By Will Burchfield
Jordan Zimmermann and Alex Avila used the same term to describe Zimmermann’s slider: his security blanket. The same could be said of Zimmermann within the Tigers’ rotation.
He finally looked the part on Saturday afternoon, holding the White Sox to one run over six innings en route to a 10-1 Tigers win. It was his best outing of the season, buoyed by one significant development.
“Finally got my slider back,” Zimmermann said with a sigh of relief.
He had lost it for a year, unable to grip it and throw it to his liking thanks to a host of injuries that derailed his 2016 season. But Zimmermann is healthy now, and his slider looks to be on the mend as well.
A bullpen session after his second-to-last start helped Zimmermann rediscover the slider grip he had used during his dominant years with the Nationals.
“I monkeyed with the grip a little bit and started throwing it more and more and more in the bullpen. It’s coming along a lot better. Feels like it’s my normal grip, so I’m happy about that,” he said.
Zimmermann is a laid-back guy, almost to the point of being stoic, but he gave off a real sense of satisfaction following his bounce-back effort on Saturday afternoon. The revelation with his slider fills this start with promise.
“It’s probably my biggest pitch. It’s a pitch I can throw ahead in the count, behind in the count, strike lefties out, go away to righties, keeps them off my fastball. I didn’t have it for the first two months and you saw what happened then,” Zimmermann said.
Entering Saturday, Zimmermann had a 6.47 ERA and a 1.56 WHIP. He was being squared up and squashed nearly every time he took the mound. Hitters knew his vulnerability, and were feasting on it.
“They just don’t even think about the slider at all because it was so bad and they can just hunt the heater the whole time. So it’s a pitch that is kind of my security blanket and something that I can fall back on when I’m in tough times,” said Zimmermann.
On Saturday, Zimmermann got nine swings and misses on his slider and used it to induce three of his five strikeouts. It looked sharp, tight and deceptive. It looked like it used to.
“His slider was better today, noticeably I think, and his control was better,” said bench coach Gene LaMont, who took over for Brad Ausmus after the skipper was thrown out of the game. “When you throw good sliders, not hanging sliders, it’s a big difference.”
Hanging sliders often end up in the bleachers, and home runs have been a major bugaboo for Zimmermann this season. He had surrendered 15 bombs in his previous seven starts and 16 on the season, tied for third most in the league. He kept the ball in the yard on Saturday for the first time since April 19.
His slider wasn’t his only effective pitch, but it was the keynote of his performance.
“For him, it’s kind of like a security blanket. It’s something that he always knows is going to be there, and when it is, it makes everything else that much better for him. He’s a little more confident throwing everything else,” said Avila, who was behind the plate on Saturday.
“He’s always had a good fastball, that’s been his M.O., but you always need something else, and usually it’s always been his slider,” Avila added. “That makes his changeup and curveball more effective as well.”
As Zimmermann was discussing the effectiveness of his slider, it almost seemed to dawn on him that he was firing on all cylinders.
“The fastball was good, all the off-speed was good, it was just a good start,” he said.
The 31-year-old vet is trying to piece back together his season. In fact, he’s trying to reassemble his Tigers’ career. After months upon months of frustration, he may have finally found the glue.
“The slider is the pitch that I need to have every time out. If I don’t have the curveball on any given day I can work around some stuff with the slider and the fastball, but if I don’t have the slider it’s going to be a long day,” he said.
Saturday was not. Saturday was a good day — it was also just one day. Zimmermann still has plenty to prove, and it would be premature to trumpet his resurrection.
“He’s a work in progress,” said LaMont. “He’s struggled a little bit but he and (pitching coach) Rich Dubee have been working real hard.”
The days are still getting longer, and that’s a good thing for Zimmermann. There is plenty of baseball yet to come. If he can turn Saturday’s start into a sustained revival, perhaps the Tigers will still be in it when the days really start to get shorter.