Detroit Tigers left-hander Matthew Boyd walked off the mound Friday at Target Field with a sense of accomplishment.
After battling through six rough starts to begin the 60-game season, he has come back with back-to-back quality starts against the Minnesota Twins. Friday’s start featured eight strikeouts in six innings — an impressive outing despite the Tigers’ 2-0 loss in Game 1 of the doubleheader.
Back at the alternate training site in Toledo, an injured Jordan Zimmermann may have flashed a smile.
Despite Boyd allowing 25 runs in his first 21⅓ innings, Zimmermann stuck in his corner. They spent hours on the phone together, breaking down each performance, discussing specific pitches and the need for improvement.
Boyd isn’t the Tigers’ ace again, but he is seeing measurable progress.
“It was like talking to your dad after a bad game, elementary school or middle school when you’re playing Little League,” Boyd said Friday. “Because he would lay into me pretty good. That’s the kind of relationship we have.”
That relationship may not require a phont much longer. Zimmermann tossed a simulated game Friday at Fifth Third Field in Toledo, and manager Ron Gardenhire has heard “he’s doing good” in his rehabilitation from a right forearm strain. He will continue to help Boyd regardless, but for the rest of the month, it could be as a veteran addition to a youth-filled starting rotation, aiming to make the expanded 16-team postseason.
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“We are short on pitching right now,” Gardenhire said Friday. “We’ve got some people down, and we don’t have much pitching. Anybody we can get back healthy, that’s a good thing.”
Zimmermann landed on the 45-day injured list July 18. In the final season of his five-year, $110 million contract, he hasn’t been able to contribute on the field. But he is eligible to be activated this week, which would give him an opportunity to pitch in meaningful September games for the first time since his first season in Detroit, when the Tigers went 14-12 in the final month but missed the playoffs by 2½ games.
[ Zimmermann’s Tigers tenure began with dominance. Then it went miserably south ]
With the Tigers at 17-19 with 26 games remaining, Gardenhire wants him back.
So does Boyd.
“I know having a guy like Zimm in your clubhouse makes you better,” Boyd said. “Having him on the pitching staff makes you better. He’s throwing the heck out of the ball. Man, he’s worked his tail off to be whatever he can be for this team when the time comes. I’ve been talking to him a lot.”
‘Continue to build’
Detroit’s rotation currently consists of Boyd, right-hander Spencer Turnbull, righty Michael Fulmer (on a pitch limit) and two rookies — righty Casey Mize and lefty Tarik Skubal.
No rotation in baseball had a worse ERA entering Friday than the Tigers’ 6.75. Likewise, their WHIP (1.618), FIP (5.93) and strikeout-to-walk percentage (9.4%) were second-worst, ahead of only the Boston Red Sox, 12-26 and in last place in the American League.
[ How Boyd responded when his team needed him most ]
Boyd’s improvement, though, suggests the Tigers’ numbers could get better, too.
He has given up just three earned runs in his last 11⅓ innings (two starts), striking out 12 batters and allowing one walk.
“We’re going to continue to build off it,” Boyd said. “And I think all of us, we haven’t even played our best baseball yet, collectively. … There’s a lot of fight in this clubhouse. It’s fun going forward with what we got.”
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On Friday, Boyd gave up back-to-back homers and a single to start the first inning, but he didn’t allow another hit until the fifth. He struck out Miguel Sano in the third with three consecutive changeups; that pitch accounted for seven strikes swinging in his 89-pitch performance.
Boyd got strikeouts with his fastball, slider, curveball and changeup. He gave credit to catcher Austin Romine for keeping a structured plan.
“First two hitters, I was worried about things that I shouldn’t be worried about, instead of just going out there and attacking the glove,” Boyd said. “And, you know, it kind of became clear to me. I made that adjustment.”
While Boyd wants to build on his success, Zimmermann wants to find his old ways.
After starting his Tigers career wtih a 0.55 ERA over five starts in April 2016, he has posted a 5.96 ERA and a 1.457 WHIP in 90 starts and one relief appearance, including last season, in which he went 1-13 with a 6.91 ERA and 1.518 WHIP.
Even if he returns this season, he may not be back in the rotation. (His only relief appearance came on Sept. 25, 2016, when he allowed one run on four hits with four strikeouts in three innings.)
[ Tigers’ patience with Jordan Zimmermann can be shorter than ever in 2020 ]
The Tigers are impressed with his progress and could use him in multiple roles to aid a playoff push, but the organization remains cautious.
“He’s got his velo back to where it was, and they say everything’s coming out really good,” Gardenhire said. “We just don’t know where it’s going to go and how it’s going to do. Once he gets into situations facing hitters at this level, will his arm hold up? None of those things we can answer.”
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But if Zimmermann is able to get back to the majors before the season is over, Boyd is certain the 34-year-old will help the Tigers in their postseason pursuit.
And if he can’t make it back, he will continue to speak with Boyd from afar.
“Always talking about how we can get better,” Boyd said. “He’s been around me for five seasons now and knows what works, knows how I tick. I’m grateful for him in so many ways. Even if he’s not here, his presence is felt in that way.
“I’m looking forward to the day he’s back in the clubhouse.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content.