'I know I still have it'; Zimmermann looks good in Tigers' loss

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Kansas City Royals' Raul Mondesi is tagged out by Detroit Tigers catcher James McCann during the eighth inning Wednesday. The Royals won 7-4.

Kansas City, Mo. —  Momentum doesn’t carry over through an offseason; don’t let anybody tell you that it does.

How you were playing at the end of September will scarcely be remembered come February when pitchers and catchers report for spring training.

But, finishing a season on the mound and healthy instead of injured and on the shelf, and ending with six strong innings — there is value in that, especially for the Tigers and right-hander Jordan Zimmermann.

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“I know I still have it,” said Zimmermann, who allowed two runs and four hits in the Tigers’ 7-4 loss to the Royals Wednesday night. “It’s just a matter or going out and doing it, and doing it for a full season and staying off the DL.

“I am really happy with the way this start went. Obviously, I want to win. Everybody in here wants to win. But for me, this was a good start to finish the year.”

It was Zimmermann’s second start after taking a nerve-blocking injection in his neck, and he left after six innings at 84 pitches and with a 3-2 lead.

But the bullpen couldn’t hold it.

Royals center fielder Paulo Orlando, who spent most of the season in Triple-A, delivered the winning blow. Hitting .156 coming into the game, he blasted a two-out, 412-foot home run off reliever Drew VerHagen in the bottom of the seventh inning, taking the Royals from 3-2 down to 4-3 up.

The Royals added three more in the bottom of the eighth, keyed by a bases-loaded double by Alcides Escobar. Escobar, who tripled and scored in the bottom of the seventh and robbed Jose Iglesias of an RBI single in the eighth, made his 329th straight start — the longest active streak in baseball.

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Two runs were charged to lefty Chad Bell and Escobar’s double came against Shane Greene.

“It’s just inexperience more than anything else,” manager Brad Ausmus said of the bullpen. “It’s been tough. We have four wins in the month of September and part of it is we haven’t pitched real well.”

It was the Tigers season-worst ninth straight loss. At 62-96, they are still a half-game better than the Giants (62-97) in the race for the No. 1 draft pick.

“You only hope these guys can learn from it and are better the next time because they went through it,” Ausmus said. “But it’s not helping us win games.”

The loss aside, Zimmermann was a highlight. The two runs and three of the hits off him came in a very 2017-ish third inning for the Tigers.

With Alex Gordon on first and two outs, Zimmermann appeared to pick him off first for the final out of the inning. Gordon was called out on the field by first base umpire Greg Gibson. But the play was reviewed and overturned.

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Zimmermann, ahead in the count 0-2, gave up a single to Whit Merrifield, then a two-run single to Melky Cabrera. The ball was hit in the right-center field gap and Merrifield scored from first, beating the relay from second baseman Ian Kinsler.

“I don’t think Kinsler had a good grip on the ball,” Ausmus said. “I think if he did, he would have been able to throw out Merrifield there.”

Zimmermann coasted through the fourth, fifth and sixth, allowing only a single to Orlando, and left with a 3-2 lead.

“I felt good,” he said. “The first inning was a little rocky; I didn’t know where anything was going. But after that I felt like I settled in. Mac (catcher James McCann) and I were on the same page and I made some pitches when I had to.

“Obviously, I wanted to finish strong and I was able to do that. That’s a positive going into next year.”

After going through a three-start stretch in August where he was tagged for 21 runs in 13⅔ innings, which coincided with a recurrence of the neck and shoulder issues that plagued him last season, Zimmermann traveled to a neck specialist in Dallas to get the same injection he got last winter.

He could have justifiably shut it down at that point, but it was important to him that he get back on the mound for at least another start.

He wound up making two.

“These guys have a lot of pride in what they do,” Ausmus said. “He wants to do his job. He got that contract (three years and $74 million left after this year) and he takes pride in pitching. The last couple of outings he looked a lot better.

“At the very least, it gives him peace of mind going into next season knowing he has the ability to pitch when he feels right.”

That’s the positive news. The negative: he will finish with a 6.08 ERA, the highest ever by a Tigers pitcher with at least 29 starts.

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“I still feel I have some things to work on mechanically,” Zimmermann said. “Mentally, I am in a good place. I felt good for most of the year, then it got spotty toward the end and I got the shot. I really wanted to see how I responded to that shot and it feels really good right now.”

The Tigers jumped out to a 3-0 lead against the Royals and starter Jason Hammel. Jeimer Candelario continues to make the Justin Wilson-Alex Avila trade with the Cubs look good, rapping a pair of RBI singles — one in the first inning and another in the third.

Both times he plated Alex Presley, who singled and scored three times, has 74 hits in 67 games with the Tigers.

McCann doubled in a run in the third inning, as well.

But the offense went cold after that. Hammel yielded only a walk from the fourth through the sixth innings.

Candelario knocked in his third run of the game with a ground out in the ninth inning after Presley singled and Nick Castellanos (two hits) doubled. @cmccosky