DETROIT -- Joe Nathan almost didn't get the opportunity to pitch the ninth inning Saturday, in the nightcap of a doubleheader against the Indians.
And after he served up a tiebreaking three-run double to Carlos Santana, the veteran closer's claim to the ninth is likely as tenuous as ever. Cleveland slammed the door shut in the bottom half of the inning to take both ends of the twin bill with a 5-2 win over the Tigers, who find themselves in desperate need of a win Sunday to avoid a four-game series sweep.
Pitching for the first time in the second half, Nathan didn't do much to put to rest the questions of the 39-year-old's effectiveness that plagued his first half. Quite the opposite, in fact -- they grew louder.
Manager Brad Ausmus said after the game that he had planned to give the ball back to Joba Chamberlain after he needed just six pitches to retire the Indians in the eighth. An ankle flareup prevented Chamberlain from pitching the ninth on Saturday night.
Still, the dominant performance, combined with Nathan's latest catastrophe, forced Ausmus to again answer questions about possibly moving Chamberlain to the closer role.
The rookie skipper said he's "not near that point" where he would have to make a change in the back end of the bullpen yet. But he noted that, should Chamberlain eventually fill that role nicely, that doesn't solve the team's bullpen woes.
"Like I said, earlier [in the season], we kind of need him to pitch and be Joe Nathan," Ausmus said. "If Joe isn't closing and you have Joba [closing] and for some reason that's what happens, well how do you get to Joba? There's still got to be a chain to get to the closer.
"Joe's done it for years. It wasn't a good outing tonight, but he's our closer."
The Tigers' night might have taken a completely different path had Roberto Perez's ninth-inning double off Nathan also have taken a different trajectory.
Leading off the frame, Perez, in just his second big league game, found Detroit center fielder Austin Jackson's least favorite part of the Comerica Park outfield. Jackson retreated quickly and seemed to have the ball all the way, even as far as his glove. But he bumped awkwardly into the right-center-field electronic scoreboard, and the ball came loose.
"I don't ever remember trying to make a catch in that part of the field," Jackson said. "As many balls as have been hit out there, I can't recall making a play there. It was a little different. You're running back into a chain-link fence and your depth perception is kind of off a little bit. Went hard after it and wasn't able to come up with it."
Nathan walked Jason Kipnis, and Ausmus opted to pitch to Santana instead of Michael Brantley.
"Brantley's killed us," Ausmus said, highlighting the Cleveland star's .325 career batting average against Detroit. "He's been their best hitter certainly all year. He's hit the Tigers well the past few years. Really wasn't that tough a decision. Not to knock Santana, but Brantley's killed us."
Nevertheless, Santana made Detroit pay. He cleared the bases with a double to the right-center-field gap off a middle-of-the-zone Nathan fastball. A tied game had turned quickly into a sizeable late deficit for the Tigers.
Catcher Alex Avila said it was clear that Nathan didn't have very good command of his two-seamer.
"Just left some balls over the plate, a little bit of command," Avila said.
Trailing 2-1 earlier in the game, Detroit was down to its final seven outs. Starting pitcher Max Scherzer had given up two solo shots to Chris Dickerson, but a hustle play by Eugenio Suarez in the seventh made sure the Tigers wouldn't be behind in the final innings.
Suarez grounded one to the shortstop that seemed destined to be a double-play ball, but he beat the throw to first. The next batter, Jackson, tripled him home to tie the game.
But Cleveland busted it open in the ninth, moving to the verge of a sweep. It was a May sweep at the hands of the Indians that began the Tigers' precipitous decline during the first half. They'd since come roaring back from that month-long slump that only briefly toppled them from the AL Central top spot, until the current four-game losing streak.
And now, just 4 1/2 games up on Cleveland, Detroit will need a win Sunday to keep the start of that nightmare skid from replaying itself.
Matt Slovin is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.