Jimenez's shutdown eighths hint at future as closer

By Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Niko Goodrum watches his sacrifice fly ball that drives in John Hicks during the seventh inning.

Detroit — Those who study the Tigers more intently than they ever studied a high school or college course have likely deduced one player will represent the Tigers in next month’s All-Star Game.

Nick Castellanos is the early favorite to head for Washington, D.C., for an All-Star introduction on July 17, given that at least one player from each big-league team must be selected.

The Tigers might be specializing in a lower-profile, team-oriented ethos in 2018, but they have, here and there in mid-June, players of some distinction, including an eighth-inning set-up reliever who with each appearance looks like an All-Star-grade reliever.

He would be Joe Jimenez, who in Thursday’s 3-1 victory over the Minnesota Twins at Comerica Park, threw a trademark eighth inning: 1-2-3, complete with a strikeout.

Jimenez has now pitched scoreless baseball in 31 of the 36 games in which he has worked this season. In his last 15 games, he has an 0.63 ERA and an 0.84 WHIP, with 19 strikeouts and two walks in 14 1/3 innings.

He did in the Twins with his usual quiver of pitches Thursday. He burned a fastball at 97, mixed in a slider, and got his lone strikeout, against Eduardo Escobar, on a final-pitch, 90-mph change-up.

This, it would seem, is an eventual big-league closer in training. Shane Greene has that job locked up, thanks to outings of the kind he threw in putting away the Twins, with a final-batter strikeout, for his 17th save.

“A lot of times your eighth-inning guy already is your closer,” said Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire when asked if Jimenez was moving toward eventual life as a ninth-inning fireman.

The Tigers aren’t worried about roles or labels. They’re happy to have a 1-2, put-away punch in a game’s final frames. Jimenez is becoming a virtually fail-safe pick for the eighth, thanks to pitches that, if it weren’t for Castellanos’ stature, might earn the 23-year-old, right-handed reliever a ticket next month to Washington.

Twins killers

It is perhaps more than a trivia topic in Minneapolis and St. Paul that a couple of ex-Twins players had significant hits again Thursday during a Tigers rally.

John Hicks and Niko Goodrum, both alums from the Twins system, had successive at-bats leading off the seventh that turned a 1-0 Twins lead into a 1-1 game, just ahead of JaCoby Jones’ two-run homer that put Detroit on top to stay.

Hicks led off the seventh with his first big-league triple — a drive up the right-center field gap against starter Lance Lynn. Goodrum followed with a seared liner that looked for a moment as if it might clear Twins center fielder Jake Cave.

Cave snagged the liner, but it brought home Hicks with the tying run.

Hicks was with the Twins briefly before he landed on waivers, from which the Tigers scooped him early last year.

Goodrum was stuck in the Twins farm system before the Tigers signed him last autumn as a minor-league free agent.

Hicks is a lifelong catcher who has become the main man at first base now that Miguel Cabrera is gone with a torn biceps. He is not a speedster, which is the biggest reason his three-bagger was his first in the big leagues.

“When I got to second base, I saw he (Max Kepler) was just picking it up,” Hicks said, “so I had to go.”

He and Goodrum both smiled when asked about their Twins background. Neither views it as anything but a numbers game that ultimately pushed them to Detroit.

Goodrum had a single, double, and home run in Wednesday night’s game. His bat is fast, and his adjustments of late have been better, as was the case when, with a 1-2 count, he laid into a Lynn curveball for his drive to center that scored Hicks.

“Been working hard with the coaches,” Goodrum said. “Just working on my approach, trying to stay comfortable in the box.”

To be determined

The Tigers haven’t announced a starter for Saturday’s game against the White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field.

But it is all but certain to be Jordan Zimmermann.

Zimmermann hasn’t pitched since May 5. He has been dealing with a right-shoulder issue but after a third rehab start Monday it is anticipated the Tigers will announce Zimmermann as Saturday’s starter and clear room on their active roster, probably by returning a position player to Triple-A Toledo, which likely will be Ronny Rodriguez.