A gargantuan ice pack affixed to his right shoulder, Kyle Zimmer waited in front of his locker inside the Royals clubhouse late Sunday afternoon.
It had been close to two hours since his first professional appearance since last May. The performance had toed the line between mediocre and nondescript. The moment provided lessons both positive and negative. Yet, as Zimmer continued his return from season-ending surgery to address a nerve issue in his shoulder, he appeared to take the afternoon in stride.
“It was all right,” Zimmer said. “I wasn’t really going into it worried about results.”
In a 6-4 loss to the Texas Rangers, Zimmer started and allowed three runs — two earned — in 1 1/3 innings. His fastball sat at 93 mph in the first inning and twice touched 95. It dropped to close to 90 mph after he returned for the second inning.
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Zimmer cited fatigue for the velocity drop. It was the first time this spring he had weathered the challenge of an up-down between innings. But for a pitcher whose career has been defined by injuries, the afternoon marked another step forward.
“The more times you sit down and get back up, your arm will start waking up a little bit more,” Zimmer said. “But I’m fine with what happened today. Better results are always nice. But this time of year, it’s more about getting your work in.”
In his sixth year in the organization, Zimmer entered camp as something of a wild card. He is likely slated for an assignment at Class AAA Omaha to begin the season. But first, he has an opportunity to impress during the spring.
When healthy, club officials believe Zimmer possesses some of the most potent stuff in the organization. But he must prove his capacity to remain available.
On Sunday, his final line could have been aided by better defense. Shortstop Raul Mondesi opened the first inning by booting a grounder by Rangers leadoff man Delino DeShields Jr. Zimmer responded by striking out Shin-Soo Choo before getting ahead 0-2 on left fielder Ryan Rua. Zimmer’s next pitch found the heart of the plate. Rua roped it over the left-field fence.
“I wanted it up,” Zimmer said. “But I wanted it up-up. And I left it just up-middle. But that happens. On 0-2 I was trying to raise his eye level a little bit. But I wanted it around the letters. I left it around the belt.”
Zimmer, a first-round pick in 2012, is back in major-league camp after throwing just 5 2/3 innings at two minor-league stops in 2016. His camp has been defined by a familiar story line: his health.
For close to five years, Zimmer has battled an assortment of shoulder issues and other ailments. His injury history has delayed his path to the big leagues and challenged his mental toughness. The latest setback came last summer.
Zimmer was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, a neurogenic condition caused by the compression of nerves near the neck and shoulder. The surgical procedure included the removal of a rib.
After four months of rehab and an offseason in his hometown of San Diego, Zimmer arrived in Surprise with a clean bill of health. On Sunday, he returned to competition. Zimmer was slated to throw two innings or 35 pitches. He sought to keep things simple.
“I was just trying to focus on sort of staying back and staying through my mechanics, not trying to overthrow this time of year,” Zimmer said. “So I was happy with it. It was all right.”
Royals manager Ned Yost offered a similar review. Zimmer’s first appearance offered mixed results. But the greater question remains: How will his arm respond before his second outing?
“I thought he was all right,” Yost said. “Not great; but good for the first outing. He got through the first inning and he still had 12 pitches. We wanted to send him back out and get him to his pitch count.”
Left-handed reliever Scott Alexander relieved Zimmer with one out in the second inning and struck out two batters in 1 2/3 innings. Right-hander Peter Moylan also made his first appearance of the spring, working a scoreless ninth inning.
“Scott Alexander’s first outing was nothing less than fabulous,” Yost said. “I thought that Moylan threw the ball good.”
Left fielder Alex Gordon started for the second straight day and made his first appearance in the leadoff spot. He finished 1 for 2 with a strikeout before exiting for a pinch runner.
Mike Moustakas also returned to the field, serving as the club’s designated hitter. It was his first appearance in a game since sustaining a season-ending knee injury in Chicago last May. Moustakas finished 0 for 2 before exiting in the middle innings.
The young guys
Catcher Chase Vallot, the 40th-overall selection in the 2014 draft, finished 2 for 2 with a double and a triple after replacing Moustakas in the lineup at designated hitter.
Vallot spent most of the 2016 season at Class A Lexington, batting .246 with a .367 on-base percentage and 13 homers in 82 games.