Lakeland, Fla. — Jordan Zimmermann knew there was a chance he might be the Tigers’ Opening Day starter. At least, he was told there was a chance.
Still, given that Michael Fulmer started the home opener last season and given his own struggles the last two years, it seemed like a longshot.
“(Fulmer) probably deserved it more than me,” Zimmermann told reporters Sunday. “I’d have been fine pitching the fifth day, as long as I’m in the rotation. I was, I guess, a little shocked.
“But he’s got his days coming. He’s going to start plenty of Opening Days. He’s going to have a bright future and he’ll get his shot.”
Zimmermann, at age 31 and beginning his 10th season, is the unquestioned leader of the rotation. There was no pitcher in the clubhouse who begrudged him this honor. Especially not Fulmer.
“He absolutely deserved it,” Fulmer told MLB.com. “Obviously, to say that I didn’t want to start Opening Day would be a lie. It’s everybody’s dream. …We’re happy Zimm can lead us, being the veteran that he is.”
It’s more than just a nod to a 10-year veteran, though. Zimmermann has pitched exceptionally well this spring, stirring memories of his All Star-worthy seasons with the Nationals.
“You have to tip your cap to him for how hard he’s worked,” catcher James McCann said. “His bullpens, I mean, he’s really getting after it. With how hard he’s worked and his veteran status, he deserves it. Zimm is the leader of our starters and you can talk to each and every pitcher in here and they will tell you the same thing.”
Without the pain and restrictive stiffness in his neck, shoulder and back, Zimmermann has been able to work his way back to his old mechanics. The life is back on his pitches, as is his command. In addition, he’s added a two-seam fastball (sinker) to his repertoire, which has been very effective this spring.
“It’s become a weapon for him,” McCann said. “It’s not something that he just has or will show every once in a while. It’s a pitch he’s going to use.”
Pitching coach Chris Bosio helped Zimmermann fine-tune the pitch, adjusting his grip slightly during a bullpen session three weeks ago. Bosio also has gotten Zimmermann to shave nearly a full second off his delivery time to the plate, which is astounding.
“He came into camp pretty good,” Bosio said. “I think he had a pretty good understanding of what he wanted to do. The biggest thing for him and everybody else is health, so that’s a big accomplishment for him compared to what he really tried to pitch through last year.
“Everybody knows the kind of guy he is, a warrior. He’s got all the intangibles but when you’re not healthy, you’re being evaluated and judged in a tough light. That’s just not who he is. So, the No. 1 thing for him is get him healthy, get him confident so he can go out there and perform how Jordan Zimmermann performs, how I know Jordan Zimmermann performs.”
It was Bosio who gave Zimmermann the first indication that he may be getting the ball on Opening Day.
“He told me early in camp that as long as everything checks out and stays healthy and on plan, that they were leaning toward me to get the start,” Zimmermann said.
Manager Ron Gardenhire said the same thing. Unless Zimmermann was hurt or faltering, he didn’t really consider anybody else, not even Fulmer, as the Opening Day starter.
“Gardy and I never discussed it (early in camp),” Bosio said. “I think just through spring everything kind of just evolved. He’s a big-game pitcher, loves the stage. He’s healthy. He’s been real consistent in his outings.
“Everything pointed in that direction based on his experience and the way he’s throwing the ball.”
Bosio said the decision had nothing to with the concern over Fulmer’s elbow, which has responded well after ulnar transposition surgery.
“Mike could’ve very easily been the guy, but Gardy and I collectively thought Jordan was the guy because of the experience and the way that he’s thrown the ball,” Bosio said. “We got two guys that could’ve started Opening Day, but it’s the first game of the year. Then after that, everyone’s a starter.
“There’s no second, there’s no third, there’s no fourth, no fifth. They’re starting pitchers on our club.”
Bosio added that the order in which they are finishing this spring likely will be the order entering the season: Zimmermann, Fulmer, Francisco Liriano, Mike Fiers, Daniel Norris and Matthew Boyd (who is scheduled to start the final spring game).
A decision still needs to be made regarding Fiers and Norris. Fiers, who is dealing with back stiffness, could start the season on the disabled list.
Zimmermann will be starting the home opener for the second time in three years.
“I knew I had a long off-season ahead of me trying some different stuff to get ready for this year,” Zimmermann said. “I switched up a few of my lifts and stuff like that. It’s all seemed to be working out. I feel good and I’m excited to take the ball Opening Day.
“I know it’s like a holiday in Detroit, so I’m excited to hopefully give the fans something to be excited about and get us off on the right foot.”
Tigers Opening Day starters since 2000:
2018: Jordan Zimmermann
2008-14, 2016-17: Justin Verlander
2015: David Price
2005, 2007: Jeremy Bonderman
2006: Kenny Rogers
2004: Jason Johnson
2003: Mike Maroth
2001-02: Jeff Weaver
2000: Hideo Nomo