to take Nathan out. Six days after giving up four hits to the Red Sox before finishing out a win for the Tigers, he gave up an insurance run -- albeit unearned -- without allowing a hit.
He threw 29 pitches, 16 for strikes, yet walked two batters and hit another, before Phil Coke entered to end the inning.
"It's no different now than it was 24 hours ago," Ausmus said when asked about his concern over Nathan. "I've said before, we need Joe Nathan to pitch well. This wasn't a save situation, obviously, but we need him to pitch well. We need him to close out games when he's called upon to do that."
Nathan was not available for comment after the game.
The run he allowed actually reached base on an error, Eugenio Suarez's first in the Majors, putting Josh Willingham on base after a ground ball. Kendrys Morales drove Nathan's next pitch to the depths of center field, but Austin Jackson ran it down for a long out.
Nathan threw a wild pitch that advanced pinch-runner Sam Fuld into scoring position, but used a 93-mph fastball to retire Oswaldo Arcia on a ground ball to second. Fuld moved to third base, but Nathan only needed an out to keep it a 1-0 game.
The out never came, even though the big hit didn't either. Nathan put ex-teammate Trevor Plouffe in a 1-2 count before missing on his next three pitches for a walk. After using a slider for a first-pitch foul ball from Eduardo Nunez, Nathan lost a fastball and hit Nunez to load the bases.
Up came Eduardo Escobar, whose third-inning home run off starter Drew Smyly accounted for the game's lone run at that point. Nathan recovered from a 2-0 count to get two strikes on Escobar, including a 93-mph fastball for his only swing-and-miss of the inning.
Nathan tried for another, but Escobar fouled off his next five pitches to stay alive. Nathan then tried to spot back-to-back fastballs, but missed.
"The 2-2 was definitely a ball," catcher Bryan Holaday said. "The 3-2 was, too, but it was fairly close. It was a good pitch, just off barely."
It was a microcosm of the struggles Nathan has been facing recently. He has recorded seven strikeouts over 11 innings over the past month, but only one in four June outings. At the same time, he has recorded just 12 swings and misses in 220 pitches in that stretch, and not more than two in an outing.
Putkonen out two more months after Friday's surgery
DETROIT -- An already frustrating, injury-plagued season for Luke Putkonen hit a new hurdle Friday, when the Tigers long reliever underwent surgery to shave down a bone spur on his right elbow.
It's not necessarily season-ending surgery, but it's expected to sideline Putkonen for at least two more months. He'll be limited to rest and rehab work for the next 6-8 weeks before being re-evaluated.
This injury is apparently not new. Though Putkonen has been on the disabled list since April 19 with right elbow inflammation, Tigers head athletic trainer Kevin Rand said an MRI exam Putkonen had last month revealed what Rand termed a posterior osteophyte on the elbow. Essentially, it's bone growth near the olecranon, the bone at the tip of the elbow.
"You can have a lot of guys that'll have those type of bony-type changes in their elbow from pitching," Rand said. "The question is, are you going to be able to get that quiet [enough] where you can go through and have no issues with it, and obviously he wasn't able to. You could see he was able to get to a certain level, but he wasn't able to get to that level that he felt he needed to have to be able to pitch."
Putkonen began playing catch again about two weeks ago, but never progressed to the point of throwing off a mound.
"Hopefully that'll take care of his issues," Rand said of the surgery.
Putkonen's injury has left the Tigers without a true long reliever for most of the season. It wasn't an issue when the Tigers were getting dominant starts in bunches from their rotation early in the season, but the absence has been noticeable in recent weeks. Manager Brad Ausmus has used several relievers to cover innings from short starts, leaving Detroit's bullpen short-handed at times.
Dirks nearing Minor League rehab assignment
DETROIT -- The long rehab process of Andy Dirks might finally have an end in sight. The Tigers outfielder, who underwent back surgery three months ago, has progressed to full baseball activity and could be ready for a Minor League rehab assignment by the end of next week.
Dirks took swings against live pitching Friday in an intrasquad game at the Tigers' Spring Training complex in Lakeland, Fla., his first game action since his surgery. He did not run the bases because of wet field conditions.
"He's prepared to play in a couple more intrasquad games and once he's ready to start his rehab progression, then we'll make an announcement," head athletic trainer Kevin Rand said Friday.
Dirks spent the past few weeks doing light baseball activity, easing slowly back into activity following his surgery to repair a disk in his lower back that had been bothering him since high school.
Dirks' absence changed the Tigers' left-field mix, turning what was expected to be a platoon with him and Rajai Davis into regular play for Davis. A healthy return from Dirks would give Detroit a much-needed impact bat from the left side.
The Tigers have an exhibition game scheduled in Lakeland early next week. Rand said he hopes to get Dirks into that game for full activity before deciding on a rehab assignment. By rule, a position player can go out on rehab for 20 days before a team has to make a decision on him.
Hanrahan building up arm strength in recovery
DETROIT -- Five weeks after the Tigers signed Joel Hanrahan amidst his rehab from Tommy John surgery, the former Pirates and Red Sox closer appears to be closing in on facing hitters again. The team medical staff is optimistic that he has regained enough arm strength to start facing hitters soon in live batting practice sessions.
"We're hoping at this point that we can kind of get over the hump in the near future and throw to some live hitters," Tigers head athletic trainer Kevin Rand said. "He's close to live hitters at this point."
Essentially, it's like Spring Training for Hanrahan, who underwent surgery a year ago. It's a step that seemingly was ahead a few weeks back, but the Tigers paused Hanrahan's program after he was struggling with arm strength in his mound sessions.
After that, the Tigers took their time with Hanrahan, who has been throwing off a mound without hitters for the past few weeks. It's the scenario the Tigers had in mind when they hesitated to give a timetable for Hanrahan to be brought off the disabled list. Hanrahan, for his part, was hoping for a return sometime in June, but that seems increasingly optimistic.
Ausmus eases Alburquerque's workload out of 'pen
DETROIT -- Two weeks after Tigers manager Brad Ausmus openly worried about overworking strikeout-tossing reliever Al Alburquerque, he seems to have found a plan to ease the workload while still using him when needed. Essentially, he's saving him for situational work.
Nearly two weeks into June, Alburquerque has pitched in just three games this month. Part of that has been the lack of need for him when they've been trailing so frequently. When he has pitched, though, he has been limited to short work.
Alburquerque faced four batters and threw 11 pitches while recording four outs on May 31, the end of a stretch in which he pitched nine times in a two-week stretch. He has faced four batters and thrown 11 pitches in three appearances since.
"I've certainly been aware of how much we've used Alburquerque over the first two months," Ausmus said. "I've tried to be a little more careful on how we use Alburquerque, because we're going to need him for August and September."
All three June appearances have come with two outs and two runners on base. It's a risk given Alburquerque's past tendencies to struggle throwing strikes early on, but it has forced Alburquerque to focus on his stuff warming up so that he can throw his best stuff from the first pitch.
"When you have to come in with people on base, you have to make a good pitch," Alburquerque said. "Try to be aggressive and make a good pitch. It's different."
Alburquerque, too, has done his part to watch his arm, trying to give it a little more rest between outings instead of too much side work.
The result has seen Alburquerque drop off from the American League lead in games pitched. He entered Friday with 32 appearances, tied for third in the league behind Cleveland lefty Marc Rzepczynski and Oakland setup man Luke Gregerson. He's also tied for the team lead with lefty Ian Krol.