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An attempt to explain the unfathomable Joe Nathan 9th-inning experience

Joe Nathan was good. Then he moved 1,200 miles away and he wasn’t.

First the blown saves came as an aberration, then they arrived as a symptom of a dead arm. Eventually they arrived simply because they had before.

At its most basic, baseball is a child monitoring device. Nine players stand in the field, in easy view. Parents have a finite number of kids to watch at one time. The rest are safe in what most of the time is a chain-link cage. The plus is crowd control. The minus is downtime for the kids. When you’re nine it doesn’t matter. You play handslaps with David or look at the bee buzzing around. But make adults play the game, give them millions of dollars and have thousands of unrelenting strangers watch and it’s different. That downtime isn’t so innocent. For a person that pitches every few days in only high-pressure situations it becomes torture. He can play with sunflower seeds, dip, and mess around in the bullpen, but eventually that projector screen in his head will roll. Every mistake will play.

After Tuesday’s game Nathan has seven blown saves, tied for second most in the league. His velocity is down and his breaking pitches don’t have the same movement it used to. His control is gone. That’s the what. It’s harder to explain the why. Age is too simple an explanation. The advanced stats people won’t say it’s the only reason for his drop off. After all, how different is 39 from 38? At age 38, Nathan had a 1.39 ERA. Simple regression doesn’t explain a 3.5 jump. So year, at its core, the ninth inning is a Joe Nathan problem even if nobody can explain why. But how many men must fail in his position before it become less about who the player is than the position?

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Nevin Lawson was the Detroit Lions’ man from nowhere; Now he’s got to go back

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He was a two-star recruit. He went to a faraway land and molded himself into a fourth-round draft pick. When he came to training camp he was still mystery for Lions coaches to solve when they had more time. In the meantime he could cover kicks.

Then Detroit cut the only reliable player it had in the secondary. Free agent signing James Ihedigbo injured his neck. Perennial backup Don Carey hurt his hamstring.  Bill Bentley’s knee exploded after three plays. The Lions had no replacements to plug in or safeties to slide over.

Nevin Lawson had to grab his helmet, run out to the field and line up opposite of Victor Cruz. One bad play and he’d be responsible for a salsa dance on national TV. “We weren’t planning on him playing a whole bunch.” His defensive coordinator admitted that.

The salsa never came. The man from nowhere started writing his history. He was the Lions nickelback. He wasn’t bad. The Giants knew that. The Panthers were learning too. Then his left foot went one way and his entire body went the other. His foot became such a mangled mess he couldn’t watch the rest of his team lose. Instead he traveled straight to the hospital for surgery.

In the postgame press conference, the media asked Jim Caldwell about Lawson’s injury multiple times. After the last one, the coach momentarily strayed from his sleepy demeanor. The question annoyed him. He had to move forward. Detroit had 14 games left. .

“The doctors determined that is was best to get (surgery) done immediately,” Caldwell said sternly before reverting back to his normal state. “The type of injury he has, they did not want it to sit in its present shape.”

In its present shape. Football is a wood chipper. It has a way of tearing you apart.

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Sunday Red Wings rumor roundup: Daniel Alfredsson comeback sidelined; Pavel Datsyuk gets new line mate

Every Sunday I’ll bring you a recap of all the legitimate Red Wings-related transaction and signing rumors from the previous week. I see all this stuff anyway. I figured I might as well share it with you.

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About the Tigers running away from the AL Central…

Tigers lose

So…about that one time I told you not to watch the baseball regular season.

I said it was already over, that the 31-22 Tigers would run away with the division. I said it wasn’t that the Tigers weren’t that good, just that the rest of their division was that bad.

The Tigers have 16 games left. They sit a half game behind the Royals in the AL Central and a half game ahead of the Mariners for the final wildcard spot. I got it wrong. But I’m not alone.

When the Tigers traded for David Price and the Athletics traded for half the starting pitchers in the league, a lot of reporters joked about just canceling the end of the season and letting the Athletics and the Tigers square off for the de facto World Series. Now it looks like their series will be a one-game playoff between two wildcard teams.

How were we supposed to know the Tigers would be almost .500 (49-44) from there on out?

How were supposed to know the last-place Royals would play their next 88 games nearly 20 games over .500 (53-35)?

How were we supposed to know that the manager most Royals fans hate, the one with the crooked bottom lip was all of the sudden going to find the right formula?

How were we supposed to know that an “offensively-impaired” Royals team (as ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick put it) would be the first legitimate contender in recent history to have a chance to break the Royals’ 28-year postseason drought?

How were we supposed to know that a rookie starting pitcher, Yordano Ventura, would post a 3.27 ERA?

How were we supposed to know that Jason Vargas — career ERA 4.14 — would post a 3.25 ERA?

How were we supposed to know that Miguel Cabrera would hit one home run in all of August?

How were we supposed to know that Justin Verlander would never figure it out this season, that he would have a 4.82 ERA in the final month?

How were we supposed to know that the Tigers would give up their starting center fielder for David Price and that after seven starts for the Tigers Price’s ERA would be a full run higher than the 3.11 he posted in Tampa Bay this season?

How were we supposed to know that the only given the Tigers would have in their bullpen would be Blaine Hardy? (Well, to be fair, I did see Hardy’s manifest destiny of the American League coming.)

But after all that we didn’t see, we still might not be wrong. Very few things are givens in baseball, but one of them is that the Royals are still the Royals until they prove otherwise. Kansas City has half a month to screw this thing up, and even if they don’t the division will probably come down to a three-game series between the Tigers and Royals that starts on September 19th anyway. If the Tigers win that, then what I said in June will technically be right. The Tigers were in first place in June and they’ll be in first place by the end of September. You haven’t missed anything.

