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Lakeland, Fla. – You kept waiting for the punch line. You kept waiting for manager Ron Gardenhire’s face to crack into that impish grin of his. But it never happened.

“I am not kidding you,” he said. “I’m being serious.”

Gardenhire announced his Opening Day starter Saturday following the Tigers’ 9-3 exhibition win over the Yankees.

“Jordan Zimmermann is going to start on Opening Day,” he said.

If you had bet on Michael Fulmer, considered to be the ace of the Tigers’ rotation, to get the ball on March 29 against the Pirates — like probably 99.9 percent of the fan base and media — you lost.

More:Tigers camp battles getting down to the nitty-gritty

“Zimmermann is a veteran guy here and he was signed for this reason,” Gardenhire said. “That’s what they (Tigers front office personnel) told me and I believe them. To me, he’s the leader of this group and I think he’s the guy who should have the ball.”

Zimmermann is coming off a dreadful 2017 campaign where he gave up more earned runs (108) than any other pitcher in baseball. His ERA (6.08) and WHIP (1.55) were career worsts.

But he is healthier now than he’s been in two years and he’s pitched extremely well this spring (1.077 WHIP in four starts). With the help of pitching coach Chris Bosio, he’s incorporated a two-seam fastball and a much tighter slider to his arsenal.

“For me, it’s a natural,” Gardenhire said of the decision. “I never really thought too much about anybody other than him. I know the other kid (Fulmer) is a stud and we’ve got a few guys who can really wing it.

“But when I came over here, I was looking at Zimmermann. I am hoping he will be that guy for us. That’s my expectation for him. I think that’s what he should be.”

Zimmermann had already left TigerTown when the announcement was made. He is pitching against minor leaguers on the back fields Sunday while the team plays the Rays in Port Charlotte.

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/cmccosky

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