Detroit – The Tigers signed on for a six-month, 162-game journey. They aren’t and they can’t attack the season as if it’s going to end at the trade deadline at the end of July.
So, even though the frustrating 2-1 loss to the Diamondbacks Wednesday dropped them four games under .500 and the national media is beginning to speculate on which players the Tigers will sell at the deadline, the mission inside the clubhouse remains the same.
“Listen, I am going to come to the field tomorrow and try to win a game,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “Nothing changes in those players’ minds or in my mind. We don’t get caught up in what could be or what might happen.
“Feel free to talk about any topic, but we’re here to win baseball games on a daily basis. We haven’t done it consistently, but I still think this team can do it consistently.”
The performance of starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann Wednesday night fueled Ausmus’ optimism.
“By the far the best outing he’s had all year and one of the best we’ve had from a starting pitcher the entire year,” Ausmus said.
It was the third straight strong start for Zimmermann. He allowed two sketchy runs (helped by a two-base error by left fielder Justin Upton) and four hits in the first inning and then just two singles through the eighth. He retired 14 straight Diamondbacks from the second through the sixth inning.
“All four pitches were working,” said Zimmermann, who hadn’t gone eight full innings since June 19 of last year. “I was able to get ahead in counts and pitch the game I wanted to pitch.
“It might’ve been the best game I pitched in a Tigers’ uniform.”
He was getting ahead of hitters. He had full command of his fastball, curveball and especially his slider, which had sharp and late downward action. He struck out Diamondbacks slugger Paul Goldschmidt twice with the slider, once looking and once swinging.
“Fixing that slider grip was a difference-maker for him, his last three starts prove that for me,” Ausmus said.
Catcher Alex Avila agreed.
"When he can command his off-speed stuff, particularly his slider, he can work the fastball to both sides of the plate," he said. "And even if he misses, he can get away with it because they're honoring his off-speed. This was the best he's been by far. It's taken him a while to get to today's game, but that's OK. It's more important to finish strong than to start strong."
Of Zimmermann’s 108 pitches, 33 were sliders, and he got seven of his 11 swings and misses with it.
“That’s the big upside,” Ausmus said. “If Zimmermann is pitching like we expected the rest of the year and we can get Justin Verlander back on track with Michael Fulmer – that’s three good pitchers at the top of the rotation.
“But we have to have them doing it. We can talk about them doing it, but you have to have them doing it. And if you pitch well, you are going to win games. That’s how we can expect to cover a four-game below .500 deficit.”
That said, it won’t matter how well they pitch if the Tigers only muster one run. Diamondbacks threw three right-handed pitchers at them Wednesday – Taijuan Walker, Randall Delgado and Fernando Rodney – all of them featuring mid- to upper-90s fastballs with nasty change-ups and breaking balls.
Walker, just off the disabled list (blilster), struck out five of six batters between the first and third innings. The lone run came in the third on a two-out double by Ian Kinsler and a single by Alex Avila.
That was it. J.D. Martinez had a long fly ball to right field knocked down by the wind – it was caught on the warning track. Avila smoked one to left that also seemed to die on the breeze that was blowing straight in.
“You hope and you expect them to score runs,” Zimmermann said. “But it was a tough night offensively with that wind blowing in. If it wasn’t, we probably would have had two or three home runs.
“These guys scored a ton of runs for me earlier in the year when I was giving up five and six runs and I still got the win.”
After Delgado pitched three scoreless innings, Rodney closed it out, striking out Upton, Nick Castellanos and Andrew Romine.
“Losing gets frustrating,” Ausmus said. “You want to win every game. But baseball doesn’t always work like that. That’s why I have said, you find out what type of team you have after 162 games, not 30 or 60 or 80.
“Now sometimes teams have to make decisions because a trading deadline is looming. But we are not at that point yet. I’ve been on too many teams that have gone too deep into the summer thinking they are a failure and ended up being in the playoffs.”