Denver — At a place where pitches disappear in air that seems more like pure helium, the Tigers won in an unconventional way Monday at Coors Field.
They outpitched the Rockies. Jordan Zimmermann somehow lasted five innings, and the bullpen held together for a 4-3 victory as 30,754 customers, many of them from the Tigers’ global cheering section, took in some mile-high drama.
“The pitching got better,” said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, who figured, after Zimmermann threw scores of pitches in the first two innings that this game could become one of those notorious Coors Field visitor bombings. “I was a little worried when those first two innings took about an hour-and-a-half.”
The Tigers took a quick 2-0 lead in the first on an RBI double from Justin Upton and Nick Castellanos’ RBI single. Then, after Zimmermann had a nasty second inning that turned into a 3-2 Rockies lead, the Tigers followed with two more in the third, with both runners scoring on Castellanos’ triple into the left-field corner.
Warwick Saupold, Daniel Stumpf, Drew VerHagen, Alex Wilson, and evolving put-away closer Shane Greene shut out the Rockies over the final four innings.
Zimmermann had a night that, for him, was all too reminiscent of some past ugly outings. Unless, that is, you consulted his catcher, James McCann.
“Honestly, I told him after the game, you hit spots better than you have in the last few outings,” said McCann, who added a double and a single and is batting .333 (37-for-111) since July 16. “There was a hanging slider (Jonathan) Lucroy got in the air and it went out. But other than that, he was a lot better than he’s been the last few outings.”
Zimmermann threw 28 pitches in a scoreless first, got tattooed for four hits and three runs in the second, and never had a clean 1-2-3 inning as he allowed nine hits and all three Rockies runs.
But in throwing 103 pitches, he managed to make it through five innings and get a rare victory, his eighth of the season, and against a team, and at a ballpark where he’s never lost, including during his years in the National League.
“I’m still battling mechanics, trying to find a consistent release point,” said Zimmermann, who struck out three and walked one. But my fastball command was better today. One slider I left in the middle, but my breaking ball was better from then on.”
Zimmermann is now 7-0 against the Rockies with a two-league ERA of 2.70. Amazing numbers, especially for a pitcher who admitted during Monday night’s postgame clubhouse conversation that he can’t wait to get this 2017 ordeal over and head for spring camp, 2018, healthy and intact.
“Yeah, that would be nice,” Zimmermann said, “but I’ve still got a month and a lot of grinding to do.
“I feel like once I get my mechanics figured out, I’ll get my velo (velocity) back. I really feel like I haven’t had command since the neck thing.”
The “neck thing” refers to last year’s neck-shoulder disc issue that turned what had been a spectacular April into a season-long struggle that has followed him into 2017.
“I think it’s a small fix,” Zimmermann said of repairs he insists he can make in short order, probably this offseason. “It’s a small fix and won’t take a long time to figure out.”
The Tigers, meanwhile, will join with Miguel Cabrera in analyzing his physical issue, which appears to be a chronic back ailment.
He left the game after striking out in the fifth, with “lower back stiffness” the trainers’ official diagnosis.
“You guys know I’ve been dealing with this all year,” he said.
Ausmus said after the game that Cabrera’s back might have tightened during the tedious first and second innings. Cabrera later said the skipper was spot-on.
But the Tigers paid little attention to who was struggling (Zimmermann), or who was hurting (Cabrera). They instead got on with their work and won a game.
The Rockies outhit the Tigers, 13-9. But at a ballpark that might as well be a stand-in for Cape Canaveral, the Rockies hit only one home run, the only homer by either team, when Lucroy blasted his two-run shot off Zimmermann in the second.
Based on some past misfortunes, the Tigers bullpen might not have been everyone’s bet to put the clamps on manager Bud Black’s bunch, which is scrambling toward a possible wild-card playoff ticket.
But the relievers survived, as first Saupold escaped. He allowed a pair of hits and loaded the bases on a one-out walk before striking out Colorado’s most dangerous agent, Nolan Arenado. Tigers manager Brad Ausmus waved on left-hander Stumpf, who then blew away Gerardo Parra to wipe away what looked like a certain Rockies ruckus.
“To me, that was the biggest move of the game for us,” Ausmus said of the back-to-back whiffs. “And Stumpf against Parra was huge.”
Stumpf was working against Parra, a left-handed batter, and was none too proud of himself when he threw a first-pitch ball, which got the Rockies' section of Monday’s crowd in a froth as they sensed a Coors clobbering coming.
“I hate giving up other people’s runs,” Stumpf said. “I wanted to strand those runners for Saupy (Saupold). My goal was to get that guy.”
And he did, on a 96-mph heater that all but left singe marks on Parra.
It was the bullpen’s night Monday. With all five relievers starring.
In the seventh, after a leadoff single, VerHagen got Ian Kennedy to swat a grounder to Castellanos, who ignited a 5-4-3 double play.
The Rockies had gotten their last serious shot. Wilson had a mow-‘em-down eighth, and Greene finished matters in the ninth with three quick knockouts, the last two on strikeouts.
It was a bit of a quirky victory, this Tigers triumph. But the Tigers, after some tough times of late, might have been due one.