Lakeland, Fla. — This is why they play spring training games.
In the first inning of the Grapefruit League opener Saturday, Tigers starter Jordan Zimmermann and new catcher Austin Romine couldn’t get in sync with the signs. Zimmermann threw a first-pitch sinker on the inside part of the plate and wanted to come back with a front-door slider on the next pitch.
Romine threw down the sign for the slider, but Zimmermann read it as a change-up and shook it off. Confused, and not wanting to go back to the pitch Zimmermann just shook, Romine went through all the other signs and Zimmermann kept shaking his head.
Finally, a befuddled Romine went to the mound.
“He said, ‘What do you want!’” Zimmermann said, chuckling. “I said I wanted to come back with the front-door slider but I shook so many times we should probably come back with something else now. He’s like, ‘I put it down on the second pitch.’ I said I didn’t see that.”
So, yes, there are still some wrinkles to iron out. Lots of them, truth be told. The Tigers and Phillies each erased three-run deficits in the eighth inning and the game ended in an 8-8 stalemate at Publix Field.
“It was really good to see all the (free agent) guys we brought in, they seem like they’re all just champing at the bit to get out there,” said Zimmermann, who threw 40 pitches but pitched two scoreless innings. “You saw that today — base hit, double, run on the board right away.
“They are extremely talented and good players. Glad they’re here.”
Indeed, manager Ron Gardenhire might have offered fans a little sneak preview of his opening day lineup Saturday. At least the middle of the order — Niko Goodrum, Miguel Cabrera, C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop hitting two through five — seems a good bet.
Cron and Schoop — the right side of the infield purchased this offseason for a cool $12.2 million — kick-started a three-run second inning. Cron doubled and Schoop singled him home. Christin Stewart and JaCoby Jones also singled in runs in the inning and chased Phillies starter Nick Pivetta.
"Yeah, we have a little protection now, so Miggy is going to get to swing," Gardenhire said. "It's going to work out pretty good, I think. I like the look of it. That's what we brought them in here for, to bolster our lineup.
"And you saw it. When they walk up to the plate, they have a chance to hit the ball hard, a bunch of them in a row."
Goodrum led off the third inning with a ringing double to left and scored on a single by Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera, seeing live pitching for the first time since last season, lined out to right in his first at-bat and ripped the RBI single to right-center in his second at-bat.
As for Zimmermann, it was a typical, labor-intensive, early-spring outing — the difference being, he’s healthy and didn’t have to answer any questions about his neck or shoulder.
“Yeah, it was a good first outing,” he said.
He only threw 22 strikes out of his 40 pitches. He walked three and struck out three and allowed just one hit.
“Even the walks weren’t that bad,” he said. “A couple of them I had them 0-2, then let them back in the count trying to be too fine. But the ball fours were on the corners, just up. I just need to clean up a few things, but I was really happy with the sinker.”
Zimmermann began adding the sinker to his repertoire late last season and used it to better neutralize left-handed hitters. He estimated he threw at least 15 of them Saturday.
“I was throwing a good amount of sinkers in and then coming back with the slider away,” he said. “It was pretty effective all day. I wasn’t throwing it glove side yet (in on lefties) but that will come as spring goes on.”
One of the more intriguing battles this spring is where lefty Tyler Alexander might fit into the pitching plans — a starter in Detroit, a long-reliever in Detroit, or a starter at Triple-A Toledo.
He pitched two strong and quick innings Saturday, allowing just one single with two strikeouts.
"He was very good," Gardenhire said. "He just knows how to pitch. He knows how to use his stuff. He knows what he wants to do with the ball and has a good plan on getting people out."
Gardenhire isn't sure where Alexander will land when the roster shakes out, but he also knows he won't have to worry about that decision for a while.
"Remember what happened last year," he said, referencing the Tigers losing four-fifths of their rotation to injury by mid-April. "I'm going to sit here and just take it day by day...We will just see where we are at the end and we'll take our best ball club north.
"But we will also do what's best for this organization, as far as with guys like that."
The Phillies, down 5-2 in the eighth, rallied for six runs, five off Tigers right-hander Beau Burrows. He got himself in trouble with a lead-off walk and a wild pitch, then he took a comebacker off his thigh from Alec Bohn, RBI single and gave up a two-run double to right by Nick Maton.
Burrows, a former first-round pick who is coming off an injury-riddled season at Triple-A last year, couldn’t command his secondary pitches and his fastball was topping out at 91 mph.
Right-hander Logan Shore, invited over from minor-league camp, gave up run-scoring doubles to Mickey Moniak and Darik Hall.
The Tigers, with a lineup of mostly minor-league bound players, countered with three in the bottom of the eighth. Jose Azocar and Blake Deatherage had RBI singles and Willi Castro tied the game with a sacrifice fly.
The Tigers ran themselves out of a bigger inning. Deatherage lined one into the corner in right field with the bases loaded and only one run scored because of an inexplicable tie-up on the bases.
"We had guys going back and other guys going forward," Gardenhire said. "That's why you play these games down here. A lot of stuff happened in this game and not all of it was fun."
Jhonny Nunez, a non-roster catcher, slowed up around third base, which caused Azocar, who is one of the fastest players in camp, to slow around second. That left Deatherage hung up between first and second. He allowed himself to be tagged out so Azocar could scramble back to second.
Around the horn
Non-roster invitee Alex Wilson gave up two runs in the third inning, but his fastball was sitting at 92-93 mph (up from 91 last year) and with his new sidearm delivery, he struck out Rhys Hoskins with a 2-2 fastball.
He got himself in trouble, hitting leadoff man Adam Haseley with a 1-2 pitch. He scored on a double by Nick Williams, the only hit Wilson allowed.
... Outfielder Jacob Robson was struck with a hard-hit foul ball in the cheek while he was sitting in the dugout. He was put in concussion protocol and will be out for at least a couple of days.
... Romine was almost impaled by the sawed-off barrel of Christin Stewart's bat in the second inning. Romine was on-deck when Stewart's bat was shattered by a pitch from Pivetta. The ball blooped into left field for an RBI single, the bat handle rolled out toward shortstop and the barrel flew just over Romine's head.
... Third base prospect Isaac Paredes has been shut down with a sore throwing arm. Gardenhire said he wouldn't play in either of the split-squad games on Sunday.
... Catcher Jake Rogers is still out with a back injury.