PITTSBURGH -- The Tigers went through the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline with no illusions about trading Jordan Zimmermann, not with three more seasons and $74 million remaining on his contract. His first season and a half as a Tiger was too shaky. His starts leading up to the Deadline and since are at least proving he could be a reliable veteran pitcher for the Tigers again.
A year ago at this time, Zimmermann was wondering if he could stay healthy enough to pitch effectively. He came back from a month-long stint on the disabled list with a neck strain, gave up six runs and recorded five outs against the White Sox, then went back on the DL with a lat strain.
He took a loss in Monday's 3-0 defeat to the Pirates, but with seven quality innings for the third straight start, Zimmermann is competing again, a lost storyline amidst the Tigers' trades and the Justin Verlander rumors. Zimmermann isn't back to what he was before, not throwing quite as hard, but with his secondary pitches working, he's keeping offenses off-balance.
Zimmermann was a hanging curveball away from giving the Tigers a 1-0 deficit to try to erase against the Pirates' bullpen. Considering where he was a year ago, the Tigers will take this.
"I've been feeling great ever since the All-Star break," Zimmermann said. "I'm able to get some quick outs when I need to and some short innings, and I'm able to stay out there a little longer. Credit to the defense playing behind me; I'm not going to punch out 10 guys. I put the ball in play and let the guys behind me do their job. And when I do that and get the quick outs and first-pitch strikes, things like that, usually I get on a roll and have some games where I go deep again."
Zimmermann went into the break with a 5-7 record and 5.87 ERA; he's 2-2 with a 3.44 ERA in five starts since.
Zimmermann did not throw a pitch above 93 mph Monday, according to Statcast™. The difference is in his secondary stuff. He threw 19 curveballs and drew called strikes on seven of them. The three that were put in play were crushed at an average exit velocity of 102.3 mph. He didn't get as many called strikes from the 23 sliders he threw, but he garnered more soft contact.
"It's all about the breaking balls for him," manager Brad Ausmus said. "If he has the breaking balls, especially his slider, he's usually pretty good. He seemed to have it today. The slider came and went, but the curveball was really good."
It's a similar mix to the repertoire that frustrated Yankees batters over seven shutout innings with six strikeouts Wednesday in the Bronx. This time, the strikeouts were tougher to find, and Zimmermann struggled at times to finish off hitters after mixing pitches to get to two-strike counts. Francisco Cervelli's second-inning RBI double came on a full-count slider after a 1-2 count. Jaso's homer came on the sixth curveball he saw in the at-bat, having declined to chase a 2-2 fastball up and out of the zone.
"I've been throwing a lot of changeups, which has been helping," Zimmermann said. "Just keeping the ball down and elevating when I have to, and I've been getting some good results."
Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.