Everyone says you can’t take too much away from any one game. ‘0-1’ is probably the most pertinent piece of information from the Tigers’ heartbreaking loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Friday. But on a team with little to no expectations of winning in 2018, perhaps we can look deeper. Let us pre-suppose a thesis; maybe this game is everything?
The Tigers’ offense battled back after squandering like mad in the early innings. That much we have to give them. While certain elements of the team (glares directly at the bullpen) failed them, there were also bright spots — particularly from the Tigers’ younger players — and several early storylines came front and center during the 13-inning marathon that was Opening Day.
For one game at least, Zimmermann’s peripherals were outstanding, as he punched out eight hitters in six innings of work with just one walk. He mixed four-seam and two-seam fastballs up and down between 90-93 mph, located well, and kept hitters off balance with a mixing of cutting and dropping sliders.
The improved feel on his slider and the ability to manipulate it he has shown over the past month is somewhat impressive. It’s also necessary. Zimmermann probably shouldn’t be throwing much more than forty percent fastballs at this point. He needs to go offspeed more than he’s used to, and he is going to have to lean on the slider this season. While he snuck in a smattering of curveballs and changeups to show them and steal a few strikes, his season is going to be about three things. Fastball command, his slider, and his health.
We also saw Zimmermann working at the rapid pace pitching coach Chris Bosio has preached all winter, and while the Pirates’ offense is one of the lesser units in the game, it was still encouraging to see the veteran right-hander pitching aggressively with good command, and punching out hitters of either hand with only two or three hard hit balls.
This is all well and good, but things did go sideways for Zimmermann in the fourth. After retiring 10 straight Pirates, he suddenly surrendered a two-run lead, undercutting what could’ve been a fine outing. There was a misplay from Dixon Machado, and a pair of singles that found holes before Zimmermann made his only real mistake of the inning, center-cutting an 0-1 fastball that Francisco Cervelli smoked to the wall in center field to make it 3-2. Results are what they are, but Zimmermann pitched better than his line appears. If he looks like that most of the year, the Tigers are finally going to recoup a decent, if still underwhelming, campaign out of the wayward veteran.
Probably the most intriguing story coming out of this one was JaCoby Jones’ series of fine plate appearances in the late innings. Most particularly a great at-bat in the 10th that went eight pitches deep and appeared to have ended in a walkoff single for Jones. Jones showcased a more discerning eye, and came through under pressure repeatedly on Friday.
With his speed, size and defense, do you know what it would mean if JaCoby Jones suddenly made slightly worse than league average contact? Alright, alright, everyone let’s just lay in the cut and relax. I’m not going to make out like Jones is literally made of wind, fire and clutch, or tease you with moments like this, for example. I’m just saying it’ll be fun to watch him try and put this athleticism to better use than we’ve seen from him in the past.
With one out in the ninth, Jones drew a walk from the Pirates’ hard-throwing southpaw closer, Felipe Rivero. He raced home on James McCann’s RBI double to tie the game and send it to extras. In the 10th, Jones battled through an eight pitch AB, fouling off a tough two-strike fastball on the inner edge, and then taking one right on the lower inside corner that just missed the zone. After working back into a 3-2 count, Jones fouled off another tough fastball on the edge, before serving a Josh Smoker splitter away into left field for what appeared to be a walk-off single until replay spoiled the day.
He wasn’t done either. In the 13th, with the game looking lost, Jones again singled to spark a little life into the proceedings. It bears keeping in mind that both Jones’ hits came against lefties, his natural prey. And wow did the Pirates bullpen look a mess. However, after looking very raw at times in 2017, Jones put together another nice spring with better discipline and an approach dialed to contact more than power, and he came through repeatedly in this one. Anyway, don’t take me too seriously here, but keep playing him.
Machado is another young player who has finally converted his defensive ability into a starting role. However, there are major questions about his ability to hit enough to stick around long-term as more than a utility infielder. The 25-year-old got off to a fine start on Friday.
In the second inning, he roped a 2-1 fastball down the line in left for an RBI double. Even better was his plate appearance in the ninth inning. With the Tigers down 10-8 and down to their last out, the young second baseman came through again. He took an 0-1 offering to left for his second double of the game, driving in the game-tying runs that pushed this one into extras. On the other hand, the expected stellar defense wasn’t on display.
Still, no one need worry about his glove. It was a good day for Dixon Machado.
Basically a typical Cabrera day at the office. He hit the ball hard, but two of those were drilled right at Pirates’ shortstop Jordy Mercer. It was a pretty classic Miguel Cabrera performance in terms of hard contact. Little more air under the ball would help. Whiffed in a key spot early. But of course you can’t leave as many ducks on the pond as the Pirates’ pitching staff allowed, and survive Cabrera multiple times. In the seventh he strafed a double into the right field corner to extract his customary RBI toll.
Miguel Cabrera has put 5 balls in play in 2018:— Daren Willman (@darenw) March 31, 2018
It was Game 1, and the Tigers’ bullpen is going to lose a lot of games this season, so I won’t belabor the point, but the Tigers’ fascination with Drew VerHagen continues to confound me a bit. For a 27 year old reliever with no track record, it feels like he gets more faith than he’s earned. The Tigers had a two-run lead in the eighth, and everyone but Warwick Saupold—who cruised in the seventh inning by the way—available.
Perhaps as a test, Gardenhire went to VerHagen to hold a two-run lead. He quickly allowed a single and a walk, and was promptly lifted from the game. At least the hook was quick? Both runs came around to score off Daniel Stumpf, but let’s see a little more seventh man up from VerHagen until results indicate a change, please. Is the stuff there? The command typically hasn’t been. Further experimentation under safer conditions is required.
Joe Jimenez and Shane Greene were each a bit of a mess today as well. Nick Castellanos didn’t help, running down a Starling Marte fly ball in the corner only to have it clang off the heel of his glove for a triple that set off a three-run rally against Greene. Alex Wilson was fulfilling all the cliches about veterans turning it on once the regular season begins. Right up until he approached 50 pitches. Gregory Polanco did this, and that was all she wrote. All in all, it was a Tigers bullpen sort of outing. Let’s see some Buck Farmer.
It was just kind of a messy game all around, with a lot of ugly pitching performances, and fans out there chilled to the bone had a lot to watch. After the Tigers blew multiple bases loaded opportunities against starter Ivan Nova, there was eventually plenty of scoring from both teams. Some defensive gaffes on both sides. Brief flareups of major league caliber pitching. The Tigers wasted a lot of chances, and while it’s aggravating, the replay review wasn’t the only thing that cost them the game. Not by a long shot.