Tampa, Fla. – Maybe it was throwback Tuesday here at Steinbrenner Field.
Because it sure felt like April of 2016 the way Jordan Zimmermann was throwing the baseball.
It took him just 60 pitches to work through five shutout innings against a fairly stacked Yankees lineup. He allowed just two singles, didn’t walk anybody and fanned four as the Tigers and Yankees played to a 2-2, nine-inning draw.
“I remember that,” manager Ron Gardenhire said with a wry smile. “Him carving it up. He’s made a few adjustments and it worked out today. His ball was jumping all over the place. He had good movement and he was pounding the strike zone.”
The importance of a healthy, productive Zimmermann cannot be understated. On several levels.
He’s on the books for three more seasons at $74 million. If he can regain his form after two injury-plagued seasons, he could be a viable trade chip at the deadline – a way for the rebuilding Tigers to further restock their organizational shelves, even if they had to pay down a portion of his remaining salary.
Of more immediate concern, though, a healthy and productive Zimmermann would be a stabilizing influence on a relatively young starting rotation.
“He’s our go-to guy, we all know that,” Gardenhire said. “He need him to eat up innings, win us some ballgames and keep the guys in games. I think he recognizes that, too. He’s got a very important role here and if he stays healthy, he can do some things.
“You saw that today.”
Zimmermann had a nerve-blocking shot in his back before camp started (to help calm two bulging discs) and he hasn’t had any recurrence of the stiffness and restricted range of motion in his neck and shoulder that he’s battled the last two years.
He was free to re-establish his old pitching mechanics, which has helped bring back the wicked, biting slider he featured during his dominant years in Washington. And with the hiring of pitching coach Chris Bosio, he’s also added a couple of new wrinkles, which he put on display Tuesday.
“I feel like I’ve gotten better every time out,” Zimmermann said. “Today was my best outing of the spring. This was one of those days it was really fun to be out there. … I feel like I’m taking little steps every time out.”
He was commanding all four of his pitches – including a new weapon – but the slider was as good as it’s been all spring. He got five swings and misses off it, and by the end of his outing, he was able to throw 91-mph fastballs past Yankees hitters, because they were wary of the slider and because of the movement he was getting on it.
Case in point: He struck out Aaron Judge with a biting slider leading off the fourth inning. Giancarlo Stanton was next. He struck out looking at a fastball, after Zimmermann got ahead in the count with a slider. Both of the fastballs were two-seam sinkers, something he's rarely thrown over the years.
“I’ve been working on a sinker for about a week,” he said. “It was really good.”
Zimmermann started messing around with a two-seam fastball in his last bullpen session.
“Boz (pitching coach Chris Bosio) wanted to see how I was holding it and he moved my fingers around a little bit,” Zimmermann said. “It had really good action on it so I took it into the game today and I threw more two-seamers than four-seamers. When I looked up, I was throwing it harder than my four-seamer.
“I guess I have a new toy.”
Sixty pitches in five innings, without much deliberation on the mound – very reminiscent of how Zimmermann pitched in his days with the Nationals.
"Yeah, it seemed like all my starts used to be two hours and some," he said. "Last year, they all seemed like four hours. I was completely lost last year. As soon as Boz was hired and he called me a week later, he said, 'I know what your problem is.'"
Bosio noticed on tape that it was taking Zimmermann a full second longer to deliver a pitch than earlier in his career. The slower tempo was sucking the life out of his pitches and allowing the hitters to dictate the pace of the at-bats.
"Just tempo," he said. "I worked on it in the offseason and that was my focus when I got down here. Quick, quick, quick and now I feel more natural. I feel like the way I used to pitch with the Nationals."
Speaking of important pieces of the Tigers’ pitching puzzle, left-hander Daniel Stumpf and right-hander Drew VerHagen, who could figure prominently at the back end of games this season, had impressive outings.
Stumpf worked a scoreless, two-strikeout sixth inning. VerHagen followed by striking out the side in the seventh. His victims were Judge, Stanton and Gary Sanchez.
“He was filthy his first time out,” Gardenhire said of VerHagen. “Really good stuff.”
His fastball was sitting at 95 and his slider was much crisper than it was last season. Stumpf, who has been consistently effective all spring, mixed his pitches well in striking out both Adam Lind (breaking ball) and Gleyber Torres (offspeed).
The Yankees scored twice off VerHagen in the eighth. Didi Gregorius blasted a home run to right-center field and the Yankees scratched the go-ahead run on a fielder’s choice ground ball.
Right-hander Buck Farmer, also in the mix for a bullpen spot, stranded the winning run at third base in the bottom of the ninth. With a runner at third and no outs, Farmer struck out Jace Peterson and Kyle Higashioka, then got speedy Estivan Florial to ground out to end the game.
“I knew Buck wouldn’t back down,” Gardenhire said. “He got tougher and made some really good pitches when he had to.”
JaCoby Jones, hitting .462, continued his hot spring. He singled and walked off Yankees starter CC Sabathia, the walk coming after he fell behind 1-2. He laid off two tantalizing sliders.
In the sixth inning, he singled off a 98-mph fastball from Aroldis Chapman and then stole second base.
In the top of the ninth, he ignited the game-tying rally by rapping his third hit of the game and scoring on a single by Victor Reyes.
“He’s an exciting baseball player,” Gardenhire said.
AROUND THE HORN
Center fielder Leonys Martin, a left-handed hitter, put the Tigers up 1-0 with a long home run into the cabana beyond the right-center field fence off lefty Sabathia.
… Gardenhire said after the game that utility man Niko Goodrum, who had not played in six days, could return to the lineup on Thursday. He’d been held out because of shoulder discomfort. “It wasn’t from throwing,” Gardenhire said. “It was from swinging. We just backed him off. He’s been getting treatment and he took batting practice in the cage today for the first time. He said he feels great.”
… Gardenhire was struck in the chest during batting practice before the game by a ball hit by Jarrod Saltalamacchia. He was standing behind a screen in center field and didn’t see the ball coming.