By: Will Burchfield
Brad Ausmus said it himself.
If the 30-34 Tigers are going to make something of their season, it will start with three right arms: Justin Verlander, Michael Fulmer and Jordan Zimmermann.
"Those are three pretty good pitchers at the top. But we have to have 'em doing it. We can talk about them doing it but we have to have 'em doing it. If you pitch well on a regular basis in baseball you're gonna win games. And that's how you expect to cover a four-game, under-.500 deficit. Quite frankly, if those three are pitching well for the remainder of the season we'll easily cover that," Ausmus said on Wednesday night, following a 2-1 loss to the Diamondbacks.
Despite the defeat, it was another step in the right direction for Zimmermann. He held Arizona to two runs on six hits over eight innings, his best start of the season and his third strong outing in a row. Having rediscovered his slider, Zimmermann suddenly resembles the pitcher the Tigers thought they were signing in the 2015 offseason.
He now stands at 5-5 with a 5.35 ERA in 2017.
"The first two months were really rough on me and all the fans expected me to be a lot better than I was. I knew something wasn't right, it just took me a little longer than normal to figure it out," said Zimmermann. "I feel good after the last couple outings and hopefully that continues."
"I feel like my stuff is the best it's been in a Tigers uniform," he added.
That's the good news.
The bad news is that - lately, at least - Verlander and Fulmer haven't held up their end of the bargain. And until they do, Zimmermann's resurgence will feel hollow.
Verlander hasn't looked like himself all season long. He's had as many bad outings as good ones, and his overall line - 4-4, 4.68 ERA, 1.48 WHIP - hardly speaks to his ability.
"I'm not worried about him," said Ausmus. "I'd like to obviously see him bounce back quicker, but it's certainly not lack of effort on his part. He's working hard, he wants to be that guy again and I think he will be. His stuff hasn't changed. When the stuff is there, sometimes you just gotta chalk it up and assume that the ability will take over in the long term."
In the case of Fulmer, the downturn has been much slimmer. His struggles over his last two starts popped up out of nowhere, and are probably attributable to the shoulder bursitis for which he received treatment last week. There's no long-term concern with him, but the Tigers are a team with an especially short-term outlook.
Their hope is in the hands of the rotation, and the rotation is in the hands of the three guys at the top.
"Ver is better than he's pitched recently, so in that sense it's a blip. And Fulmer's had a couple (tough) starts recently but he's been really good. I don't really do much with (the rotation). We only have so many starters that are capable of pitching at the major league level, we gotta make it work," Ausmus said. "Simple as that."
So much of the optimism for the Tigers this spring stemmed from Verlander, Fulmer and Zimmermann. The former two were coming off terrific seasons, the latter was finally healthy. Together, they looked poised to turn the Tigers into serious challengers in the A.L. Central.
They've all shown flashes - Fulmer most consistently - but rarely in unison. It's almost like they're singing from different hymn sheets. There's the potential for euphony, for sweet-sounding chin music, but one voice almost always seems to be drowning out the others.
In June, Zimmermann's ERA is 2.25. Meanwhile, Verlander's is 6.43 and Fulmer's is 7.96. It has to be frustrating, considering how much they could achieve in concert.
"It is and it isn't," said catcher Alex Avila, "because that's sometimes part of the season and part of the game where you're not gonna have everybody clicking at the same time. You gotta figure out a way to get it done regardless. Then when they do start putting games together like that on a consistent basis, that's when you get on a roll. Any team that has a good record, that's pretty much what happens."
Zimmerman resisted "pointing a finger at three guys," but agreed that he's part of a trio that could quickly pitch the Tigers back into contention.
"It's huge if you can string some quality starts together; you know these guys are gonna score runs. You go out and pitch, the next guy goes out and does a little better and it does get contagious I think. We just need to get on roll and start going six, seven, eight innings," he said, "and everything else will take care of itself."
Ausmus likes to say you can't judge a team until 162 games have been played. But you can certainly judge its parts along the way. For the Tigers, the rotation is still very much a question mark and very much the key. It's up to Verlander, Fulmer and Zimmermann to provide the answer.
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