If it was goodbye, Zim left debut with smile

Detroit Tigers

If Thursday ends up being Jordan Zimmermann’s final start as a Tiger, he at least got the chance to smile after an outing once more. His three innings with an unearned run gave Detroit a chance it eventually converted with a five-run seventh inning for a 6-3 win in the nightcap and a doubleheader split against the Cardinals on Thursday at Busch Stadium.

The Tigers faced a 3-1 deficit going into the seventh and final inning, but rookie Sergio Alcántara’s leadoff walk ignited a rally off Cards closer Giovanny Gallegos. Victor Reyes and Jonathan Schoop hit back-to-back singles to score one run and put the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position.

Box score

For the second time this week, Miguel Cabrera was walked with first base open — this time intentionally — to load the bases for Jeimer Candelario, who again answered with a two-run single to put the Tigers in front. Jorge Bonifacio’s two-run homer added insurance runs for Bryan Garcia’s second save this week.

Skubal’s homework assignment: Command

The game was within reach thanks in no small part to Zimmermann, who scattered four hits but avoided the big inning that could’ve sunk this game. He had a runner on third base with nobody out in each of his first two innings but escaped with double plays and strikeouts on 90-mph fastballs. A highlight catch from Daz Cameron, crashing into the right-field fence to rob Paul Goldschmidt of an extra-base hit on a 103.1-mph line drive, saved another run in the third.

Gardenhire didn’t push Zimmermann past that, instead opting for piggyback reliever Tyler Alexander. Matt Carpenter’s fourth-inning double and Tommy Edman’s fifth-inning homer extended St. Louis’ lead before Candelario’s sixth-inning homer, his second of the doubleheader and third in four games, cut into the Detroit’s deficit.

What the Tigers do with Zimmermann from here, with just more than two weeks left in the season, is unclear. Barring postponements or a makeup of their other postponed doubleheader against the Cardinals at Comerica Park, they won’t need an extra starter the rest of the way. Their current rotation includes two top prospects who need regular work in Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize. Michael Fulmer needs innings as he works back from Tommy John surgery, and the Tigers need innings from which to evaluate him. Matthew Boyd and Spencer Turnbull need starts to work through their issues.

All are either part of next year’s rotation or need to be evaluated going into it. Zimmermann is wrapping up the final season of the five-year contract he signed as a free agent after the 2015 campaign. Both the Tigers and Zimmermann acknowledged this is likely his final year in Detroit well before the right forearm strain that landed him on the 45-day injured list at the end of Summer Camp.

At the time, manager Ron Gardenhire said the goal was to get Zimmermann back near season’s end. Moreover, Zimmermann wanted to come back. Thursday’s doubleheader and the need it created for a sixth starter created the one-time opportunity. The example Zimmermann sets with his work ethic and perseverance — not just in returning this year, but in previous seasons from neck and back issues that required nerve block injections — is the strongest argument for another opportunity.

Zimmermann’s fastball averaged just less than 90 mph according to Statcast, and his slider drew just two swings and misses. The Cardinals hit four balls in play off him with exit velocities greater than 100 mph, including Paul DeJong’s leadoff single to set up a run in the second inning, helped by an Alcantara two-base error.

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck’s Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.

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