DETROIT -- For all their talent, the Tigers need more than a few things to go right for them to contend. Jordan Zimmermann is up near the top of the list. After one start, he's doing his part.
The last time Zimmermann had earned a win was June 14 of last year. He had nine wins and three losses at the time, and though he wasn't dominating starts like he did last April, he was effective enough to earn American League All-Star consideration. He made just six starts and a relief appearance from there, hampered by neck issues, and the Tigers had to crawl back into contention without him.
As Zimmermann walked off the field Saturday with six innings of one-run ball and a lead, sending the Tigers on their way to a relatively comfortable 4-1 win over the Red Sox, he couldn't downplay the importance.
"It's huge," Zimmermann said. "It was a really tough year for me last year, battling injuries. To finally have a fresh start and a healthy spring, to come in the first game and do this, it means a lot, and I'm extremely happy."
So, too, was his manager.
"I've said since Spring Training that he's a big key for us," Brad Ausmus said. "Last year, we lost him for half a season. He was our No. 2 going into the season last year. We need to keep him healthy for six months, and hopefully longer, because he's a big part of our rotation."
The health was there Saturday, despite a bout of food poisoning that sidelined him earlier this week. The velocity was a tick down from his Spring Training levels, and he spent the first half of the game searching for his secondary pitches, one reason why he generated just four swing-and-misses despite three swinging strikeouts.
It wasn't his form from last April, when Zimmermann won all five of his starts and posting a 0.55 ERA. But when he needed to make a pitch, he did. Though he gave up hard contact in the second inning, from Mitch Moreland's double into the right-field corner to fly balls from Pablo Sandoval and Jackie Bradley Jr. to bring Moreland around, Zimmermann kept the damage there. When Christian Vazquez, Brock Holt and Dustin Pedroia all reached base with one out the next inning to load the bases for rookie Andrew Benintendi, Zimmermann challenged him with fastballs up and got a ground ball to second base, where Ian Kinsler and Jose Iglesias swiftly turned a double play to escape.
While Benintendi was ill, battling the flu-like symptoms that have enveloped the Red Sox clubhouse, the Tigers exalted.
"It was definitely the play of the game for me," Zimmermann said.
When Zimmermann had to adjust from there, he did, retiring nine of his final 10 batters. That's the veteran savvy the Tigers missed behind Justin Verlander in their rotation down the stretch in 2016.
"I went to the changeup a little bit and the curveball a little more," Zimmermann said. "The first couple innings, I couldn't get a real good feel for any breaking stuff. The ball just felt chalky in my hand. I was using as much sweat as I could to get a grip on the ball. As the game went on, I got a little warmer and felt a lot better, and the ball started coming out better and I had a lot better feel for the curveball, and I threw some good changeups."
Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.