Amazing how quickly fortune can change for a baseball team this time of year. One week ago, the Tigers managed to squeak out a win against the Baltimore Orioles to salvage the last game of an abysmal road trip. The fanbase was losing its collective mind, calling for everyone involved with this fiasco to be fired.
As they began a homestand against the Minnesota Twins, the team needed a steadying influence, and so far this season, it's been Jordan Zimmermann to the rescue in those scenarios. However, the term steady wouldn't be applied to anything that happened in Zimmermann's last start.
In perhaps the wildest game of the year, and one that will no doubt be referenced as the turning point in the season should things ultimately break the Tigers' way, the Tigers knocked the Twins best young pitching prospect, Jose Berrios, out of the game with an eight-run first inning. Zimmermann then surrendered eight runs, seven of them earned, in seven innings of work as every ball the Twins put in play seemed to find a hole. Manager Brad Ausmus lost it entirely, putting on a show of managerial rage unlike anything we'd seen from him in his tenure in Detroit. Yet the Tigers pulled out a thriller on the back of late home runs from J.D. Martinez and Nick Castellanos, and set to work sweeping the Twins out of town.
Now winners of five of their last six, the Tigers have stabilized the situation, and are looking to start gaining ground on the rest of the A.L. Central division.
Through the first month of the 2016 season, Jordan Zimmermann prevented runs better than any starting pitcher in the game. While his freakishly good April has given way to expected regression in his numbers, the prize free agent signing of the offseason has done little but dominate for his new ballclub in the early going. Zimmermann has yet to throw less than six innings in a start, and only once has given up more than three earned runs.
Zimmermann will attempt to resume his typical command and composure today, as the Tigers look to lock up a second consecutive series win at home.
Tampa Bay Rays (20-20) at Detroit Tigers (20-22)
Time/Place: 1:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation blog: DRaysBay
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Chris Archer (3-4, 4.38 ERA) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (6-2, 2.45 ERA)
This isn't the Chris Archer anyone expected. One of the popular preseason candidates to win the A.L. Cy Young this season, Archer has struggled through nine starts. While his early season numbers are skewed as the result of an outing on April 8 in which he surrendered four home runs to the Baltimore Orioles in Camden Yards, his command issues have persisted. The walks and uncharacteristically hard contact have subsided, but not yet to the degree a pitcher the caliber of Archer expects. Still, it would be foolish to expect anything less than a very tough task for the Tigers' bats today.
Archer and Zimmermann make perfect foils, as both attack hitters with their fastball/slider combination, and little else. Whereas Zimmermann depends on control to manage contact and limit walks, Archer looks to strike everyone out, and he's quite capable of doing so, no matter who is lined up against him.
Archer possesses one of the nastiest sliders in the game, and despite his wildness in the early going, still ranks fifth among all starters in strikeouts per nine innings. Paired with an electric, mid-nineties fastball, he can make a whole lineup look very, very bad when he gets on a roll. Yet he's continued issuing more walks than normal. If the Tigers' big bats can lay off the slider enough to pressure Archer to throw his fastball for strikes with regularity, he may reward them with a few free passes along the way. More likely, they'll have to jump on first pitch fastballs to avoid falling behind in the count where Archer's slider becomes a devastating weapon.
Apart from the command issues, the one tangible difference in Archer's arsenal this year is found in his fastball. The hard-tailing version he featured in previous years gave way to more of a straight, rising four-seamer last season. That fits the Rays overall philosophy of pounding hitters with high fastballs. However, this season, Archer's velocity has been just a little off, and he's not getting the same rising action he enjoyed last season. The elevated home run and line drive rates against him thus far are a sign that he hasn't quite found a good groove with his mechanics as of yet.
Hitter to fear: Steve Pearce (.444/.500/1.333 in nine at-bats)
Hitter to fail: Logan Morrison (.167/.211/.556 in 18 at-bats)
The easy expectation for a game between two top-tier starting pitchers is for a pitching duel to break out. Zimmermann has already gone up against Max Scherzer at his finest this season and did a fair job matching him. A free-swinging lineup like the Rays should play into his hands on a bright sunny day at Comerica Park. Archer, on the other hand, will get his strikeouts, but the Tigers right-handed bats have been showing off their power over the past week. Archer's fastball has been very vulnerable to right-handed power hitters so far this season, and the Tigers' lineup features one of the best set of them in the game.
The Tigers land a big blow early, and Zimmermann and the bullpen hang on to win a tense, low-scoring game.