By Will Burchfield
This was a long time coming for Jordan Zimmermann.
The rehabilitated righty, his neck issues behind him, surrendered one run in six innings in his season debut to guide the Detroit Tigers to a 4-1 victory over the Boston Red Sox on Saturday. It was Zimmermann’s first win at Comerica Park since June 3 of last season.
“You wait all spring and you’re excited to get out there and you don’t want to have a bomb in the first start, so it was definitely good to get the first one out of the way,” said Zimmermann, modest but satisfied. “A step in the right direction.”
Zimmermann gave up just five hits in his six innings of work, while walking one and striking out three. His fastball hovered around 92 mph — “down a tick from spring training,” Brad Ausmus said — but his breaking pitches were sharp and his command was precise.
“I felt good,” said Zimmermann, whose only walk came on a pitch that actually hit its spot. “The command was good and I had everything working today.”
Said catcher James McCann, “If Zimmermann can throw like that for us, we’re in good shape.”
It wasn’t smooth sailing from start to finish for Zimmermann — and perhaps that’s for the best. Forced to work his way out of trouble twice in the early going, he proved up to the task each time. The most pivotal moment may have come in the third inning when, with the bases loaded and one out, he got Andrew Benintendi to ground into a 4-6-3 double play.
“For me, that was the play of the game,” Zimmermann said. “Those guys make plays for you all year — plays they’re not supposed to make. Bases loaded, one out with (their) three-hole hitter up, you get a groundball hit hard enough to somebody, it was definitely the play of the game for me.”
From there, Zimmermann found his groove. He retired nine of the last 10 batters he faced, working in his off-speed pitches to positive effect.
“I went to the changeup a little bit and the curveball a little more. The first couple innings I just couldn’t get a real good feel for any breaking stuff, the ball just felt chalky in my hand. I was using as much forehead sweat as I could to get a good grip on the ball,” he said with a grin. “As the game went on it got a little warmer, I felt a lot better and the ball started coming out better.”
“I was able to get some quick outs in the last couple innings,” he added, “and be able to make it six.”
He was lifted after 92 pitches, his highest total since June 30 of last season.
“I knew I’d be 90 to 100 probably. I was just trying to put up zeroes,” said Zimmermann. “I had myself in some jams there in the third inning and fourth inning, just happy to get out of them and make some pitches when I needed to.”
If Zimmermann was modest in reflecting on his start, his catcher was happy to heap on the praise.
“He looked extremely good,” said McCann. “Kept the ball down for the most part, except when he wanted to go up. Both breaking balls were really good and his changeup was really good. It was good to see his changeup there,” said McCann.
Zimmermann’s performance on Saturday was positive not for the result, but the implications. The Tigers aren’t going anywhere without him this season, as evidenced by their struggles in the second half of 2016 when the righty was hindered by a nagging neck injury. But with him, Detroit has another anchor in its rotation beside Justin Verlander and the chance to set sail in the A.L. Central.
“I’ve said since spring training, he’s a big key for us,” said Ausmus. “We lost him for half a season and he was the number two going into the season last year. We need to keep him healthy hopefully for six months, if not longer, because he’s a big part of our rotation…We expect him to be a guy that can pitch right behind Ver.”
By all accounts on Saturday, Zimmermann is up for the challenge.
“Everything feels good, the neck is great,” he said. “First game, so we’ll take it slow and move forward.”
If he was cautious in looking ahead, he was thrilled in sizing up how far he’s come.
“Really tough year for me last year, battling injuries. Finally having a fresh start and a healthy spring, to come into the first game and do this means a lot,” Zimmermann said. “Extremely happy.”