Tigers' Zimmermann finally ready to compete

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, center, is 2-3 with a 7.61 ERA in seven starts since his neck stiffness began at the end of May.

Detroit — If there is anybody you wouldn’t hesitate to throw cold into a high-intensity situation, it’s probably Jordan Zimmermann.

Heart rates and pulses don’t come much steadier.

“I’ve been in tight situations before,” he said. “I’ve pitched in playoff games. I’ve seen enough over the years to be able to keep myself calm and not get too excited out there and do something I’m not capable of doing.”

Certainly his serenity will be tested Saturday night. Zimmermann, who has battled neck and shoulder ailments for nearly three months, will be making just his second big-league start since June 30.

And it comes in the middle of possibly the most important series to date, against a high-powered Orioles team the Tigers are chasing for the final wild-card spot.

“I feel like I’ve been around long enough that I can be thrown into a situation like this and be able to handle it,” he said. “Some guys they may not trust, but I feel I’ve done enough in my career, they should be able to trust me.”

The Tigers have 110 million reasons to trust him, signing him to a five-year, $110 million contract this offseason to be their No. 2 starter. If he can recapture any semblance of his form in April and May, he would be a godsend to a rotation presently comprised of three inexperienced pitchers, plus Anibal Sanchez and Justin Verlander.

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Zimmermann, the American League pitcher of the month in April, was 7-2 with a 2.52 ERA in through May, with opponents hitting .247 against him. His neck stiffness began at the end of May.

In his seven starts since, which covers two stints on the disabled list and two separate rehab assignments, he’s 2-3 with a 7.61 ERA and an opponents' average of .331.

“It was probably the worst feeling ever knowing you wasted two or three months and weren’t able to pitch and help this team,” he said. “The first couple months were really good, probably better than I expected. The last two or three were horrible. I just hope to turn it around this last month and finish strong.”

Zimmermann tried to come back on Aug. 4 and he wasn’t ready. He didn’t have any life on his pitches, let along the ability to command them. He didn’t survive the second inning and went back on the DL for another month.

This time, he said, things are vastly different. The ball is coming out of his hand better. His breaking pitches are sharper. His command is where he needs it to be. The only two issues are his velocity, which still isn’t all the way back to the mid-90s he had in April, and arm strength.

He threw 75 pitches in his final rehab start in Toledo.

“I feel good,” he said. “The breaking stuff is good, fastball’s coming out better than it was before. I don’t know if my (velocity) will be back this year because I’ve had so many ups and downs. It’s been down just a tick right now.

“Hopefully, the more I get out there, the more it will come back. But I feel strong. I feel I can locate pretty good. We’ll see.”

He said he felt his velocity would be sufficient, especially with the added adrenaline rush of pitching in a playoff race.

“It’s not like it’s down to 85 mph,” he said. “The last three (rehab) starts were like 90-93. It’s probably no different than early in the year, but I feel great. As long as I feel good and I can command it, I can compete.”

Manager Brad Ausmus said he wouldn’t put a hard-and-fast pitch count on Zimmermann Saturday night, though he would begin watching him closely at the 80-pitch mark.

“I’m just going to go out and compete and pitch,” Zimmermann said. “I’m going to give it my all and if it’s not that good, then it’s not that good. But I am hoping it’s good. I am hoping to make a strong start and have a strong finish.”

Twitter: @cmccosky