Zimmermann rocked in return, leaves Tigers with questions

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers pitcher Jordan Zimmermann exits the game in the second inning.

Detroit – It wasn’t a sure bet. Neither manager Brad Ausmus nor Jordan Zimmermann himself had any real idea how it would go Saturday night.

“I have no expectations,” Ausmus said before Zimmermann made just his second start after two lengthy stints on the disabled list. “I want him to pitch well, but he’s been hurt.”

Zimmermann -- who made three rehab starts at Toledo, the last on Sept. 5, and was pitching on six days of rest -- had similar trepidation.

“I’m going to give it my all,” he said on Friday. “If it’s not that good, then it’s not that good. But I am hoping it’s a good start and I can have a strong finish.”

The Tigers needed to find out what they might be able to get out of their No. 2 starter, the guy they signed to a five-year, $110 million contract before the season, the guy who was the American League pitcher of the month in April.

They did not get the desired response.

Zimmermann’s first pitch in over a month was knocked into the seats in left field by Adam Jones and he didn’t survive the second inning, and the Orioles ran roughshod over the Tigers, 11-3.

BOX SCORE: Orioles 11, Tigers 3

The loss drops the Tigers into a tie with the Yankees, who are both a game back of the Orioles for the second AL wild-card spot.

“Obviously, he wasn’t as sharp as we were hoping,” Ausmus said. “He’s a little bit of a work in progress. There’s not much we can do about it. It is what it is. It was the Orioles’ day. They stuck it to us pretty good.

“Just move on to tomorrow and try to win two out of three.”

Zimmermann wound up allowing six runs and was out of the game after he faced four batters without recording an out in the second inning.

“It’s tough,” Zimmermann said. “You see guys slump a little bit, and pitchers struggle, and you don’t think it’s ever going to happen to you -- and here I am. Injured half the year, and grinding to get back out there. And then you do, and something like this happens.

“It’s really frustrating. I’m going to get better."

After Jones’ leadoff home run, Chris Davis hit a two-run homer in the first inning.

Zimmermann gave up a third home run in the second, a two-run shot by Matt Wieters. After a single and a walk, Zimmermann's night was done.

In his last two post-rehab starts – Aug. 4 and Saturday night – Zimmermann allowed 12 runs, 10 hits and five walks in 2.2 innings.

“I felt good -- I guess that’s about the only positive I can take out of this,” he said. “Physically, I felt pretty good. I just wasn’t locating the fastball.”

Because his arm strength isn’t fully built, Zimmermann knew the velocity on his fastball would be down, and it was – 90-92 mph. But he expected his command to be sharper. He struggled to locate his fastball and his slider -- as evidenced by the three walks and five three-ball counts.

“I was trying for the corner, and I’d miss five inches off, or five inches down the middle,” Zimmermann said. “It was just one of those days where I’d get two strikes and I’d try to throw a pitch up and in, like the one that Chris Davis hit, and it ran back middle. Wieters, I tried doing the same thing, and it ran back middle.

“With a lineup like this, it’s going to be a long night if you’re doing that. As you saw, that’s what happened tonight.”

Ausmus was asked if there was any deliberation about holding off Zimmermann’s return start until the Twins series, given the magnitude of these three games with the Orioles, whom they entered Saturday's game tied for the second wild-card spot.

“We didn’t want to hold him out for eight days,” Ausmus said. “There really wasn’t any deliberation, beyond whether he would go on five days (Friday) or six days (Saturday) rest.”

By all reports, Zimmermann was ready to compete at the big league level.

“I’ve never been told he wasn’t 100 percent,” Ausmus said. “He pitched in his rehab and after his last rehab he said he felt really good. That’s why we went forward…He’s still being treated for things he went on the DL (neck and shoulder stiffness), just maintenance-wise.

“But after his last start, all indications were that he felt good.”

It could be a rust issue. It could be a mechanical issue. It could be an arm-strength issue. Zimmermann doesn’t know for sure.

“I’ve never been through anything like this in my career,” he said. “Obviously, this is the first year where I’ve had some trouble. We couldn’t really pinpoint what it was, and found some muscles that were tight, kind of restricted me a little bit, with the neck.

“It’s been a grind all year, and I’m doing everything I can to get back to how I was the first couple of months.”

The question is, can the Tigers wait for him to find it? Can they risk giving him another start?

“We’ll talk about that internally,” Ausmus said.

His next start would be Thursday against the Twins. The Tigers haven’t listed a starter yet for that game.

Michael Fulmer, who pitched Friday, would be ready to start Thursday, too, but the Tigers are considering pushing his next start back to the Indians series.

It would seem the options are to give Zimmermann another shot, keep Fulmer on normal rest (not likely) or give a spot-start to either Mike Pelfrey or Buck Farmer.

“We need to win games,” Ausmus said. “So, we’ll decide what’s best to win games.”

Zimmermann said he will continue as if he’s pitching in five days.

“You want to forget (this start) and obviously it’s tough to do,” he said. “The first time I came back, I had a short outing like this. I’ve had two or three months off, and two short outings, so it’s really, really frustrating for me right now.

“I’m doing everything I can. I’m doing all my work, just having some bad luck right now.”

Twitter: @cmccosky