Still, it’s time to pay attention if you haven’t already. Especially on September 19.

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JMMA Week 1 update: We actually have players playing in the NFL

(New feature: Both George Johnson and Jacques McClendon are on actual NFL rosters and are playing in actual NFL games, so we’ll be checking in with them periodically throughout the season. It probably won’t be every week, but when something happens with the JMMA winners, you’ll know about it.)

Michael Strahahn holds the single-season sack record, with 22.5. George Johnson is on pace to break it, with wiggle room.

Johnson switched from No. 68 to No. 93 before the first game, the latter of which I assume will be his Madden rating by the end of the year. He recorded 1.5 sacks on Monday along with three tackles (two solo), one tackle for loss, two QB hits and one sweet Carlton-like celebration after he ran a stunt and barreled almost untouched into Eli Manning.

Fifteen more games of this and Johnson will end the season with 24 sacks. Unrealistic you say? I say you don’t know George. … And that you’re right.

That doesn’t change the fact that a man who went from being one non-call away from leaving football to making the rotation on one of the deepest defensive lines in the league just lit it up on Monday Night Football.

Johnson is a straight pass rusher. He’ll come in on long second and third downs and he’ll be going one-on-one most of the time as the opposing line devotes man power to Ndamukong Suh. It’s favorable for Johnson — if the Lions can get in those situations regularly.

The Giants — to use a technical term — are a fire in a barrel that’s been thrown into a dumpster fire. They can’t run, so they pass. And when they pass they have Eli Manning throwing the ball to Victor Cruz and a bunch of guys no one has in their fantasy leagues. It was the perfect situation for Johnson to do what he does. But that won’t always be the case. The Lions will be trailing in probably around 50 percent of their games. Teams will run the ball. When that happens Johnson will play only a handful of snaps a game.

So temper expectations, maybe to around 20 sacks or so.

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The Lions, the Giants and releasing those Monday Night Football demons

It was one game, one win over a bad team.

But it was one that left one presumably drunk man so content that he had no choice but to lie on a street in Detroit at midnight and tell the city that they as a group had f—— did it mannn. We’re on the outside. We laugh at this man and pity him. Sir, what are you doing? That ground is dirty and sticky. You should go home. Where are your friends? They must come get you.

On the inside, lying down was the most logical action. A lot of the reasoning behind it was the alcohol. Maybe all of it was the alcohol. But I think this man felt more than just drunk. He had something else in him. Something different. He would explain it to you if he could.

Were you not there? Did you not experience it? Of course you didn’t. If you did, you’d be lying on some curb like me. This collection of men thrown together to wear blue uniforms and push a ball down a field, they’re back after a long absence, after hope turned into despair. They dominated and they did it on with everyone watching. Don’t you get it? This doesn’t happen often, man. We can’t just let it go. Lie down. Let it soak in. We can hang onto to this for a little while longer. 

This was Monday Night football. A national showcase. The Lions don’t win national showcases. (Unless it’s 2011, but that year looks more like an aberration each day.) They go on nine-game Thanksgiving losing streaks and only get bailed out when they face a team led by Matt Flynn. They lose potential season-saving Monday Night games against 8-8 teams. This has been the Lions identity for three years. When they get the opportunity to play Carnegie Hall they forget their instruments.

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The 2014 Detroit Lions story: A referendum on Matt Stafford and his matrix

Wonder Boy

Wonder Boy

He was the Wonder Boy. No. He is the Wonder Boy. He’s the kid groomed to be a quarterback from sixth grade, the kid that as a seventh grader had Highland Park High School thinking about a state championship, the kid that as a freshman had Georgia thinking about a national championship. He’s the man supposed to break the curse of Bobby Layne.

Matthew Stafford is 6-foot-3, 232 pounds. He possesses a rifle arm, a firebolt football mind, a cool demeanor and an innate ability to have people want to follow him. He hasn’t so much lived a life as had one preordained for him. For the past 14 years he’s been molded into the closest thing to a robot quarterback outside of Peyton Manning.

I think his mind is a loop of matrix code. “Spider Z, Y Banana” and “Gun Flex Right 70 Z Option” falls continuously. When presented with a situation the code tells him what the perfect quarterback would do.

He wears his hat backwards and tugs on his shoulder pads. He gives credit to the offensive line and tells the media that it’s receivers making the plays. He dates a cheerleader, and when they get old enough he proposes and gives her a giant ring. He spends hours in a dank film room, picking apart every detail. Rewind. Play. Rewind. Play. He delivers on that state championship hope in his senior year and dadgummit he probably would’ve delivered the national championship in college too if not for so many injuries. He separates his shoulder as a rookie but bowls past trainers to rush onto the field and throw the game-winning touchdown pass in a meaningless game.

For a few plays every game, the code breaks down. Sometimes Stafford the person — the one with the thoughts and feelings and motivations — appears. You’ll see it on a simple swing pass. Wide open, with plenty of time, Stafford will drop his arm and fire a ball sidearm not to avoid a cluster of hands, but just to do it, to show he’s not the same. You’ll see it on deep passes.  He’ll be rolling out, buying time. The matrix will tell him to play it safe, throw it out of bounds or scramble for what you can before sliding. But midway through the play Stafford will have a glint of recognition. I’m Wonder Boy. He’s Megatron. I’m throwing it up. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. It’s probably a lot more successful than it should be.

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