Minneapolis – It was a little like a scene from the movie Bull Durham.
Tigers pitcher Jordan Zimmermann was in full cruise mode. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia would put down a sign, Zimmermann would nod and execute the pitch.
The two worked in near-perfect harmony for seven innings and Zimmermann was able to raise his record to 5-0 and help the Tigers win their fourth straight and beat the Twins, 4-1 on Saturday.
But there was that one blemish, that one Bull Durham moment.
It came with two outs in the fourth inning. Zimmermann had Twins slugger Byung Ho Park in a 1-2 hole. He’d gotten ahead with an 88-mph slider that Park just missed.
Saltalamacchia called for a fastball. Zimmermann shook him off. He called for a changeup. Again, Zimmermann shook him off.
“Typical pitcher,” Saltalamacchia said with a smile afterward. “Starts to think and ruins everything.”
Zimmermann was resolute. He wanted to throw another slider. Saltalamacchia had no choice but to relent. And Park hit the slider on a line some 426 feet over the wall in center field.
“Man,” as Crash Davis said in the movie, “that ball got out of here in a hurry. Anything that travels that far ought to have a damn stewardess on it, don’t you think?”
Zimmermann owned it, in perfect Nuke LaLoosh fashion.
“That was my only mistake all game,” he said. “I tried going front door with it. Obviously, it was not the right pitch and I am sure Salty will say the same thing. He didn’t want to throw it and I did. My fault.”
You laugh about this stuff when you win.
“I shook him quite a bit,” Zimmermann said of that at-bat. “He stepped outside and I told him I wanted to go inside. Salty kind of just put his head down and put his hands over his ears. We went with it, it didn’t work out, but solo home runs ain’t going to kill you. So it’s all good.”
Zimmermann has been brilliant, historically brilliant, since stepping on a mound for the Tigers. He is 5-0 with a 0.55 ERA in the month of April – that’s two earned runs allowed in 33 innings. It’s the third-best April ERA in team history. The only two better were Bernie Boland’s 0.30 in 1915 and John Hiller’s 0.36 in 1974.
The last pitcher to start a season 5-0 was Frank Tanana in 1988.
“We have yet to be disappointed when he’s taken the mound,” manager Brad Ausmus said.
Only three Tigers starters have finished seven innings this season, and he’s done it twice. The Park home run was the only extra-base hit Zimmermann allowed. In all he gave up six hits and struck out five. Only one other runner got to second base. That was John Ryan Murphy, who got to second on a two-base error in right field by J.D. Martinez in the fifth.
Zimmermann responded by striking out Danny Santana and Brian Dozier, going back to his slider to finish the inning.
“It’s been a fun run,” Zimmermann said. “I’m pitching probably the best I’ve ever pitched in my career. These guys gave me three runs early and I was able to settle in, throw strikes and be myself and not worry about a tight ballgame.”
That’s been the formula lately for the Tigers. Post an early lead of at least three runs and let the pitchers work. Magical.
Justin Upton’s two-out, three-run, 417-foot home run to the second deck in left field – against a 15-mph wind blowing in from center field – gave Zimmermann a fast 3-0 lead.
It was the second straight game in which the Tigers starter had a three-run cushion before throwing a single pitch. In the other two wins in this streak, the Tigers held a 4-1 lead third and a 4-0 lead in the second.
Zimmermann only gave one back over seven innings.
“He’s just feeling it,” Saltalamacchia said. “He’s been like this his whole career. He pounds the strike zone and gets the hitters ultra-aggressive because they know he’s going to throw strikes. And then he uses his slider off of that.
“I don’t think I can compare it to anything else I’ve experienced because this streak is probably the best I’ve seen.”
Victor Martinez continues his torrid hitting. He doubled ahead of Upton’s home run in the first. And in the sixth, after Miguel Cabrera had doubled to the wall in center field with two outs, Martinez followed with his second double of the game to score Cabrera.
“It’s 2014 as opposed to 2015,” Ausmus said, when asked about Martinez. “With the knee surgery last year, he was never the same. He didn’t have the strength and mechanically he couldn’t hit the way he had always hit.”
In the two games against the Twins, Martinez is 6-for-9 with three doubles, a homer and three RBIs.
The Tigers bullpen, for the fourth straight game, locked things down effectively and efficiently. Mark Lowe pitched a scoreless eighth and closer Francisco Rodriguez got his ninth save, striking out Miguel Sano and Eduardo Nunez in the ninth.
Throughout his five-game winning streak, Zimmermann has deflected the praise onto the Tigers defense, saying he’s just making the hitters put the ball in play and trusting his defenders to keep him out of trouble.
He’s even said, at times, that he’s been lucky. At 5-0, with a miniscule ERA, nobody is buying it.
“I am not saying luck can’t play into success in baseball,” Ausmus said. “But Jordan Zimmermann is good. He’s not lucky.”