Pittsburgh – Jordan Zimmermann’s vaunted steely poise was tested Thursday and it held firm.
The not-so-clearly-defined poise of the Tigers’ bullpen also was tested. Ultimately, it too held firm and the Tigers left PNC Park with a three-game winning streak and a two-game road sweep of the Pirates, 7-4.
“Zimmermann pitched with a lot of runners on base, but he’s built for that,” second baseman Ian Kinsler said. “His demeanor, his mentality, he’s just not a guy who’s going to get rattled. He had to throw a lot of stress pitches today with guys on base and he was able to do it.
“That’s the sign of a real quality pitcher.”
Zimmermann faced a bases-loaded, two-out jam in the first, a first-and-third, two-out mess in the third (without allowing a hit) and had bases-loaded, one-out trouble in the fifth. The net result for the Pirates – nada.
“I threw the ball all right,” said Zimmermann, who has pitched 13 scoreless innings in his two starts with the Tigers. “I was able to make pitches when I had to.”
With the game still scoreless, he induced inning-ending groundouts to escape the first and third innings.
In the fifth, after the Tigers had taken a 2-0 lead on Pirates ace Gerrit Cole, Zimmermann really flirted with fire. He hadn’t walked in a run since 2011. With the bases loaded, he went to a full count on No. 4 hitter Starling Marte and got him to pop out to second base.
Then he went 3-0 on Gregory Polanco and got him to pop out to second on a 3-1 pitch.
Both out pitches came off his slider.
“I couldn’t locate my fastball for whatever reason,” he said. “I fell behind and I had to make pitches. My slider is good and I can throw it whenever I want. I went with that (against Marte) and when I was 3-1 (on Polanco) I went with a back-door slider and he popped it up.”
This was a lesson Zimmermann learned early in his career. You can’t always power your way out of trouble.
“Most guys think a heater is coming on a 3-1 pitch, that you’re going to go with your best pitch,” he said. “But when you are comfortable throwing the slider and you can throw it for strikes when you want to, why not go with it?”
Why not, indeed.
“Zimmermann doesn’t scare often,” said manager Brad Ausmus, who celebrated his 47th birthday Thursday. “He’s a bulldog.”
He outdueled Cole, who allowed just two runs and four hits in six innings. He also nearly KO’d Cole with a line-drive single that caromed off the top of Cole’s head in the sixth inning.
“I didn’t know where it hit him,” Zimmermann said. “I guess it just grazed him. I am glad it didn’t hit him square. It’s never a pretty sight when that happens. I hope he’s all right. He’s one of the top pitchers in the game.”
A Nick Castellanos double to dead centerfield in the fourth drove home the only two runs allowed by Cole. Castellanos also singled in a two-run seventh and hit a game-sealing two-run home run in the eighth inning.
“Nick’s never lacked confidence with his offense,” Ausmus said. “He knows he can hit. When he concentrates and makes pitchers throw it in the zone, he’s a very good hitter.”
The Tigers, who have scored at least four runs in each of the eight games, equaling the mark set by the 2004 team, needed the add-on runs.
After the Pirates scored three runs off Drew VerHagen in the seventh, cutting the lead to 4-3, the Tigers countered with three runs off left-hander Tony Watson in the eighth. Castellanos’ home run was the deflating blow.
“I can only say when it happens to us like that it (stinks),” Castellanos said. “So I can only imagine they feel the same when it happens to the other team.”
Francisco Rodriguez pitched a clean ninth inning for his second save of the season.
“Going up against a good team like this on the road, in this park and coming away with two wins, that’s an excellent way to start a long trip,” Ausmus said
Now it’s on to Houston for three.