DETROIT -- Jordan Zimmermann came back for peace of mind, some sign that he can still pitch comfortably without the neck issues that have derailed his Tiger tenure. He stepped back into the Tigers rotation amid Detroit's slide looking for something to back up his optimism.
As Zimmermann battled Minnesota's Eddie Rosario for 11 pitches before fanning him on an elevated fastball to end the first inning, as he dropped a curveball just off the corner to coax a called third strike on Max Kepler, he found signs. He got the loss in Thursday's 12-1 defeat to the Twins, but he got his reason to believe he can pitch.
"I was just happy to get out there and be able to locate a fastball," Zimmermann said. "I haven't been able to do that in a long time. That was encouraging."
This is what the Tigers are trying to find amid the September slide of a long season. For youngsters, it's about getting big league experience and finding out how they can handle it. For Zimmermann and Anibal Sanchez, it's about what they still have left.
While Sanchez is likely to be a free agent at season's end, Zimmermann isn't going anywhere. He has three seasons remaining on the five-year contract he signed as a free agent in November 2015, making him one of the few veterans likely to stick out the rebuilding process. If he's healthy, he's part of the 2018 Tigers rotation, counted on for innings.
That's why getting back to the mound in 2017 after receiving a nerve block injection in his neck three weeks ago was so important.
"If I didn't pitch, I'd have those same worries I had last year when I went into the offseason, not knowing how I'd feel," he said. "I wanted to come back and get a couple starts in at the end of the year here and finish healthy and go into the offseason healthy, just keep maintaining and building on what we've worked on with my neck. If I can go into the offseason healthy, it's going to be that much easier on myself getting ready for next year."
For three innings, he was not only healthy, but effective against a Twins offense that had put up 17 runs on 21 hits over 11 2/3 innings in his other three starts against them this season. He allowed only an opposite-field Joe Mauer single and a Jason Castro walk his first time through the order.
"He looked pretty good coming out of the gate," manager Brad Ausmus said. "I thought his fastball looked good. He threw some good breaking balls. We didn't let him go too deep in terms of pitch count, but he threw the ball pretty well. It definitely was encouraging."
Zimmermann took the mound for the fourth with a 1-0 lead before three singles and a double spurred a three-run rally and ran him up against his pitch count.
His velocity was up closer to his early-season levels before he tired in the fourth, finishing at a 92.5-mph average according to Statcast™. He tested it quite a bit, throwing fastballs with 40 of his 69 pitches. But with four strikeouts and nothing worse than a double, he also showed some ability to avoid home runs and finish off hitters, qualities that had been lacking most of the year, though he gave up two hits after 0-2 counts in the fourth. He also largely avoided the middle of the strike zone until the fourth, despite having to work to get pitches inside to left-handed batters.
"It's the best stuff I've had in probably two years and the best I've felt in a long time," Zimmermann said. "I'm excited about that. I didn't look as good as how I felt, but it's something to build off of. I felt like my mechanics were solid. It's just unfortunate I made a couple pitches and they got some hits. That's the way baseball goes."
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.