Detroit — The irony of it is, he came into the game with the most run support in major league baseball.
In his five previous starts, while Jordan Zimmermann was accruing a 7.91 ERA, his teammates were averaging 9.2 runs for him.
But on the night he blanked the Tampa Bay Rays on two hits over seven innings, the Tigers couldn’t push across a single run. Buzzard’s luck.
“Baseball,” Zimmermann said.
The Rays scored three in the top of the ninth off closer Shane Greene and then held on for dear life to take the first game of a three-game set, 3-2 Monday night.
“It was a good one,” Zimmermann said. “It was fun to be out there. I had all four pitches working. … It’s unfortunate we didn’t win. But at the end of the day, it was a good start for me, something I definitely needed.”
Zimmermann was brilliant, but Rays pitcher Jake Faria, matched him — allowing three hits and a walk, with six strikeouts in eight innings.
“He was throwing a lot of breaking balls in hitters counts,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said of Faria. “And we chased, which is a sign a guy’s got pretty good stuff. He was making us chase quite a bit.”
The scoreless tie through eighth innings gave way to a wild flurry of runs in the ninth.
First, the Rays struck for three, hitting a pair of home runs off 94-mph fastballs from Greene — a 401-foot, two-run shot to right-center field by C.J. Cron and a solo shot to left center by Brad Miller.
“Whatever it was, it didn’t work,” said Greene, who has allowed five runs and six hits in his last four innings. “I’ve got to do a better job. … I have to get three outs before they touch the fourth base and I didn’t do that tonight.”
The Rays were without their closer. Alex Colome, who had blown a save Sunday against Boston, was unavailable.
The Tigers quickly loaded the bases against right-hander Chaz Rowe.
With one out, JaCoby Jones was hit by a pitch and — much to the chagrin of Gardenhire — stole second base.
“Not good,” Gardenhire said. “He made it and we are very happy about that part of it. But that was not a good play. He’ll be talked to. I have seven or eight coaches that will eventually go by him and tell him the same thing — not a good play.”
Jeimer Candelario followed with an infield single, moving Jones to third. Rowe then got two strikes on Nick Castellanos before hitting him in the wrist, loading the bases.
Rays manager Kevin Cash then summoned lefty Jose Alvarado. Victor Martinez greeted him with a two-run single and the Tigers had the tying run on second base.
After James McCann flew out to left for the second out, Alvarado walked John Hicks to load the bases.
That put it in the hands of Dixon Machado. After Rays catcher Jesus Sucre made a smothering block on a bounced 1-2 pitch, Machado bounced to the shortstop to end the game.
“I can’t say enough about these guys,” Greene said. “We fight to the end every game. Just have to get back here tomorrow, get my (stuff) together and get a W.”
Asked what he needed most out of Zimmermann Monday, Gardenhire said, “Depth.”
The Tigers bullpen worked 5 2/3 innings on Sunday in Baltimore. Zimmermann hadn’t worked six full innings since Opening Day, lasting only three innings in his last start.
So, yes, Gardenhire needed his veteran to give him, at the very least, some innings.
He did that, and then some.
“That was a big outing for Zimm,” Gardenhire said. “He’s been disappointed in the way he’s been going, so this was a big pick-em-up for him and for the team.”
Zimmermann, who had been pummeled for 16 runs in his last 13 1/3 innings, gave up two hits — both singles by Matt Duffy — and a walk to Carlos Gomez. No Rays runner got to second base until the seventh inning, when Duffy got to third on a ground out and a deep fly to center field.
But Zimmermann buckled down and, on his 93rd and final pitch, got Joey Wendle to ground softly to shortstop.
“I had been scrambling for most of this month,” Zimmermann said. “The results weren’t there. But I knew once the weather warmed up and I changed a few things, tweaked a few things, I felt like my old self out there.”
In his recent starts, Zimmermann had become over-reliant on his fastball and slider — pitches with too-similar velocity (90-91 mph and 86-87). On Monday, he set a different tone, throwing 10 curveballs (79-80) in the first three innings.
“I didn’t change anything, but Boz (pitching coach Chris Bosio) and I worked on some stuff in the last bullpen,” he said. “More hip turn and I was able to stay back on the ball and locate better. Really everything was spot-on all night. The little things we fixed and worked on really helped.”
It had the desired effect. The Rays were either taking or tardy on his fastball, and swinging through his slider. Three of his five strikeouts were on called third strikes. He got nine swings and misses and 19 called strikes (11 of those on his fastball).
“Those guys were expecting a lot of 3-1, 2-1 sliders, like I usually do, and I was throwing fastballs,” Zimmermann said. “And they were just looking at them.”
He retired 13 straight Rays hitters from the end of the second through the sixth inning. The average exit velocity on balls put in play by the Rays against Zimmermann was a meek 85.7 mph, per Baseball Savant.
“Definitely encouraging,” he said. “I know it’s just one start, but it was a step in the right direction. I am excited to get back out there in five days and keep pitching like this.”
It was his first scoreless outing since he blanked the Yankees last year, Aug. 2, at Yankee Stadium.
Left-hander Daniel Stumpf pitched a clean eighth inning for the Tigers. He has not allowed a run in 13 of his 14 outings this season.
“We didn’t give up,” Gardenhire said. “They got three and we went back at them and had our chance, too.”