Detroit Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire wasn’t sure if right-handed pitcher Jordan Zimmermann was nervous.
It was his first time on the mound since Sept. 26, 2019. The 34-year-old’s right forearm strain in July’s summer camp — combined with three career worsts in 2019: a 1-13 record, 6.91 ERA and 1.518 WHIP — made it unlikely that he would contribute in the final season of his five-year contract.
“I never lost hope, but I knew with the injury that I had, and the timetable to come back, it was going to be a long, difficult road,” Zimmermann said Thursday. “Once I got up to 120 feet and was able to throw pain-free, I knew there was a decent chance I’d be able to come back, whether it be in the bullpen or anything I could do to help out.”
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He started — and tossed three innings — in Thursday’s 6-3 win over the Cardinals in Game 2 of the doubleheader. He gave up one unearned run, only allowing four hits and one walk with two strikeouts as the Tigers improved to 20-23 with 17 games remaining.
And to answer Gardenhire’s worries: No, Zimmermann was not nervous. Anxious, yes. But not nervous.
“I was anxious to get out there and start facing some big-league hitters,” Zimmermann said. “First pitch of the game, we throw a sinker and (Kolten Wong) hits it off the end (of the bat) for a blooper, and I walked the next guy.
“I’m thinking to myself, ‘Not one of these starts.’ “
It was not one of “these starts” for Zimmermann. Sure, his tempo was rushed in the first couple of innings. He didn’t throw as many strikes as he would have liked. But he was pleased with his 42-pitch outing.
So were the Tigers.
“We honestly talked about sending him back out for the fourth, but that long inning offensively told us, no, leave on a good night,” Gardenhire said. “He did great. I can imagine that he’s probably as happy as he’s been in baseball.”
Zimmermann got help from his defense, which turned a double play against six-time All-Star Paul Goldschmidt for the first two outs Thursday. He got another double play, this time on an line drive to first baseman Jeimer Candelario, to limit the damage in the second inning.
His only run scored because of rookie third baseman Sergio Alcantara’s error.
“I was excited for him,” said Candelario, who drove in three runs in the comeback victory. “We need our pitchers, and he’s a big part of us.”
The Tigers’ 2020 starting rotation has an MLB-worst 6.45 ERA and average exit velocity of 90.1 mph.
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So while Zimmermann’s recent track record doesn’t suggest future success, neither does that of anyone else in the rotation. Right now, Gardenhire isn’t sure what the next move is. Zimmermann doesn’t know, either.
“We’ll make plans as we go along here,” Gardenhire said. “Where everybody’s at, what we’re doing, and we’ll try to fit him in another spot.”
Rookie right fielder Daz Cameron provided the final out with Zimmermann on the mound, catching a line drive from Goldschmidt and holding on while slamming against the wall. It was a far cry from Zimmermann’s last encounter with the Cameron family: Mike Cameron, Daz’s father, faced Zimmermann on July 26, 2011. He singled once but also struck out.
More than nine years later, the younger Cameron and the elder Zimmermann are trying to help the Tigers make the postseason. As of Thursday night, Detroit was two games back of the New York Yankees for the AL’s eighth and final spot in the expanded 16-team postseason.
With many top prospects and newcomers on the roster, Zimmermann, an 11-year veteran, thinks there will be plenty of excitement down the stretch.
“As long as we’re in a position where we can be there in the last week of the season, win a few games and sneak in, who knows what’s going to happen,” Zimmermann said. “We’ve got a couple guys on this team that have playoff experience, and a lot of young guys that have no playing experience.
“Being able to help them, guide them and let them know what the playoffs are all about, it’ll be a fun experience.”
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.