August 8, 2016
While Tigers are riding high, brass
deals with nagging pitching headache
By KEITH GAVE
Tigers General Manager Al Avila sat in his team’s broadcast booth at Comerica Park, with Mario Impemba to his left and Rod Allen to his right. He was there for a mid-game interview with so much good news to discuss. Yet Avila sat there looking like a man sitting in a dentist’s chair about to undergo a root canal.
This should have been the easiest and most delightful media interview in his career. The team he had built over the winter was on an eight-game winning streak that put itself squarely in the Central Division pennant race, just a few games behind Cleveland. The night before, he and a legion of Tigers fans experienced one of the most stirring moments in years J.D. Martinez returned from a six-week absence to a long and warm ovation from fans – and responded by hitting the first pitch he saw over the centerfield wall, a pinch-hit home run off the best left-hander in the American League that was the difference in a 2-1 Detroit victory.
But clearly Avila wasn’t enjoying the moment. The broadcast team couldn’t even get much of a rise out of their interview subject even when they congratulated him on the first anniversary of his promotion to GM.
The reason? A few innings earlier, Avila had witnessed the return from injury of another player critical to his team in the final two months of the season. But Jordan Zimmermann’s re-emergence from a month-long absence was anything but successful. Zimmermann, the American League’s Pitcher of the Month in April, didn’t survive the second inning in his first appearance in a month
Early in that inning, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus led a delegation to the mound to check in on Zimmermann, taking his pitching coach and trainer with him.
“I’m fine,” Zimmermann kept saying. Even a novice lip-reader could see how insistent he was. Fine or not, that’s the attitude it takes to survive and thrive in the major leagues. Every athlete on those fields of dreams is 10-feet tall and bullet proof – at least that’s the prevailing mindset. He wanted to stay in the game.
But clearly Zimmermann was not fine. He gave the ball to his manager after the second Ausmus visit of the innings. Zimmermann’s line in the shortest outing in his career as a starter: 1 2/3 innings, six hits, six earned runs, two walks, no strike outs, as his record slipped to 9-5.
After the game, Ausmus told reporters that his pitcher was experiencing tightness in his lat, a muscle that extends from the lower back and hip to the arm. Moreover, Ausmus said, the issue was believed to be unrelated to the neck strain that put Zimmermann on the DL in early July – but it is on the same side of the body.
Which is why the Tigers immediately ordered Zimmermann undergo another MRI. Which is also why Avila was having a bad Thursday. He worried that for Zimmermann might need more time on the disabled list. Worse, it would be the second starter to hit the 15-day DL this week, with Mike Pelfrey going down with back problems on Tuesday.
The situation seemed to improve Friday when news broke that the MRI showed no serious damage – though the team was unsure whether he would avoid another stint on the DL. They’ll know more when he throws a bullpen session on Sunday.
Meantime, the concern on Avila’s face after Zimmermann’s outing shows the gravity of his dilemma. The starting rotation has shown some remarkable consistency lately, with Pelfrey, Anibel Sanchez and Matt Boyd all turning in strong performances in the team’s run since play resumed after the All-Star break.
But it’s a fragile assemblage. Only ace Justin Verlander and rookie Michael Fulmer have provided the kind of consistency needed by a team that is serious about a long playoff run. Zimmermann’s healthy return, pitching like he was in April and May and not like he has in several poor outings since early June, has been considered vital to the Tigers’ post-season hopes.
This team must take advantage of a favorable schedule this month, with 16 of the next 25 games at Comerica Park, buying some time while Zimmermann gets his game back. And if he doesn’t, they most certainly will have to find a way to add a reliable starter in the trade market when rosters expand on Sept. 1.
Buckle up and try to enjoy what has been quite a thrill ride this summer. But don’t sit next to Avila. He’s no fun at all.