TAMPA, Fla. -- Jordan Zimmermann speaks a language of optimism. When things have gone wrong the past couple of years, he often said he's a pitch away from the adjustment or solution that will get him back to his better form.Spring Training is an incubator for optimism, for pitchers and
TAMPA, Fla. -- Jordan Zimmermann speaks a language of optimism. When things have gone wrong the past couple of years, he often said he's a pitch away from the adjustment or solution that will get him back to his better form.
Spring Training is an incubator for optimism, for pitchers and hitters trying things against each other in lower-pressure settings. And yet, as Zimmermann pushed through the formidable heart of the Yankees' order in a 2-2 tie Tuesday afternoon, he had reason to believe he has found something, that the adjustment is here. With strikeouts of sluggers Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, Zimmermann gave others -- notably manager Ron Gardenhire -- reason to believe, too.
"He's our go-to guy. We all know that," Gardenhire said. "We need him to eat up innings and win us some ballgames and keep the guys in it. I think he recognizes that, too. He's got a very important role here, and we all know when he stays healthy, he can do some things."
After tossing five scoreless innings against a New York lineup featuring several regulars, Zimmermann is doing those things now. Asked the last time he felt this good with his pitching, Zimmermann cracked a smile.
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"Three years ago," said Zimmermann, referring to his final season with the Nationals before he signed a five-year contract to come to Detroit.
Given the neck and back issues that have dogged him for most of his Tiger tenure, it's fair to expect Zimmermann will have something to fight through at some point. But beyond his health, Zimmermann seems to have found peace with what he can throw, and how to use it.
"I was completely lost last year compared to this year," Zimmermann said.
When Zimmermann struggled last season, he often seemed to be searching for pitches he didn't have, whether it was a fastball without enough velocity or movement, or a slider that didn't have its old effect. He didn't register above 91 mph on the George M. Steinbrenner Field radar gun Tuesday, leaning more on a retinkered sinker than his traditional fastball. But Zimmermann had a sharp slider and buckling breaking ball, and he used them all in ways that flummoxed hitters.
"Mac and I were on the same page," said Zimmermann, referring to catcher James McCann. "It's one of those days where it's really fun to be out there. Hopefully that continues."
Zimmermann is also working quickly, something that rarely ever happened last year.
"When you have some injuries and you're battling through some things, you slow down trying to make sure your body can take it," Gardenhire said. "I think he's feeling pretty good right now."
The most notable inning was the fourth, when Zimmermann faced the heart of the Yankees' order, a fear-inducing task awaiting American League East hurlers in a few weeks. In this spring outing, Zimmermann pitched in reverse, spotting breaking balls for first-pitch strikes on Judge and Stanton before striking them out -- Judge swinging at a 2-2 slider, Stanton watching a 1-2 fastball.
Once Gary Sanchez grounded out on a first-pitch slider, Zimmermann was through his toughest inning. He retired the Yankees in order in the fifth to finish his outing with 61 pitches, 44 strikes. He could have thrown another inning, but he tossed another 15-20 pitches in the bullpen.
It was a good response after Gardenhire mentioned Michael Fulmer and Francisco Liriano with rotation spots locked up, but he did not mention Zimmermann.
"What, you just want me to name the rotation now? You guys just put them in there and in the end, we'll figure it out," Gardenhire said. "When [pitching coach Chris Bosio] and I decide to let everybody know, we'll let the general manager know first before we tell anybody. But you can figure it out. You guys are doing a pretty good job."
General manager Al Avila could point out the three seasons remaining on Zimmermann's contract. But with 12 strikeouts over 11 innings in his last three Grapefruit League starts, Zimmermann is putting up more in his favor. Zimmermann not only feels well, he's pitching well.
"I've been doing stuff in the training room to stay loose and it seems to be helping," Zimmermann said. "I feel the best I've felt in a long time."
Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and Facebook.