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Comstock Park -- This seemed like old times, very old times, to Jordan Zimmermann.

He was pitching at a Single-A venue, Fifth Third Ballpark, home of the West Michigan Whitecaps, on a June night so still the American flag hung lifelessly at the top of a thick pole high beyond the center field fence.

There was a summer-loving crowd of a few thousand spread among the seats, even if summer officially doesn't show up for another week, which didn't matter. It was almost 80 degrees at game time and those who know Whitecaps crowds knew the weather, and Zimmermann's cameo as a West Michigan starter, was worth at least an extra thousand customers on a night attendance was, as usual, healthy: 6,840.

Zimmermann's return to the bushes was worthwhile, at least to a Tigers starter who hasn't pitched for his big-league team since early May. He went five innings, and one batter into the sixth, when he reached an 89-pitch limit. He was so-so, overall, with seven hits and a run allowed. He struck out six and walked none.

"I felt good, felt like I threw all my pitches, and my fastball was good," said Zimmermann, who could return to the Tigers as early as this weekend's series, against the White Sox, after missing the past month with a sore right shoulder doctors refer to as an impingement.

"I mixed as best you can. It seems with these (Single-A) guys, whatever pitches you throw, they like."

Whitecaps manager Lance Parrish once upon a time was catcher on a world championship Tigers team that included Jack Morris and Dan Petry. He knows his pitchers. And he knew what Zimmermann was doing.

"I just look at it as a guy who came here to get his work in," Parrish said. "I don't think he was looking to dazzle anyone. It looked to me like he was working his spots, scattering some singles. I think he was trying to get his work in, stay healthy, and I thought it was a successful day."

Zimmermann's fastball ran somewhere in the low 90s at Fifth Third Ballpark, where the scoreboard radar-reading has a reputation for being a mph or two faster than a pitcher's actual velocity.

Zimmermann topped out at 93, the radar insisted, while his slider was 87-88. He threw a handful of curveballs  and even some change-ups against South Bend's left-handed batters. But it was, as usual, the fastball-slider tandem he mostly featured.  

"First couple of innings, fastball after fastball after fastball," said Zimmermann, who made two earlier rehab starts, both at Triple A Toledo. "Down here (Single A), they're hacking."

And when you were as high in the strike zone as Zimmermann was with some of those early heaters, a pitcher needed a new flight plan. He began burying the fastball and got busy with his secondary stuff.

"My breaking stuff got a lot better," he said. "Mostly, I was just trying to get my rhythm earlier. That first inning I was off a bit with my mechanics."

Zimmermann was indeed shaky, and maybe even a tad ugly, early.

There was a hard leadoff single to left in the first, followed by another scorched ground-ball single, and, then a soft RBI single.

Between the second and third hits Zimmermann hadn't helped himself.

He wheeled on what he hoped might be a pickoff throw at second base — but he threw the ball wildly. But he caught a break a batter later when, on the third consecutive hit against him, a South Bend runner scampered too far past second base and was gunned down as he tried to scoot back.

In the second Zimmermann was slapped for another leadoff single, which was canceled a batter later on a 4-6-3 double play. Another hard single, through the left-side infield hole, made it five hits against Zimmermann in 1.2 innings.

This was not going as planned. Not for a man keen on reuniting with the Tigers this weekend.

But he was better as the game wore on and as the breaking pitches began introducing low Single A hitters to a big-league pitcher's repertoire.

His catcher was Joey Morgan, a third-round draft pick by the Tigers last June as Morgan was wrapping up a college career at the University of Washington.

Morgan admitted he was nervous preparing to catch a celebrity pitcher who has pitched in a couple of All-Star games.

"I didn't know what he threw," Morgan said. "But once I caught him in the bullpen and didn't have to move my glove, I knew I'd be all right."

Parrish believes, as well, that Zimmermann will be all right.

"I know there's a world of difference between here and the big leagues," Parrish said, "but I know he knows that. But I just feel tonight, honestly, he was trying to get his pitch count up and not feel any pain." 

It was one more step as a man who a couple of weeks ago turned 32 strains to make it back to Detroit and pitch as the Tigers always believed he would when 31 months ago they signed him to a $110-million contract.

"I'll keep battling," Zimmermann said. "I'm not getting any younger."

Zimmermann didn't walk a batter Monday. And in his most persistent pitching moment he zapped Roberto Caro on the third of three consecutive pick-off attempts at first base. Zimmermann's move, it appears, is just fine.

As he reconnected with some old rhythm and release points after a bumpy start, Zimmermann could feel something like his old self. He struck out the final batter of the second, and the first and third batters in a 1-2-3 fourth. He had another 1-2-3 in the fifth, and then, after the sixth-inning double, he was excused.

"I think it was the only fly ball I allowed," he said, and he was right.

It was the last pitch he'll throw in a professional game until, as he and the Tigers imply, he rejoins the team. 

"In five or so days," he said.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/Lynn_Henning

 

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