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Zimmermann can't find winning groove vs. KC

Tigers right-hander yields pair of costly homers in tough start
MLB.com @beckjason

KANSAS CITY -- Tigers right-hander Jordan Zimmermann was hoping that feeling he had pitching for the past month would carry through the All-Star break. He spent the break receiving a nerve block injection to make sure his back wouldn't spoil it. He threw on the side for as many days as he could to try to keep it going.

Then, he took the mound on Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium for his first outing in 13 days, and he felt like he was riding a bicycle for the first time in ages. That feeling he could throw any pitch in any count was gone.

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KANSAS CITY -- Tigers right-hander Jordan Zimmermann was hoping that feeling he had pitching for the past month would carry through the All-Star break. He spent the break receiving a nerve block injection to make sure his back wouldn't spoil it. He threw on the side for as many days as he could to try to keep it going.

Then, he took the mound on Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium for his first outing in 13 days, and he felt like he was riding a bicycle for the first time in ages. That feeling he could throw any pitch in any count was gone.

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"I didn't have any pitch in any count tonight, really," Zimmermann said after the 5-4 loss to the Royals. "I'd try to go backdoor with a slider and it would end up being back-foot, and the guy swung over the top of it. It looks like I almost knew what I was doing, but I missed by three feet. Fastball command would be there for a couple pitches, and the next two wouldn't be close. I bet I missed probably half my pitches. It was ugly."

It doesn't mean his summer resurgence is doomed. Zimmermann still felt healthy over his five turbulent innings, and he doesn't expect his back to stiffen up the next few days like it did after his previous start or two. He felt good, he said, maybe too good.

"It's just a matter of getting mound time and getting back in sync again," he said.

The Tigers will give him every chance to do so. They have three off-days coming up in an eight-day stretch, but with Mike Fiers and Francisco Liriano potentially dealt by the non-waiver Trade Deadline on July 31, and Blaine Hardy filling in for an injured Michael Fulmer, the club can put Zimmermann on regular rest. Manager Ron Gardenhire hinted at doing so after the game.

Video: DET@KC: Zimmermann strikes out Bonifacio swinging

Detroit needs an effective Zimmermann for many reasons, short- and long-term. It didn't happen on Tuesday.

What looked like a pitching mismatch, with Zimmermann opposing 28-year-old Royals rookie Burch Smith, turned in the opposite direction. One night after the Tigers rallied off Kansas City's bullpen, Smith sent them back into their hitting woes, holding Detroit to a Niko Goodrum fourth-inning single and two walks over 6 1/3 innings.

Though Zimmermann (4-2) felt surprisingly strong heading into the break, his back stiffened up after his last couple starts, enough that he decided to undergo a nerve block injection as a precaution. The injections have been a part of his treatment for back and neck stiffness the last couple years, including one he received just before Spring Training. The break meant he could take the necessary recovery time without missing a start.

Video: DET@KC: Gardenhire on Zimmermann's outing, Martinez

Zimmermann sounded unconcerned about potential rust, having felt good in his bullpen session a couple days earlier. Once he took the mound on Tuesday, however, his slider was inconsistent and his fastball command was off. More damaging was a curveball that looked more like the throwaway pitch it had been at times last year.

Zimmermann entered the start with a hard-hit rate of less than 29 percent off his sliders and curveballs this season, down from 33 percent last year, and a batting average against of just .188 off those pitches. The Royals hit seven balls off him with an exit velocity over 100 mph, according to Statcast™, including four off the breaking ball.

Both home runs came off curveballs in 1-0 counts. Mike Moustakas connected on one at the knees and sent it over the fence in the right-field corner in the first inning for an early 2-0 lead. After Salvador Perez singled home Rosell Herrera in the third inning, he turned on a curveball in the fifth and lined it deep to left.

Video: DET@KC: Candelario plates Castellanos with groundout

Zimmermann yielded four runs on seven hits over five innings, his shortest start since June 25. Victor Martinez's first homer since May 19 raised hopes of a second consecutive comeback, as did Nicholas Castellanos' triple and run scored off Wily Peralta in the ninth. But Peralta -- who wasn't available during Detroit's rally on Monday -- retired Martinez as the potential tying run in the ninth on a flyout for his fifth save.

MOMENT THAT MATTERED
Martinez's first homer in two months capped a 10-pitch at-bat that included six foul balls off sidearming lefty Tim Hill, whom the Royals brought in to force Martinez to bat right-handed. An elevated slider was the pitch he needed to drive over the left-field wall, making it a 5-3 contest.

Video: DET@KC: Martinez blasts a 3-run homer to left field

"I'm just trying to go out there and be a tough out, man," said Martinez, who also battled Peralta for seven pitches in the ninth. "He has a lot of movement on his pitches. I was just trying to hang in there and see what happens. He tried to go backdoor with a slider and it got too much of the plate, and I was able to put a good swing."

SOUND SMART
Martinez's 49-game homerless drought was the longest of his career. He went 187 at-bats between home runs, having previously homered off another tough lefty in the Mariners' James Paxton.

HE SAID IT
"He gives us probably our most professional at-bats consistently. He doesn't always get hits, but he has professional at-bats. He doesn't chase out of the zone crazy like most people. That's because he's been around a long time. He has good nights. He just doesn't run well enough to stay out of double plays, and that drives everybody crazy, but he has quality at-bats, and hopefully some of our young hitters will learn from that." -- Gardenhire, on Martinez

UP NEXT
Tigers left-hander Matthew Boyd (4-9, 4.62 ERA) will try for his first win since June 7 as the series against the Royals concludes at 2:15 p.m. ET on Wednesday at Kauffman Stadium. Boyd has lost all three of his previous starts in July, including a tough-luck 1-0 defeat to the Red Sox on Friday. He has lost both of his meetings with the Royals so far this season. Lefty Danny Duffy (6-8, 4.40 ERA) gets the start for Kansas City.

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

Detroit Tigers, Victor Martinez, Jordan Zimmermann